PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Christmas has some star power to it when it's the big draw behind a holiday movie, but sometimes it takes only a Christmas cameo to make a seasonal film favorite.
We've gone into some depth about the merits of the top-grossing Christmas movies of all time, but even classics including Miracle on 34th Street and It's A Wonderful Life start to lack freshness and narrow the audience a bit. By using a Christmas setting to touch on broader, more universal themes, holiday films can be just as beloved as seasonal standards, but far more lucrative.
The folks at BoxOfficeMojo note that the average $41 million brought in by Christmas-specific films is eclipsed by the $67 million that movies only set at Christmas yield in average box-office receipts. Change the criteria to wide releases and the disparity changes from $55.5 million per Christmas film to $78.4 million per Christmas-adjacent movie.
So what qualifies in the not-quite Chrismas category? Think of the Mel Gibson/Danny Glover 1987 buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon, which ranks No. 11 on BoxOfficeMojo's Christmas-set list after taking in $65 million in the U.S. during its original run. For a film that ends with Mel Gibson and Gary Busey fighting on a lawn lit by Christmas lights and acting about as uncorked as the average moviegoer believes them to be, this film ended up being a holiday gem and set a pattern for writer Shane Black -- who also set his trigger-happy films The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Long Kiss Goodnight around Christmas.
Sometimes, it comes in the form of a film that does just about everything but tell some sort of holiday parable. The 2005 film The Family Stone (No. 12 with a $60 million take) goes into the perils of reuniting a family under the same roof for the holiday, the strain that places on personal relationships and the varying levels of importance placed on decorations and gifts when the person central to all of it is getting ready to die, but still is more of an interpersonal drama than it is a "Christmas movie."
Then there's Love Actually: The 2003 ensemble comedy that tries its hardest to tap into the meaning of love, but does so in the most secular series of Christmas stories put to screen. That made only $59.7 million here in the U.S., but took in another $187 million abroad, gained a cult following and remains a topic of heated debate around this time of year. The Atlantic, ThinkProgress and The Guardian have all committed considerable space to it merits and shortcomings this year -- which says a whole lot about this film's position in pop culture a full decade after its release.
Unlike the Top 10 highest-grossing holiday films of all time, the initial box office tend to have more effect on these films' staying power. 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. 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.