PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The Christmas holiday season has left a whole lot of gifts at the movie industry's doorstep in recent years, but a Christmas movie hasn't been the biggest present under the tree in a long time.
According to the folks at BoxOfficeMojo, the holiday season that runs from the first Friday in November to the end of New Year's weekend or week has generated more than $2 billion in box office receipts since 2000. That's also the last year a full-on holiday movie was the top-grossing film during that stretch, with Jim Carrey's The Grinch taking in $260 million over that span.
Since then, it's been a whole lot of Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings and Twilight, with the occasional blockbuster exception of 2009's Avatar (still the holiday champ with nearly $750 million in ticket sales during that period alone) and last year's James Bond installment Skyfall (a $304 million beast). In fact, since 1982, only one other Christmas-specific movie has been the big-money film of the holiday season: Tim Allen's 1994 hit The Santa Clause. There's an argument to be made for 1985's Rocky IV -- which features Sylvester Stallone enduring a concussive Cold War bruising from Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago on Christmas night -- and an even stronger case for 1990's heavily Christmas-themed Home Alone, but BoxOfficeMojo doesn't consider the first a Christmas movie and relegates the latter to its Christmas -- Setting Only category.
We're going to get into that Setting Only group later this holiday season -- especially since it includes holiday favorites Gremlins, Trading Places, Love Actually and the Die Hard series. But for now we're going to play along with BoxOfficeMojo's wishes and delve into its Christmas canon.
We've culled the Top 10 highest-grossing holiday films of all time and noticed that it lacks a whole lot of holiday favorites. The big lesson to be learned here is that, where Christmas movies are concerned, the initial box office numbers don't mean a whole lot. The world knows It's A Wonderful Life only because it was a moviehouse failure that didn't even cover its production costs. The $3.2 million it made during its original release in 1946 would be roughly $38 million today -- making it less successful than 2011's Arthur Christmas and its $46 million take -- and briefly relegated its images to the public domain. That allowed local TV affiliates to air it with only minimal royalty fees in the late '70s and early '80s, making it nearly ubiquitous for impressionable Generation X kids.
A Christmas Story, meanwhile, made only $20.6 million when it was released in 1983 and never played in more than 950 theaters. That's $48 million in current dollars and firmly in Arthur Christmas territory, but that kept the price of the rights just low enough for Turner Broadcasting, Time Warner and their various networks to use A Christmas Story as cheap, inoffensive holiday filler and give a whole bunch of their staff the holiday off as it aired on repeat. Both TBS and TNT have been airing 24-hour marathons of the film since 1997, and the ratings for its Christmas Eve and Christmas morning showings just keep rising.
While studio executives would probably like a Christmas film that fills their stockings as soon as it's released, history and the following 10 movies make clear that it's better to present audiences with a holiday gift that keeps on giving:
10. Christmas With The Kranks
Box office gross: $73.8 million
There is a very strong chance that this year's most successful Christmas movie -- The Best Man Holiday -- is going to surpass this film's total. Until then, Tim Allen and the absolute worst fictional suburb in holiday film history hold onto their spot in the Top 10.
We get the feeling that if/when Americans still watch this film, they do so only out of a comforting sense of schadenfreude -- feeling that they can't possibly be as terrible as any of the regular characters on screen. Basically, Tim Allen and Jaime Lee Curtis play a couple for whom Christmas loses all meaning once their daughter departs for college. With the kid out of the picture, the two decide to give Christmas a pass and vacation in the tropics -- as more than 80% of American travelers told an Embassy Suites survey they would if they could avoid holiday guilt.
Unfortunately, the Kranks are the nucleus of their hometown's Christmas economy, and a group of neighborhood busybodies led by Dan Aykroyd pressures them to spend every dollar the town feels it's owed. As is the case with just about every nosy person who can't take the hint, they're met with a hostile response from the Kranks. There's a reason the daughter picked as remote a college as she could once the acceptance letters rolled in.
When said daughter announces at the last minute that she's coming home for Christmas, hijinks ensue, the whole scene gets weepy and a Martin Short character who may or may not be Santa Claus goes from a background player to a suddenly pivotal character just in time for the finale. Everybody learns a valuable lesson: That everything is fine just the way it is throughout perpetuity and that those who believe otherwise should be punished brutally for thinking differently.
Though almost universally reviled in its post-theater existence, Christmas With The Kranks still gets enough occasional holiday airtime to remind people that a holiday blockbuster isn't always such a great gift. Oh, and let us save a specific subset of the holiday viewing audience some valuable time: No, Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't go topless in this movie. That's another Christmas story.
9. Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas
Box office gross: $73.8 million
That box office figure is a bit misleading, especially since the film scarcely squeaked by with $50 million when it was first released in 1993. That's still a nice little turn on its $18 million budget, but it was a fairly inauspicious start for a director of Tim Burton's pedigree.
That Disney had absolutely no idea what to do with the film didn't help. The company slapped the Touchstone Pictures label on it after fearing that the film's skeletal protagonist, kidnapped Santa Claus, regular poisonings and villain constructed primarily of burlap and worms weren't exactly worthy of the Disney stamp of approval. They felt it was too childish to be a Halloween horror and too scary to be a Christmas classic, so they dumped it into a mid-October weekend and washed their hands of it.
But the kids knew better. Seizing upon its animated nod to the Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas specials of old, the inherent horror of the Brothers Grimm stories and its hint of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a young audience and their gothy elders seized upon this film in its afterlife and made Jack Skellington a holiday hero on par with Yukon Cornelius or Ralphie Parker -- with Danny Elfman tunes like What's This holding up better than any song sung by stop-motion reindeer.
Sensing it had a secondary market success on its hands, Disney slapped its Walt Disney Pictures branding all over it in the 2000s and released a 3-D version annually from 2006 to 2009. Jack Skellington even got his own Disneyland ride after Disney reworked the park's Haunted House.
8. The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Box office gross: $84.5 million
You're going to be seeing a lot of Tim Allen on this list, but his holiday resume only looks better from here on up.
The questionable third installment of the Santa Clause series came a full dozen years after the first and is about a sleigh ride removed from even its ham-fisted predecessor's quality. Because those who hadn't checked in on this series in a teenager or so may have forgotten the origin story, Santa Claus 3 returns Allen's jolly character to his roots as a hard-working, holiday hating executive through a bit of Christmas magic and duplicity. Martin Short also gets his second appearance on this list as Jack Frost, who usurps Allen's role as Santa and somehow manages to make Christmas an even more commercial enterprise.
Listen, by now we all know the score. ABC Family needs content to fill its 25 Days Of Christmas and unless this sequel feature Allen hacking up his family with a bow saw and mailing them to police precincts on Christmas, this was destined to make the lineup. Besides, this film's take was well above its $12 million budget. It also made more at the box office than that year's other two big holiday releases -- the Danny DeVito/Matthew Broderick vehicle Deck The Halls ($35.1 million) and Paul Feig-directed Christmas comedy Unaccompanied Minors ($16.6 million) -- combined.
7. Four Christmases
Box office gross: $120.1 million
Finally, the Christmas movie children of divorce had been waiting for -- if they were waiting for their most awkward nightmare to be put on screen under the false pretense of a holiday romantic comedy.
Three years into their relationship, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon's characters see their run of successful holiday excuses end when their flight gets fogged in. This and an awkward local TV interview force them to visit an ensemble cast of divorced parents including Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight.
Yep, it's Meet The Parents times four. Just replace all that film's jokes with an extra helping of its most cringe-inducing moments and you have a film that managed nearly two full weeks as the No. 1 movie in America. In fairness, it benefited heavily from the anything but Twilight counterprogramming of its release date.
This film threw just about everything it had at the holiday market, but still managed to squander Kristen Chenoweth, Jon Favreau and Carol Kane with help from an incoherent storyline and incongruous casting. We still can't figure out what Witherspoon is doing there or why a pairing that apparently had as many problems offscreen as on it was forced upon everyone involved. But, hey, New Line and Warner Brothers spent $80 million just to make this happen, so just shut up and watch, will ya?
6. A Christmas Carol
Box office gross: $137.8 million
If you want to cheat your way to Christmas movie success, you can do that, too. The formula's fairly simple: Take a time-honored holiday tale, add a few big names onto the credits, goose the special effects and hope something doesn't go terribly wrong.
In the case of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic, it's almost always a recipe for greatness. Bill Murray rode an '80s take on it to a $60 million box office take with Scrooged in 1988. The Muppets milked it for $27.3 million in 1992's A Muppet Christmas Carol. Jim Carrey would have had to flatulate directly into Jacob Marley's face and pants the Ghost Of Christmas Present to get this one wrong.
He not only didn't, but his depiction of Scrooge reached Alastair Sim levels at points, while both he and costar Gary Oldman did some heavy lifting by playing seven characters between the two of them. While the film leans on a lot of special effects and owes a lot of its box office fortune to 3-D screenings, Carrey and Oldman would have made it worthwhile with cardboard set pieces and a supporting cast of community theater members.
In short, it's a lovely -- if glossy -- interpretation that Disney, understandably, keeps close to the vest this time of year. It's on the Disney Channel and ABC Family this holiday season, but it's a tough find otherwise.
5. The Santa Clause 2
Box office gross: $139.2 million
Eight years. It took eight years for Disney to work up a sequel to the original 1994 film, a layover so long that they had to work it into the plotline.
Apparently, if a new Santa Claus is single, he has eight years to find a partner or else he reverts to his regular, hum-drum human self. That puts Tim Allen back in the sleigh and on the prowl while his toy Santa stand-in wreaks havoc at the North Pole and his earthbound son acts out at school because his dad spends too much time away handing out toys to other kids and trying to put the moves on anything that looks remotely good in red velvet and white fur accents.
As atrocious at the third film was, this second installment has enough sentiment and behind-the-scenes Santamaking to recapture at least a bit of the charm of the original. Though it never quite hits the same notes as the film that spawned it, Santa Clause 2 would have been a merciful end to a not altogether unpleasant franchise.
4. The Santa Clause
Box office gross: $144.8 million
Finally, we get to Allen at the height of his Tim The Toolman Taylor/Home Improvement '90s powers.
This film came at a time when the man could do no wrong and during a decade in which the Christmas movie was still stripped-down enough to make a graying, fattening Allen seem like a dynamic leap for the genre. It's the earnestness behind Allen's ad-executive father Scott Calvin and the turbulent relationship with his son, his ex-wife and her new husband that give that transformation its real heft.
There's a whole lot of old-school angst and questioning behind what seems like a silly little film, but Allen's character echoes Maureen O'Hara's single mom from Miracle On 34th Street and Jimmy Stewart's harried Building and Loan Association head from It's A Wonderful Life. Behind the ZZ Top soundtrack, the reindeer effects and the fat suit is a member of an unorthodox family just trying to figure his life out and see the elements he's been missing. It's a Christmas movie theme as common as Scrooge or Santa's stories themselves, but it's that trope that makes this film a far more relatable and enjoyable experience than the sequels that followed.
Allen played this one with just enough heart to make it work. From a decade of absolutely terrible Christmas movies, it's easily the one that deserves to survive.
Box office gross: $173.8 million
OK, who went and let this film get a decade old?
The Christmas movie was coming from some strange places and treading into unfamiliar territory in 2003. Bad Santa introduced an booze-breathed, vomit-crusted, expletive-spewing Santa to the holiday public that same year, but even its $60 million take couldn't push the R-rated comic masterpiece into the realm of holiday classics.
Nope, that year, it would require the unlikely, bro-tastic, Frat Pack tandem of Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau to make the next holiday movie staple. When the technology becomes available, please go back to 2002 and tell someone on line at a movie theater that Frank The Tank from Old School and the other guy from Swingers are going to make one of your kids' favorite Christmas movies. We can't decide whether they'll laugh or find that proposition completely plausible.
We'll give Farrell and Favreau a whole lot of credit, though: It worked. Had Ferrell's overgrown human elf been surrounded by a lesser cast, it could have been a completely miserable experience. But Favreau gets some great work out of James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Faizon Love, Zooey Deschanel and Peter Dinklage to make sure Elf never misses a beat. Again, the questions of family and the holiday's role in it are central to a story that's ostensibly about a human elf who longs to be reunited with his father, but surrounding Farrell with a cast that can redirect some of his manic energy back at him brings the whole project together.
If Faizon doesn't tackle a fake Santa, Ferrell's whole Santa! I Know Him and You Disgust Me routine is for naught. If Dinklage doesn't take a straight Glengarry Glen Ross approach to Ferrell calling him an elf, their entire exchange just comes of as unnecessarily awkward. If Deschanel doesn't duet with Farrell to Baby, It's Cold Outside, her entire role is reduced to overblown eyelash batting. Like the boxes of ornaments that go into making a well-decorated tree, Elf is the sum of a lot of great, beautiful parts.
2. The Polar Express
Box office gross: $183.4 million
Yes, the performance-capture animation is creepy, unsettling and not aging well. Yes, all those costly IMAX 3D tickets inflate that take a bit -- as did annual re-releases from 2005 through 2012.
But that's not the point. The Polar Express succeeds because it runs smack into another great Christmas trope: the connection of the holiday to childhood wonder and the distance time and age put between those children and their belief in Santa Claus. From the New York Sun's Yes, Virginia column to Miracle On 34th Street to even Elf, the power of that belief is key and the reverence for that belief even among adults gives the stories their power.
Christmas is, in many ways, a global callback to childhood. It's memories and nostalgia linked to songs, lights and wrapping paper -- whispers of a life that once was and echoes of a childhood left behind. Polar Express succeeded for the same reason that the book that inspired it did: It rekindles that wonder and, for just a brief moment amid the stress and cynicism, brings back that time when you last believed in Santa Claus, his reindeer and the joy and good will they could bring.
Just how positively you react to that story indicates how clearly you can still hear the bell in its final sequence.
1. How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Box office gross: $260 million
Cindy Lou Who actress Taylor Momsen fancies herself the new Wendy O. Williams and is now better known for flashing her tape-clad PG-13 portions at the crowd during her band's shows. Molly Shannon has been off of Saturday Night Live for a dozen years and was last seen on the canceled HBO series Enlightened.
Carrey would star in a much better Christmas movie at the end of the decade, but was at a stage in his career when this Dr. Seuss film could have been far more than Ace Ventura in a green fur suit. He'd just completed a four-year run in which The Cable Guy, The Truman Show and Man On The Moon showed off a little bit of range for an actor once restricted to rubber-faced comedy.
It just didn't carry over. Instead, audiences got the Carrey of Me, Myself and Irene who never met a butt-biting gag or fart joke he didn't like and never saw a facial expression he couldn't over-exaggerate. This was absolute gold for kids -- who got a holiday package wrapped in Carrey's best playground humor -- but it's a tough watch for parents either A) More accustomed to the subtleties of the 1966 animated television special of the same name or B) Worn down by Ventura, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Liar Liar and other first-wave Carrey material he's spent more than a decade actively disassociating from.
Once the Lorax started hawking SUVs, Carrey was off the hook. However, the prominence of this film in the ABC Family lineup each year around this time just serves as a reminder that even the dumbest films deserve some holiday cheer. If it wasn't for BoxOfficeMojo's hangups, we'd be talking about a film that features Joe Pesci slipping on ice and Daniel Stern getting clocked in the head with a paint can.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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