What happened to the Christmas film?
It’s the only time of year where we can retreat to our family homes - or nuclear bunkers in waiting, after the deplorable debacle we’ve come to know as 2016 - and surrender our woes, sit back and enjoy a good nostalgia blast of Christmas films. While traditions may be changing in terms of the way we consume film and TV these days with more portable devices and the wide variety of choice that streaming services offer, the enjoyment of Christmas classics is becoming a somewhat exclusive hobby for particular age groups. While younger generations aren’t quite boycotting classics such as Home Alone, Muppets Christmas Carol, Elf, Gremlins, Scrooged, Die Hard and It’s A Wonderful Life, it might not be quite the same experience being from a different epoch. While there will be a plethora of classics to indulge in come December, there aren’t exactly many new kids on the block to make a reappearance.
You might question the importance of the Christmas film bar a seasonal film, but as Mark Connelly, editor of a collection of academic essays, Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema, says: "The reason why Christmas is known everywhere is simple - cinema." (cited from Whatever Happened To Christmas Movies – Liam Lacey 2010). Carrying the ideals of Christmas, togetherness, forgiveness, good will and sharing, with a lot of self indulgence, these ideologies are arguably kept alive mostly thanks to Christmas films.
Yes, there are no scales of measurement to judge what qualifies as a Christmas classic, although taking a look at cinemas with retrospective programming is a good barometer measuring what they believe audiences will go to see. Renowned independent cinema The Prince Charles in London have Muppets Christmas Carol, Home Alone, A Wonderful Life, Gremlins and Elf lined up for its December programme. Upon that list, Elf is the youngest title, released in 2003, with another notable release that year being Bad Santa. Kings of the eighties and nineties Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks delivered The Polar Express in 2004, taking in a world gross box office of $319 million. Turns out that kids weren’t freaked out by the animation quite like I was. Scouring through other releases in the subsequent years, there weren’t many other notable releases to name until the critically panned Four Christmases 2008, starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn, which was a surprise box office hit in the US and even performed strongly in DVD sales. Arthur Christmas, 2011, although critically giving a merry thumbs up, somewhat melted and then snowballed at the US box office. The last Christmas big box office earner was A Christmas Carol from Robert Zemeckis, with some more freaky animation - this time of Jim Carrey’s face. Despite taking a $325 million worldwide return on its sumptuous $200 million budget, it underperformed in its domestic market. Ultimately, it didn’t get enough of a return to make waves.
Since A Christmas Carol, Christmas-driven films have been somewhat sparse. Releases started to take on a more comical horror approach with prime examples being The Finnish Rare Exports 2010, Malcolm McDowell hunting a serial killer Santa in Silent Night 2012 and last year’s Gremlins attempt Krampus. It would almost appear that the traditional themes of forgiveness and togetherness are no longer so prominent, with less emphasis on the Christian traditional nuclear family values that Hollywood often likes to convey. With the world becoming progressively more diverse and secular, could this new trend be a response? Film critic Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail attested “Hollywood's global business strategies aside, it may simply be that Christmas, a favourite cultural battleground for the liberal left and Christian right, has become just too controversial for Hollywood.” However, his opinion appears contrary to releases in 2014 as Hollywood churned out more Biblical blockbusters than in its previous 12 years, going through biblical texts and rewriting them in Courier font. According to Jonathan Merritt from his article How secular Hollywood is unwittingly promoting the Christian faith, “Hollywood is concerned about the almighty dollar, not Almighty God”. Like the comic book adaptation phenomenon, religious texts have ready-made stories and built-in audiences.
So why is a strong and established genre with good profit potential becoming a less notable presence? Well, like Santa looking for a chimney, they are effectively been squeezed out in a market that is completely oversaturated. As stated by BFI Film Fund director Ben Roberts in the Independent back in 2014, there are too many films being released. The BFI, the leading organisation for film in the UK, has criticised the “ridiculous” number of films released at British cinemas, which hit 13-a-week last year, saying it was harder for good films to stay on screen long enough to build an audience. Further evidence shows that there were 698 films released in British cinemas in 2013, almost double the amount than at the turn of the century. December has become a pivotal time for Hollywood to release some of the biggest titles of the year. Not long after A Christmas Carol was released, so was box office destroyer Avatar. Subsequent years have seen other like-minded epic fantasies dominate such as The Hobbit trilogy, Interstellar, Spectre - and now Star Wars is a force that just can’t be reckoned with. To top that off, December’s a handy time to release those Oscar potential titles. Not only do these films gazump screen time, their marketing budgets severely eclipse the rest of the competition. With built-in audiences, ancillary market potential, and future rental and DVD sales that aren’t seasonally relevant, the Christmas film is looking like a commercial uncertainty.
This December Christmas films have been targeted towards young adult audiences, with Bad Santa 2 already released to underwhelming reviews and Christmas Office Party likely to add to the debauchery, the family-orientated Almost Christmas starring Danny Glover already looks like a cracker without a bang, competing against Passengers and Rogue One, 2016 looks like another year without offering a Christmas film to stand the test of time. Hollywood hasn’t quite given the Christmas film the death knell but, like Christmas day, the next future Christmas classic is probably going to be a bit of a surprise.