Did You Know the Two Most Enduring Christmas Films of All Time Were Not Box-Office Hits?
The top film at the box-office this weekend, as expected, was Peter Jackson’s second entry into his Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, which brought in around $73.5 million, down from the first entry’s $84 million opening, although it’s tracking about 5 percent higher than the original’s opening internationally. The point is: It’s a hit, whether we like it or not, and many of us saw it whether we really wanted to or not (I fell asleep at one point, and woke up only 20 minutes later disappointed that I had not slept longer), and because many of us slogged through the first two, we’ll finish the trilogy out because we are completist, and studios rely our on obsessive-compulsive disorders to make their money. Bilbo Baggins could fling feces at Tauriel for three hours, and most of us would still see the final installment (in fact, many of us may prefer that).
Frozen, meanwhile, continued putting up great numbers, landing at number two with $22 million, pushing its cumulative total up around $164 million, and with a couple more weeks left in the holiday season, it’s likely to continue putting up great numbers because it has little competition in the kids’ market.
Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas also put up OK numbers, landing at number three with around $16 million, although do not expect A Madea’s Christmas — with Larry the Cable Guy and Chad Michael Murray — to be on anyone’s annual best Christmas movie list. It does, however, have an outside shot of breaking the top 20 Christmas films of all time (adjusted for inflation). Here’s that list (it excludes Christmas-set movies, like Die Hard, Love Actually, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which took place during Christmas but were not about Christmas).
20. Ernest Saves Christmas — $55 million
19. This Christmas — $59 million
18. Jack Frost — $58 million
17. The Best Man Holiday — $70 million
16. Bad Santa — $79 milion
15. Fred Claus — $84 million
14. The Preacher’s Wife — $85 million
13. Christmas with the Krank — $95 million
12. The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause — $103 million
11. Jingle All the Way — $109 million
10. Scrooged — $118 million
9. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas — $127 million
8. Four Christmases — $134 million
7. Christmas Vacation — $141 million
6. Christmas Carol — $145 million
5. The Santa Clause 2 — $192 million
4. Elf — $230 million
3. The Polar Express — $235 million
2. The Santa Claus — $277 million
1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas — $387 million
(Source: Box Office Mojo)
Note that three of the most enduring Christmas movies of all time — It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story — aren’t on that list. That’s because, even adjusted for inflation, the films were not hits at the box office. It’s a Wonderful Life made around $3.3 million in 1946-47, which comes to around $40 million adjusted for inflation (and the film actually lost the studio over half a million dollars at the time). It’s a Wonderful Life was only the 26th highest grossing film of 1947, while Miracle on 34th Street was one place behind it, at 27. (Miracle on 34th Street may have suffered some due to the fact that it was released in May).
Meanwhile, A Christmas Story opened the week before Thanksgiving in 1983, and though hits typically stayed in theaters much longer in 1983 than they do today, it had all but disappeared by Christmas. It finished its run with less than $20 million, although adjusted for inflation, it comes in at the 23rd highest grossing Christmas film, behind, uh, Ernest Saves Christmas, which decidedly is not played for 24 hours straight every Christmas on any station.
Interestingly, A Christmas Story owes much of its later success to TBS, TNT, and TCM, which aired the film frequently around Christmas starting in the early 1990s. Likewise, though Christmas Vacation was a box-office hit in 1989, it began to gain its cult status because of reruns on cable, as well.
All of which is to say, a Christmas movie’s initial run in theaters doesn’t necessarily correlate with its lasting endurance. After all, the highest grossing Christmas movie of all time, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is also considered one of the worst, while only four of the top 20 Christmas movies of all time at the box office are revisited frequently during the holidays (The Polar Express, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Scrooged and Elf). With DVRs and On Demand, however, will there ever be another opportunity for a new Christmas film to gain a cult following through cable rebroadcasts? We’ll have to wait and see if Hollywood ever makes another decent Christmas movie before we find out.