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The 12 Weeks of Christmas

With the seasonal moviegoing cycle stretched to three months, the box-office rush is on.

November 08, 1998|RICHARD NATALE | Richard Natale is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Until recently, the holiday movie season was relatively simple to chart: There would be a big bump on Thanksgiving weekend and a weeklong hot streak from Christmas Day to New Year's Day.

But all that's changed. Over the past few years, the six-week holiday cycle has doubled, stretching from just after Halloween until the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend in mid-January--and sometimes beyond.

As with every change in movie attendance, it has been fueled by surprise performers such as "The Santa Clause" (1994) and "Ransom" (1996), which were released the first weekend in November, and super-hits such as "Jerry Maguire" (1996) and last year's "As Good as It Gets," "Good Will Hunting" and, of course, "Titanic," Christmas releases that packed houses well into spring.

And let's not forget "Scream" (1996), which completely undermined the conventional wisdom that horror and holidays don't mix.

All of which has made tracking the holiday movie business a lot more complicated. If you ask the studios about holiday season business, they now want to know which holiday, Thanksgiving or Christmas? Because of the volume of movies being released this season--10 to 12 major studio releases in November and another dozen in December--the season has been broken down into two distinct attendance cycles. The first commences in early November and lasts through Thanksgiving weekend; it includes two of the biggest moviegoing days of the year, the Friday and Saturday after the turkey is carved.

"November is good playing time," says one studio senior executive, "and we go into it knowing full well that we'll be replaced by the Christmas movies."

Which brings us to the second holiday season, stretching from early December through New Year's Day, with the big ticket-buying rush being the Christmas week period "when every day's a Saturday," according to Sony Pictures distribution head Jeff Blake.

The merriment continues well past Twelfth Night. Depending on the strength of the films released, it can bridge into Oscar season and early spring.

Other than summer, the year-end period is the industry's most lucrative, as much as 20% of the year's business. Save for the occasional fall or spring blockbuster, all the year's biggest titles are released in summer or during the holidays. Here's a breakdown of this year's two holiday box-office seasons.

Holiday Season I

The Thanksgiving holiday season now begins the first weekend in November, which, according to Universal distribution head Nikki Rocco, is a period that "gets better every year. Last year it was an $80-million weekend" topped by "Starship Troopers."

Industry statistics show a 50% growth over the past five years for the entire first week in November (from about $75 million in 1992 to about $115 million last year). "Ransom" debuted Nov. 8, 1996, to $34 million--and it's that film that is clearly the model for last Friday's release of Fox's terrorism drama "The Siege."

Disney was so confident of the available audience that it counter-programmed with a second major release, the comedy "The Waterboy," starring Adam Sandler. In addition, Warners brought forth the 60-year-old "The Wizard of Oz," even though studios had tended to hold their family movies for closer to Thanksgiving, when schools are in recess. That's not necessarily the case anymore.

The second weekend in November has usually been a launching pad for major Thanksgiving features, such as "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" (1995). But when "The Santa Clause" and "Interview With the Vampire" were released against one another that same weekend in 1994, it resulted in a $150-million week, virtually equal to Thanksgiving.

The offerings for this coming Friday are split between adult fare ("Meet Joe Black") and teenage fare ("I Still Know What You Did Last Summer"). Disney will push the envelope by trying a family film, "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

The 10-day period starting the weekend before Thanksgiving is the strongest period for family movies, although Disney is also venturing forth with an action film, "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith. But "Rugrats" (Paramount), "Babe: Pig in the City" (Universal) and "A Bug's Life" (Disney) hope to take advantage of the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. (Warners is also releasing the teen-oriented "Home Fries," starring teen fave Drew Barrymore.) The real Thanksgiving glut begins the night before the Thursday holiday "with everyone who doesn't have to cook going to the movies," according to one executive. Business on turkey day continues at a strong pace, then explodes on Friday and Saturday and tapers off only slightly on Sunday before the pre-Christmas lull begins.

Holiday Season II

Only the top one or two November releases will survive the post-Thanksgiving drop in movie attendance, according to Fox senior executive Tom Sherak.

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