Out of all movies released on Christmas Day in the last 70 years, none were about Christmas or even taking place during the holidays. Much like holiday programming on TV, it all has to be done as early as possible so the burnout of the holidays can be captured with non-holiday fare on Christmas Day. But this isn't to say that films released on that day couldn't be taken as a tangential Christmas tale to be assimilated by intended family audiences.
Walt Disney was one of the first film producers to take advantage of releases around the holidays or on Christmas Day to capture those above families. And if you by his "The Sword in the Stone" releasing on Christmas Day of 1963, then you can get the idea of how a medieval fantasy becomes a stand-in for a Christmas story. That also applied to family dramas based on the previous year when "To Kill a Mockingbird" became the Christmas Day release of 1962.
Ever since then, we've seen a constant dichotomy of films that range from intense drama to light comedy opening concurrently on Christmas afternoon. When you see how equal they are in box office returns, it's easy to see why a producer would want a dramatic story mixed with some light comedy to create a winner. If you had to look for any Christmas Day release in history that managed it better than any other, it's "Sherlock Holmes" with Robert Downey, Jr. a mere three years ago.
Even if the above was a dramatic, Victorian classic turned into a frothy tongue-in-cheek entertainment, such a thing can't be done as well with "Les Miserables." Most years, a divided audience goes to see either the lighter fare or the more dramatic fare in the same multiplex. This year, it's going to be "Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained" in screens A and B battling against the Billy Crystal-Bette Midler comedy "Parental Guidance" in screen C.
While there may be a bit of cynicism in thinking the latter will be a failure, don't be surprised to see the family film do better than pundits think. We can't assume that families want to be fractured in the same theater, especially during a more turbulent time when parents won't leave their kids alone. This year, bet on families wanting to see something together, which "Parental Guidance" could fill as the #2 of the week.
"Django Unchained" seems like it would shoot to #1 based on Tarantino's fans. However, the recent backlash against violence after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut could potentially hurt it. Either that, or we'll see a test of how many people are able to tuck a national tragedy under the rug much sooner than we ever thought possible.
At this point, expect "Les Miserables" to be the massive success, based squarely on familiarity and the chance for all family members to find something to embrace. After all, with both adult and teen repressed love in the tale (plus social rebellion), it may fit the criteria for a Christmas story better than anything in recent memory.
Or, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" may have its adherents continue to steal the #1 spot on Christmas Day. With J.R.R. Tolkien placing equal doses of Christian allegory in "The Hobbit" as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy had, we may see the first movie with a semi-religious veil win out since "The Song of Bernadette" opened on Christmas nearly 70 years ago.
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