Once upon a time, longer now than it seems, the Christmas movie season was filled with any old movie Hollywood decided to release the week of Christmas. Sometimes, they were really good. (Tombstone, Philadelphia in 1993, Little Women in 1994.) The majority of them were OK. (Kindergarten Cop in 1990, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and I.Q. in 1994). But the majority of them were just bad. The Christmas season wavered between awards bait (Chaplin in 1992) and a dumping ground for stuff like Toys, presumably because they'd go unnoticed during merry-making, or become accidental blockbusters based on their jolly premise.
Back in these dark ages, you had to actually spend time with your family on Christmas or watch the movies you had at home on (gasp!) VHS. If you didn't celebrate Christmas, the multiplex offerings were definitely uninspiring ... and sometimes, the multiplex wasn't open at all!
But things changed. I'm not an expert in such things, but I believe Hollywood woke up to the seasonal possibilities thanks to an enormous behemoth of a film called Titanic. While not precisely released on Christmas weekend (December 19 was the release date), Christmas was the weekend many people went, probably because we all thought it would be the one day it wasn't sold out. (Wrong.)
While Titanic holds the trump card of 1997, looking back is illuminating because it was probably the first time the actual Christmas weekend was well and truly stacked. You had the splashy blockbuster (The Postman, except it wasn't), the critic bait-slash-crowd pleasers (Jackie Brown, As Good As It Gets), and the obnoxious family film (Mr. Magoo). Plus, you had the enormous spectacles released the week before in Tomorrow Never Dies and Titanic.
After 1997, you can see the budgets escalate and the stakes raise. (Except for 1999. That year was way off. Did Magnolia say "Take the family to the pictures" to anyone?) The amount of films released in December goes up, and Christmas weekend becomes one of those make-it-or-break-it dates that studios jostle for. If you ask me -- and you did -- it hit its pinnacle in 2001 with the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. This wasn't a Christmas weekend release -- with shades of Titanic, it had the December 19 spot -- but it might as well have been. The studios cleared out of its way, feebly offering Kate and Leopold and Ali up as alternatives. Some might argue it hit its popcorn zenith a lot more recently, such as 2007 or 2008, because the offerings have definitely wobbled between intense Oscar stuff (Munich) and absolute garbage (The Spirit).
This year, however, looks to be another 1997. It might actually top 1997. December 21, 2011, may become the most defining holiday weekend in movie history. Look at what's on tap: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Adventures of Tintin. It's everything in one weekend: bombastic crowd-pleaser, intellectual blockbuster / critic bait, and family film with a generational fan following. (And just to add a little spice to the weekend, they'll be competing with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from the weekend previous, all of which should shave off attention and revenue from any one of these flicks.)
You can practically smell the blood in the water, especially since the actual holiday releases are two animal-oriented, heartwarming tearjerkers in We Bought A Zoo and War Horse.
But December 21 really decides the game, doesn't it? Whatever flops and whatever succeeds opens a slot for the animal flicks to sweep in and take all the buzz. Tintin could fall to Steven Spielberg's other film, War Horse. Dragon Tattoo could prove too dark for the country's mood and flop, leaving an opening for We Bought a Zoo to sweep in and steal the zeitgeist, a la Marley and Me. Ghost Protocol could come and go with a bang ... or a whimper. Remember The Postman! All that is gold does not glitter, even at Christmas.
Which will be the winner? Which will be the heir to James Cameron's cash-woven throne? It could be any of them. There's nothing audiences like more than a holiday action flick, and nothing that makes them feel smarter than something imported from Sweden and reworked by David Fincher. And 3-D motion-capture? You might as well serve that on a spoon. It doesn't matter that some audiences might not have heard of Tintin. No one had heard of the Na'vi either, and look where that got the naysayers.
In fact, I'll go a step further and predict that December 21 will be the new Memorial Day, or the new July 4th. If you doubt me (and looking at the waffling releases of the 2000s, I don't blame you), look at December 21, 2012. The date is already staked out with World War Z, which implies Hollywood knows this year is going to be a very, very profitable one indeed and they'd better repeat it. Until very recently, next year also boasted The Lone Ranger. With Johnny Depp out, other studios have a bit of time to move in and claim it, giving the weekend a one-two or three punch.
It's risky, though. Whatever you bring has to have strong ammunition against The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which hits on December 14, 2012, and could render all else weak in the knees. Yes, even zombies.
December 21. It will go down in movie history. It may define our decade the way Avatar's 3-D did, or Lord of the Rings' fantasy. ("Rattled by the economy, audiences flocked to the dark and brutal Tattoo, suggesting winter audiences dig icy stories." Or "Audiences couldn't get far enough away from the drama, and ate up the happy stuff like Tintin, and the mindless action of Ghost Protocol.") December 21 may very well define our tastes and our release schedule for the next 10 years. At the very least, it will pretty much ensure we never have to spend another holiday munching fruitcake and talking to extended family. I mean, really. Who has the time for that when you have to keep racing to the theater because there are movies to see?