10 Biggest Christmas Blockbusters of All Time

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- During a holiday season of Thanksgiving night store openings and Christmas retail and restaurant encroachment, movie theaters continue to get a pass from the merry masses.

Many of the same folks who hated seeing Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT) extend Black Friday to just after Thanksgiving dinner and cursed McDonald's ( MCD) for telling franchisees to consider opening on Christmas Day have no problem with Regal Entertainment Group ( RGC), AMC Theaters, Carmike Cinemas ( CKEC) or Cinemark Theaters ( CNK) calling in employees, throwing open the doors and debuting movies. This year's lineup is particularly robust, with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, the Seth Rogen/Barbara Streisand comedy Guilt Trip, Judd Apatow's This Is 40 and the musical Les Miserables all being released on or just before Christmas.

Since the turn of the millennium, the cinematic holiday season has transformed from a quiet little collection of family films and Oscar contenders to blockbuster territory. According to BoxOfficeMojo, the movie industry's holiday season -- which starts on first Friday in November and ends on New Year's week or weekend -- first passed the $2 billion mark in 2000. That season, the Jim Carrey live-action version of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas pulled in $260 million on its own.

Disney's ( DIS) Toy Story franchise and James Cameron's Titanic helped nudge the industry in this direction during the '90s, but The Grinch increased Hollywood's holiday output from 63 films in 2000 to 107 by 2007. The number of films released has since plummeted and the annual holiday take has decreased in five of the past seven years, including a 39% downturn so far this season.

Can this year's Christmas crop help the industry recover? With help from BoxOfficeMojo, we looked back and found 10 examples of films that not only cleaned up on Christmas Day, but helped boost the overall box office take by prying Christmas-minded folks away from their pumpkin pie and piles of presents:

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Year released: 2002
Christmas Day take: $12.4 million

With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey already surpassing the $100 million mark in the U.S. during its first week of release, it's worth remembering just how Peter Jackson's first take on J.R.R. Tolkien books was a decade ago.

The first installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- Fellowship of the Ring -- made $11.6 million on Christmas just a year earlier. By the time the The Two Towers, its giant fighting trees and climactic Battle at Helm's Deep arrived in 2002, the trilogy had America's attention. It would make $250 million in the U.S. during its first five days of release and nearly $340 million for the holiday season. It wouldn't be the last America saw of Jackson or Middle Earth on Christmas, as both had one more Lord of the Rings tale to tell.

9. Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol
Year released: 2011
Christmas Day take: $13.7 million

OK, America, fess up: Who's going to Tom Cruise's movies?

The man's spent nearly a decade as a tabloid punching bag and object of ridicule, but he's also been one of its biggest Christmas stars since Jimmy Stewart.

Back in 2008, his Nazi conspiracy film Valkyrie took in $8.5 million during its Christmas Day debut. Just last year, U.S. moviegoers paid more than $13 million to see him circle the globe doing stunts as Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt. That's right, America backed up a truckload of money to watch an actor they supposedly hate star in the fourth installment of a film series based on a '60s and '70s Cold War television series of the same name. In some cases, they doubled the price of their ticket to watch it in IMAX.

No hand raisers? That's fine. Box offices will get your answer this weekend when Cruise returns to holiday screens in yet another action film, Jack Reacher.

8. National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Year released: 2007
Christmas Day take: $13.7 million

This is how much moviegoers loved Nic Cage's turn in National Treasure back in 2004. They not only waited three years for the follow-up, but shelled out on Christmas Day to sit through two hours of Cage pursuing a book that supposedly contains information on the Watergate tapes, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Apollo space program and Mount Rushmore and an ancient city of gold.

It was apparently worth the wait for holiday audiences, as the sequel went on to make $220 million in the U.S. The series never got a third installment, but it's hard to go wrong with a PG movie about American history that opens when most kids are home from school.

7. Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Year released: 2009
Christmas Day take: $13.9 million

How do you beat Disney's The Princess and the Frog and A Christmas Carol during the same holiday season? Dumb down the jokes even below the child standard, throw in high-pitched karaoke versions of Beyonce's Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) and Katy Perry's Hot n Cold and watch the stockings fill with cash.

Kids loved it, but even parents who didn't got some pleasant surprises from the cast. Christina Applegate and SNL and Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler as Chipettes? Arrested Development and Mr. Show's David Cross as a sleazy record exec? The continued participation of ex-skater and Mallrats star Jason Lee? On both sides of the camera, there were plenty of grown-ups tolerating this film for the sake of their kids. The $220 million parents contributed to the cause, however, only ensured the release of Chipmunks 3D two years later.

6. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Year released: 2003
Christmas Day take: $14 million

In what world weren't moviegoers going to watch Frodo throw his accursed ring into the fires of Mordor and see the forces of Middle Earth assemble for their final, epic battle? Maybe in a world where fantasies about elves, orcs, kings, wizards and goblins are banished to the dark corners of the bookstore, comic shop or Internet only to emerge when a geek goes shopping.

As much as Return of the King helped Peter Jackson and company clean up at the Oscars the following year and helped bring in $340 million in the U.S. alone during the holiday season, its cultural impact was far broader. It capped off a three-year period in which either Harry Potter or a Tolkien film was the biggest movie of the holiday season. It pushed witches, hobbits and fantasy geeks of all sorts out of the shadows and firmly into the mainstream and predicted a Christmas future where Potter, creatures from Narnia and twinkly teen vampires would dominate holiday film.

It made the holidays safe for bookish kids and freed elves from the purgatory of Santa's Workshop. It's far tougher to crack the whip on a toymaker with Legolas threatening to put an arrow through your whiskers.

5. Marley and Me
Year released: 2008
Christmas Day take: $14.4 million

Puppies, Florida, Jennifer Aniston: Did Fox ( NWS) just pin a bunch of Post-It notes of "Things Key Demographics Like" to a cork board and whip darts at it?

This take on former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Grogan's memoir about his family's ill-behaved dog hit all the right buttons the year it was released and bested a crowded field that included Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories, Tom Cruise's Valkyrie and Brad Pitt's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button when it opened on Christmas Day. Considering this film ends in just about the worst way a PG film featuring a family pet can, that big payday is just as surprising four years later.

4. Little Fockers
Year released: 2010
Christmas Day take: $14.57 million

3. Meet The Fockers
Year released: 2004
Christmas Day take: $19.5 million

The Ben Stiller/Robert DeNiro vehicle Meet The Parents centered around Stiller's tense first visit to his future in-laws' place was a subtle comedic surprise when it debuted in October 2000. The more than $160 million it brought in during its U.S. run guaranteed the sequels that followed wouldn't be.

First someone at the studio decided that the funniest thing about the first movie was Stiller's character's name, Gaylord Focker. Then Dustin Hoffmann and Barbara Streisand were added to the mix as Stiller's parents in 2004. Throw in twin children six years later, add some jokes about erectile dysfunction and cats being flushed down the toilet and moviegoers are left with a franchise that's had every possible dollar and endearing element wrung out of it.

They know it, too. While Meet The Fockers was the most successful film of the 2004 holiday season, Little Fockers finished well behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Tangled, Tron Legacy and True Grit for the 2010 holiday's top spot.

2. Avatar
Year released: 2009
Christmas Day take: $23.1 million

Ah, the film that launched a 3-D movie industry that nobody cared about nearly as much as they did about Avatar. Those were heady days in during 2009 holiday season, when it seemed James Cameron's dream of more than a decade would finally transform 3-D from a gimmick to a moviemaking must.

Keep dreaming.

The multidimensional colonial allegory turned out to be the exception to the rule, as studios slapped shoddy 3-D effects on just about anything that was animated or contained some small bit of computer-enhanced imagery. Perhaps last year's Hugo was an exception, but its lukewarm performance at the box office made it very clear that it's going to be a long time until audiences see a 3-D film nearly as developed and dense as Avatar or before 3-D is seen as anything other than an overpriced movie, home electronics and video game industry revenue generator.

1. Sherlock Holmes
Year released: 2009
Christmas Day take: $24.6 million

That's right: One of the largest grossing films of all time wasn't even America's most popular Christmas Day movies the year it was released. That honor goes to Guy Ritchie's take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic London detective.

America had just rediscovered its love of Robert Downey Jr. a year before during his turns in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder and had months to go before the next Iron Man sequel. With Sherlock Holmes opening with the magic PG-13 rating on Christmas Day, the holiday falling on a Friday and Avatar costing a bit more for the privilege of 3-D glasses, seeing Downey play an eccentric with Jude Law and Rachel McAdams in tow seemed like a viable alternative.

Though Sherlock Holmes became the highest-grossing Christmas Day movie and opening of all time, its final $209 million take at the U.S. box office wouldn't come close to the nearly $750 million Avatar brought in by the end of its U.S. run. On Christmas Day, however, Holmes had the 3-D powerhouse solved.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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