The Santa at Macy’s, a suicidal Jimmy Stewart, an elfin Will Ferrell and several varieties of Grinch will all compete for movie-lovers’ attention this Christmas.
And this year, they’ve got more company than ever.
The Christmas entertainment industry is looking as busy as Santa’s workshop. For starters, the theatrical release of “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch,” an animated film featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, has become a surprise $180 million hit and already ranks as the fourth highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time. The real holiday action, though, is in television. AMC this year launched its largest-ever slate of holiday content, a 600-hour blitz of movies and specials, from “The Polar Express” to “Elf.” Netflix has a new content brand called It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Netflix. Meanwhile, the Hallmark Channel, the dominant player in Christmas cheer, bumped its crop of holiday movies up to 37 titles this year, from 34 last year.
And that’s not even counting whatever Christmas favorites might be in your DVD library. “The new big-screen films are not only competing with Hallmark and Lifetime but all the previous feature films that are available on home video,” says Jeremy Arnold, author of “Christmas in the Movies,” a Turner Classic Movies book. “It is all kind of blurring into one big pot.”
What defines a Christmas movie? A seasonal romantic comedy like “Love, Actually” would surely qualify, while “Reindeer Games,” starring Ben Affleck as part of a Christmastime heist, probably wouldn’t. A holiday-themed advertising campaign would seem to settle the question, but as Arnold points out, the posters for 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” — surely the Christmassiest movie ever, behind “It’s a Wonderful Life” — featured no references to the holiday at all. Then you have “Die Hard,” the R-rated action-thriller set on Dec. 24, its Christmas-movie status is still the subject of many an argument.
“I would say a successful Christmas movie is when Christmas plays a meaningful role in the story,” Arnold says. “That encompasses many things — not just joy and love, but also loneliness and alienation, commercialism and dysfunction. You could do dramas or comedies about any of those things.”
Theatrically, Christmas movies aren’t the massive box-office hits you might think. Action-driven blockbusters come along several times a year — this year’s top three earners, “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Incredibles 2” all passed the $600 million mark — but a Christmas movie rarely earns more than $200 million. As of press time, only two have ever done so, according to BoxOfficeMojo: “Home Alone” (1990), which remains the highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time at $285 million, and the Jim Carrey version of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000), which earned $260 million.
With Hollywood focused so intently on superhero movies and action-spectacles, the Hallmark Channel sees an opening for its family-friendly Christmas content, says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and publicity at the channel’s parent company, Crown Media Family Networks. “What the theatrical market is up to is big blockbusters and big franchise hits,” Vicary says. “I don’t see a lot of options. I go to the movies, I take my kids to the movies, but I don’t see a lot out there that helps me celebrate the season.”
This year, Hallmark began airing its Christmas movies Oct. 26 — before even Halloween. The channel is once again relying on its regular stable of actresses, many of whom have their own fan bases. (Candace Cameron Bure, sister of Kirk Cameron and a former co-host of “The View,” is the reigning “Hallmark Queen,” having starred in the channel’s top-rated Christmas movies for the past three years.) Hallmark’s films are frequently dismissed as schmaltzy or cheesy — titles this year include “A Gingerbread Romance” and “Mingle All the Way” — but they are a ratings juggernaut, according to Jason Lynch, TV Media Editor at Adweek.
“It all gets down to audiences and advertisers, and there is an audience for this type of programming,” Lynch says. “Hallmark always targets women in the 25-54 demographic, and it is No. 1 in that demo through November and December.”
As long as there’s Christmas, movies will surely keep trying to bottle that holiday spirit. “Audiences love to see the visual tropes of the season — the decorations and snow, the songs and so forth,” says Arnold. “It’s some undefinable buoyancy in the air. And if a movie can somehow capture that, audiences love that.”