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Originally published Wednesday, December 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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As American tradition: going to the movies on Christmas Day

This year, seven major films will be released on Christmas, the most ever. This may seem like odd timing — emptying the vaults on what is, for many people, the holiest day of the year — but a yuletide trip to the movies has become an American tradition.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Brad Pitt. Tom Cruise. Jennifer Aniston. Will Smith. Adam Sandler.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Hoping to cash in on an increasingly profitable time of year, Hollywood is loading up the holiday season as never before with big releases.

This year, seven major films will be released on Christmas, the most ever. Beyond the packages under your tree Thursday you'll find "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Marley & Me," "Valkyrie," "Bedtime Stories," "The Reader," "Gran Torino" and "The Spirit."

This may seem like odd timing — emptying the vaults on what is, for many people, the holiest day of the year — but a yuletide trip to the movies has become an American tradition.

As in: "Hurry up and open your presents, kids. I want to leave soon so we can get good seats for 'Bedtime Stories.' "

"Traffic is very strong on Christmas Day, particularly after 3 or 4 p.m. as family things wrap up and people start coming out," says Sun Dee Larson, spokeswoman for the AMC theater chain, which operates more than 5,000 screens in 30 states.

"Generally there are not many businesses open on Christmas Day, and moviegoing is very popular with families looking for an activity they can do together," says Dick Westerling, spokesman for Regal Entertainment, the country's largest exhibitor, with more than 6,800 screens in 39 states.

"It's normal to see a glut of films" at Christmastime, says Chad Hartigan, analyst for Reel Source, a box-office-tracking Web site, "but this year is a little more packed than previous years."

Everyone wants a slice of the plum pudding that is Christmas week, which has topped seven-day box-office totals every year since 2004. (Some years, the week after Christmas has been tops.) Last year, films took in $361.4 million Dec. 21-27.

Why the winter windfall?

People have a lot of time on their hands.

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Movies are still a relatively affordable remedy for cabin fever, which runs rampant at this time of year.

This year promises to be particularly lucrative because Christmas and New Year's Day fall on Thursdays, creating two four-day weekends.

The saturation of Christmas releases makes sense for the studios, even with the increased competition it creates, because at this time of year films have a longer shelf life.

Also, a number of prestige films are typically jammed into these last few weeks to qualify for Oscar consideration.

The front-runner in this year's Christmas batch is "Bedtime Stories," a PG fantasy starring Adam Sandler. It takes on the family-friendly mantle worn in previous years by the "Harry Potter" series, the "Lord of the Rings" franchise, and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

"People are looking for something they can take the family to," says David Poland, editor-in-chief of Movie City News, a Web site. "Unless it's a complete disaster, Disney will find $150 million on that film."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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