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Movies

Movies opening Christmas Day cover quite a spectrum

Merry Christmas! Deck the halls! Ho ho ho! Let’s all go to the movies.

That’s right. It’s not just Jewish families that head to the local cineplex on Christmas Day. It’s practically everybody.

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Hollywood certainly knows this, so over the past couple of decades it’s become a sort of American tradition for studios to open a big movie on that big day, which kicks off one of the biggest box office weeks. The options this year cover quite a spectrum.

On Tuesday, viewers can be among the first to see the family comedy “Parental Guidance,” the splashy but dark musical “Les Miserables,” which has been generating buzz since it met with aggressive applause at some early screenings, or the epic and quite violent western “Django Unchained.”

The choice of Christmas as an opening day hasn’t always been part of the plan, but the practice does go back a number of years. Twentieth Century Fox was among the first to try it, with a 1943 Christmas release of the religious-themed “The Song of Bernadette,” which went on to garner 12 Oscar nominations and win four. Oddly, it’s the only overtly religious movie to open on that day, unless you count the remake of the irreverently titled slasher film “Black Christmas,” which debuted in 2006.

Of course, plenty of other films open in the always busy month of December, and Christmas Day openings haven’t happened every year, but the list is an intriguing one, devoid of much sense as far as subject matter. The Hope-Crosby comedy “Road to Rio” nabbed the spot in 1947, as did the Disney tearjerker “Old Yeller” 10 years later, and the passionate courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird” five years after that.

It wasn’t until 1963 that audiences had a choice of brand new movies on Christmas Day: The whole family could go to the animated “The Sword in the Stone,” or mom and dad could leave the kids with the grandparents, then see the fluffy comedy triangle “Move Over, Darling.”

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Choices eventually became the norm. Christmas Day openings in 1975 included the child- and animal-filled “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” and the disaster film “The Hindenburg.” In 1980, our Christmas movie gifts were Bob Newhart playing the president and Gilda Radner as his daughter in the puerile “First Family,” while Tufts graduate William Hurt had his first starring role in the psychedelic drug-drenched “Altered States.” The idea of choice, with offerings for very different audiences, expanded in 1986 with the disease of the week movie “Duet for One,” the nostalgic Neil Simon comedy “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and the grim crime drama “The Morning After.”

The race was on. More and more studios would open more and more films on Christmas Day. In 1992, there were the biographies “Hoffa” and “Chaplin,” along with the gangs and gold thriller “Trespass,” and the art house hit “Peter’s Friends.” All kinds of genres were covered the next year with “Tombstone” (western), “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (drama), “Heaven & Earth” (biography), “Grumpy Old Men” (comedy), and “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (animation).

The record was set on Christmas 1996, when eight movies opened. There was “Hamlet,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh; “Evita,” with Madonna up on the balcony; “Mother,” in which Albert Brooks tried to relate to Debbie Reynolds; “Michael,” featuring John Travolta with wings; “The Evening Star,” the sequel to “Terms of Endearment”; “Some Mother’s Son,” the hard-hitting look at the moms of two IRA prisoners; “Thieves,” the Catherine Deneuve-starring French crime drama; and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” with Woody Harrelson in the juicy lead role.

Eight-film Christmas Days have happened two more times: in 1997, with “The Postman,” “Mr. Magoo,” “Wag the Dog,” “The Education of Little Tree,” “Kundun,” “Jackie Brown,” “An American Werewolf in Paris,” and “As Good as It Gets”; and in 2008, with “Bedtime Stories,” “Last Chance Harvey,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Valkyrie,” “The Spirit,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Marley & Me,” and “Doubt.”

So what’s the attraction of competing for box office dollars on Christmas? And what’s the draw for ticket buyers?

Erik Lomis, president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment for the Weinstein Company, which has Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” offered a personal answer.

“Ever since I was a little kid, after the presents get opened, and after everybody has their breakfast, what are you gonna do?” he said. “Everybody goes to the movies. The theaters are jam-packed. The kids are home from school, and everybody’s off, except for the poor people working in the theaters.

“Christmas is a power date,” he added. “Three out of the last eight years, it’s been the biggest week of the year, and it’s always in the top three weeks of the year. And this year it falls on Tuesday, which is an optimum day.”

Lomis was referring to the fact that when Christmas is on a weekday, the box office takes start ramping up and getting counted well before the weekend, contributing to a particularly strong total for the week.

“When Christmas falls on a Tuesday, it’s always big,” he said. “The last three times Christmas was on a Tuesday, that’s been the biggest week of the year.”

Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database website, called this year’s selection of Christmas Day titles an example of smart marketing by the studios.

“With ‘Les Miz,’ I think they want to connect it with something, they want to ground it with the holiday. I think it’s the family film this year,” he said. “‘Django Unchained’ seems like great counter programming; it’s not a genre you would necessarily expect on a holiday.”

Simanton believes both of those movies will do fine. But he’s less sure of “Parental Guidance.”

“That one is facing the issue of having [similar films] ‘This Is 40’ and ‘The Guilt Trip’ opening the week before. It’s interesting to me whether ‘Parental Guidance’ will be something that will survive.”

Lomis is also pretty much ignoring “Parental Guidance.” But he won’t go so far as to predict that “Django” — the film that his studio locked into a Christmas release date on June 15, 2011 — will be the hands-down winner.

“This film is opening on Christmas because I don’t think there’s anything like it,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity to get this audience, and Quentin’s got a huge following.”

He’s fully aware that there’s a major difference between the audiences for each film.

“I don’t think people will be sitting at home thinking, should we go see ‘Les Miz’ or should we go see ‘Django Unchained’?,” he said. “I think ‘Les Miz’ will do a lot of business, but I think we will, too.”

Connie White, the president of Balcony Booking, has been booking films for the Coolidge Corner Theatre since 1996. She likes to catch a new film on Christmas.

“You’d hang out with the family in the morning, and then usually by 2 or 3, you’d have had enough, so we would pick a movie,” she said. “I remember one year going to see ‘The Godfather: Part III’ ” (1990).

White landed “Django Unchained” for the Coolidge this year and is predicting a large audience.

“Quentin Tarantino is his own brand,” she said. “Everybody wants to see this movie. It’s crazy. At the Coolidge we’ve got the young steampunks who run the concession stands and do the midnight programming, there’s me and [Coolidge executive director] Denise Kasell, and there’s our 30-something cinephiles. And everybody wants to see ‘Django.’ ”

So what will happen with this year’s three releases? Christmas Day musicals have both succeeded and failed in the past. The hits were “The Producers” in 2005, and “Dreamgirls” in 2006. The Weinsteins would probably like to forget their 2009 flop, “Nine.” Family films have also had ups and downs. The live-action “Pinocchio” was a miss in 2002, as were “Peter Pan” and “The Young Black Stallion” in 2003 and “Gulliver’s Travels” in 2010. But “Cheaper by the Dozen” (2003), “Fat Albert” (2004), “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep” (2007), and “Bedtime Stories” (2008), all scored at the box office. Yet violence-laced films have done quite well, with only two from 2006 underperforming: “Children of Men” failed, and “Black Christmas” broke even. But others — Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997), “The Faculty” (1998), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), “Wolf Creek” (2005), “AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator — Requiem” (2007), and “The Darkest Hour” (2011) — turned tidy profits.

Moviegoers who like to plan ahead should get out their 2013 calendars. Christmas Day openings already slated for next year are the 18th-century samurai thriller “47 Ronin,” and the CIA actioner “Jack Ryan,” with Chris Pine taking over the role previously played by Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, and Harrison Ford.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

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