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The Miracle of Holiday Films

Christmas-themed movies may have fairly short runs in theaters, but it's a wonderful afterlife on TV, video.

November 24, 2000|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This year Universal Pictures gambled on not one, but two Christmas-themed movies, the $120-million-plus live-action retelling of Dr. Seuss' classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," starring Jim Carrey, and the drama "The Family Man," starring Nicolas Cage, about a single man who wakes up at Christmas with a family.

Universal had plenty to celebrate after the spectacular opening weekend of "The Grinch," but because of their limited window at the box office--basically from Thanksgiving until the end of Christmas recess--neither film was a sure thing. Movies with a yule theme or message have a history of being risky propositions.

"It's a focused period and the standards are very high," says Tom Borys, president of box-office-tracking firm A.C. Nielsen EDI, which lists only three holiday-themed films that have ever grossed more than $100 million: the first two "Home Alone" films and "The Santa Clause," which starred Tim Allen.

"The Grinch" will undoubtedly join those three films in the $100-million club. But most of the releases have grossed $30 million or less, including such notable box-office misses as the 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Muppet Christmas Carol" of 1992.

So why does Hollywood churn out at least one new Christmas-themed movie every year and send several more directly to home video (not to mention TV movies)? Because even one that performs modestly at the box office can turn into the gift that keeps on giving. Be it comedy, family drama or classic pieces from the 1940s such as the original "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It's a Wonderful Life," for Christmas-themed films the movie house is just the first stop on what is usually a prolonged and very profitable afterlife.

The possibility of creating an evergreen is a risk worth taking, according to Kevin Misher, president of production at Universal Pictures. The playability span of both films may be limited, he says, but within that span the upside is quite high.

"During the holiday season you begin to have that warm and fuzzy feeling," Misher says. "And you look for things to tap into that feeling--books, movies, music. So while the time period itself is restricted, during that period the appeal is so enormous you can attract a sizable audience."

Because of the unabated appeal of the Dr. Seuss book and the animated Grinch film, Misher says the live-action version had sterling potential. To give it the widest berth possible, the studio opened the film in advance of Thanksgiving on Nov. 17, giving it the possibility of playing through the end of the year (a strategy that worked very well for "Home Alone" and "The Santa Clause," which were both mid-November releases).

The strategy paid off. "The Grinch" grossed more than $55 million in its opening weekend, the most of any Christmas-themed movie in more than 20 years. The closest any of the top five of those films came was the $31.1 million taken in by "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" in its debut weekend. All the rest opened with less than $20 million, according to A.C. Nielsen EDI figures.

Although "The Family Man" opens three days before Christmas, Misher says, "it accesses emotions that are not exclusive to Christmas, but are heightened during that season." The drama, about a single man who wakes up with a family on Christmas morning, has a fantasy element that could trigger a "what if?" response similar to that evoked by "It's a Wonderful Life" and could play through the winter if it catches on.

Regardless of the success at the box office for either film, their perennial appeal could be inordinately high. A big hit--a $100-million-plus grosser--could turn into a bonanza, sparking everything from sequels (two for "Home Alone," one upcoming for "The Santa Clause" next Thanksgiving) and a continuing presence on video shelves and network television at holiday time.

Other films become classics after the fact, Borys points out, like 1983's sentimental comedy "A Christmas Story." It grossed less than $20 million when it was originally released, but it has since become a popular yuletide film. The best example of this is, of course, "It's a Wonderful Life," which was a flop when it was originally released in the late 1940s.

Most of the studios have a Christmas library of theatrical films as well as TV movies and direct-to-video titles, which are bundled in annual yuletide promotions. "Every year we put together a special video program of all our holiday-themed movies, and every year they do well," says Richard Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. "They never get old. And they're bought and re-bought by the networks" as well as airing on Disney's own cable channel.

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