How Christmas Movies Grow
Why have we anointed a handful of Christmas movies as Christmas classics? I do some digging.
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Like many of you, my family loves to watch Christmas movies.
Leading up to Christmas, we tend to watch Home Alone, Home Alone 2, The Grinch (2000), The Grinch (1967), White Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Santa Clause, and I might watch A Christmas Story on my own time (my wife hates it).
But on Christmas day? My family opens presents in the morning and then proceeds to watch 3 particular Christmas classics. It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, and of course, the super nostalgic claymation Rankin/Bass classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
We all tend to gravitate toward the same handful of Christmas films.
You might also watch Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Carol (2009), The Polar Express, Jingle All the Way, Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Die Hard, Gremlins, and others as well.
Every year, I wonder who “anointed” this handful of Christmas movies as Christmas classics and why? How do Christmas movies grow?
This year, I decided to do some digging.
The goal of my research was to look for patterns in Christmas classics. What common factors went into how a Christmas movie becomes a Christmas classic? Critical acclaim? Wide distribution? “Christmassyness?” Commercial success? Star power?
First, I had to identify which Christmas movies are the most popular today. Which films have stood the test of time? Next, I wanted to look for patterns that might suggest how this happened. Is there a formula for success?
The only data I could find that could help me get to the bottom of this also limited me in which films I could analyze accurately and which questions I could answer. The most reliable data I found was the Lifetime Adjusted Grosses for the top 13 Christmas movies* and a few recent Holiday movie popularity surveys.
*Lifetime Adjusted Grosses are adjusted for inflation and ticket sales relative to release year. I could only find Lifetime Adjusted Grosses for the top 1,000 films. 13 of those were Christmas movies.
This gave me proxies for which Christmas movies saw the most initial theatrical success and which films are thought of first when people are asked to name their favorite Holiday movies today.
The most comprehensive survey I could find was conducted by Tubi and OnePoll in 2019, and I cross-checked Tubi/OnePoll’s top 50 films with other surveys to ensure it wasn’t missing any popular Christmas movies. It wasn’t.*
*I didn’t include Die Hard and Gremlins because neither seemed like they were intended to be Christmas films. The conversation about Die Hard and Gremlins as Christmas movies didn’t start until around 2016.
Only having data on the top theatrically successful films of all time meant that I could only compare theatrically released movies to one another in many cases. So, for example, I had to exclude TV specials when looking at commercial success. I was, however, able to look at all 50 films in Tubi/OnePoll’s survey when comparing the content of the most popular films.
With all these limitations, I wasn’t able to empirically prove much, aside from which films were box office successes, but I was able to identify several interesting patterns.
I have factual data on which Christmas movies performed the best in theaters.
I have a proxy for which Christmas movies are the most popular today. This gives me a good idea of which Christmas movies were the most watched when they were released and which films are the most watched now.
THE HIGHEST LIFETIME ADJUSTED CHRISTMAS MOVIES OF ALL TIME
Home Alone - $6.2 Million
The Grinch (2000) -$4.4 Million
Home Alone 2 - $3.8 Million
The Santa Clause - $3.2 Million
The Grinch (2018) - $2.7 Million
The Polar Express - $2.7 Million
Elf - $2.6 Million
The Santa Clause 2 - $2.2 Million
A Christmas Carol (2009) - $1.7 Million
Christmas Vacation - $1.6 Million
Four Christmases - $1.5 Million
The Nightmare Before Christmas - $1.5 Million
Scrooged (Bill Murray) - $1.3 Million
With this information, I can answer the following question:
DO CHRISTMAS MOVIES RELY ON INITIAL THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE TO BECOME CLASSICS?
If Christmas movies didn’t rely on an initial theatrical performance to become classics, today’s most watched Christmas movies wouldn’t have seen massive box office successes.
It turns out that Christmas movies rarely become classics without massive box office success. Very few films are launched into classics by starting as cult films, then growing in popularity. Instead, they are almost instantly popular and remain that way for decades.
This could be due to several factors.
Box office successes could be more memorable, but it’s also almost certainly the case that theatrical success incentivizes studios, rental stores, retail stores, TV channels, and streaming platforms to make those films more widely available.
More widely available films will likely be watched more if movies act anything like brands. Of the 34 theatrical releases in Tubi/OnePoll’s survey, 30 (88%) had massive initial box office successes.
The exceptions were A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but these anomalies are more nuanced when considering their availability.
It’s a Wonderful life bombed in theaters, but it was picked up from the public domain in 1967 when it began airing on several TV channels annually for decades (at a time when there were only a few channels to choose from, to start with).
A Christmas story also performed moderately in theaters but was later picked up by several TV studios. TBS has been playing the film for 24 hours straight, every Christmas, for 24 years.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the 6th highest-grossing film during the 1992 holiday season, but it was released at the same time as the 3rd most successful Christmas movie release of all time, Home Alone 2, and the 100th highest Lifetime Adjusted Grossing film of all time, Aladdin. The Muppet Christmas Carol chose one of the worst weeks in history to release their film.
Finally, The Nightmare Before Christmas started as a cult classic with a limited theatrical release, then grew in popularity. But can you classify Tim Burton’s masterpiece as a Christmas movie? According to Google Trends, not really.
Far more people search for the film around Halloween than Christmas, suggesting it’s widely considered a Halloween movie.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles came in at #4 in Tubi/OnePoll’s list. Yet, the film takes place during Thanksgiving (not Christmas) and is searched for far more in the weeks before and immediately after Thanksgiving than Christmas.
There’s a simple explanation for why The Nightmare Before Christmas and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were listed in Tubi/OnePoll’s top 50.
The word “holiday.”
Tubi/OnePoll asked participants which Holiday movie they watch every year, not which Christmas movie they watch. The word “holiday” likely confused several participants, given that a Halloween movie and a Thanksgiving movie made their list. So can we count either as one of the most popular Christmas movies today? I don’t think so.
Except for a few perfectly explainable anomalies, it seems that initial box office success can be used to predict the future popularity of a Christmas movie. But if this were true, there are two other anomalies we need to talk about.
The Santa Clause 2 and The Grinch (2018) didn’t make Tubi/OnePoll’s list despite having massive box office success.
But, despite 2018’s The Grinch being the 5th highest Lifetime Adjusted Grossing Christmas movie of all time, there is a simple explanation for why it doesn’t appear on Tubi/OnePoll’s survey. The Grinch came out merely a year before their survey was conducted. The most recent film on their list is 2011’s Arthur Christmas.
That leaves us with The Santa Clause 2 as the only film whose lack of 2019 popularity couldn’t have been predicted by its massive box office success.
But come on, it sucked, right? So is that why it’s not a classic?
CRITICAL ACCLAIM PATTERNS
Unfortunately for some like me who want to believe that, while shitty films can have box office successes, they won’t stand the test of time, critical acclaim has little impact on which Christmas movies become Christmas classics.
One film makes this very clear and is a damn good comparison to The Santa Clause 2 because it’s also a sequel and was released around the same time.
My wife and I love Home Alone 2, and my dad once said that Home Alone 2 is his favorite film of all time. Of all time! My dad has good taste in movies (as do I), so I was surprised that Home Alone 2 has a 35% Critic Score on Rotten Tomatoes. The 3rd lowest of any Christmas classic!
Yet, it’s the 3rd highest Lifetime Adjusted Grossing Christmas movie of all time and #8 in Tubi/OnePoll’s survey when you include all 50 films.
The Santa Clause 2 (an objectively worse film than Home Alone 2 — you can’t argue with me on this because it’s science, even if I can’t prove it right now) has a 56%. 21% higher than Home Alone 2!
I learned in my research that Audience Scores on Rotten Tomatoes aren’t a good proxy for popularity. Like Critic Scores, there is no significant correlation between Audience Scores and popularity (either box office success or surveys).
I guess people are very irrationally opinionated (except me) about which Christmas movies they love and which ones they hate.
Let’s expand our analysis of critical acclaim outside Home Alone 2 and The Santa Clause 2. As it turns out, poor critical reception doesn’t negatively impact Christmas classics. It might even help.
On Rotten Tomatoes, a 60% Critic Score and above is considered “Fresh,” while anything below 60% is considered “Rotten.” It’s important to note that Critic Scores on Rotten Tomatoes are subjective and don’t objectively tell us which films are good or bad.
However, you could make the case that a really good or lousy Critic Score could indicate which films are more likely to be objectively good or bad.
How many Christmas classics (based on the Tubi/OnePoll top 50) are rotten? Of the films I could find scores for (43 total), 12 were rotten. That’s almost 30%. If we consider anything under 70% below average, over half of the most popular Christmas films today have below-average critical acclaim! It might even be better for a Christmas movie to fall below 70% to become a classic!
Some films you love are likely objectively bad, and some you hate are likely objectively good. For example, I love Home Alone 2, Jingle All the Way, and, more recently, Four Christmases. Yet, they are the worst-rated popular Christmas classics by critics. I also have the (embarrassing to admit) opinion that You’ve Got Mail is a better version of The Shop Around the Corner, despite Jimmy Stewart being one of my favorite actors of all time.
I’ve compiled all the Critic Scores and Audience Scores of each film in the Lifetime Adjusted Grosses list and the Tubi/OnePoll survey, ranked by Critic Scores.
See any surprises?
The Grinch (1967) 100/95
The Shop Around the Corner 100/91
Meet Me in St. Louis 100/87
Holiday Inn 100/86
Christmas Carol (1938) 100/74
The Nightmare Before Christmas 95/91
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 95/81
It’s a Wonderful Life 94/95
Santa Claus is Coming to Town 93/79
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles 92/87
Arthur Christmas 92/76
A Christmas Story 89/88
Christmas in Connecticut 89/75
A Christmas Carol (1951) 85/89
15. Elf 85/79
A Charlie Brown Christmas 84/86
The Bishop’s Wife 84/81
Bad Santa 78/75
White Christmas 77/88
The Muppets Christmas Carol 75/86
21. Scrooge (1970) 75/83
Frosty the Snowman 73/72
The Santa Clause 72/65
Best Man Holiday 70/83
Scrooged (Bill Murray) 69/71
Home Alone 68/80
Christmas Vacation 67/86
Love Actually 64/72
Miracle on 34th Street 60/62
The Preacher’s Wife 60/52
The Grinch (2018) 59/51
The Santa Clause 2 56/42
The Polar Express 56/63
The Family Stone 53/63
A Christmas Carol (2009) 53/58
The Holiday 49/80 37. The Grinch (2000) 49/56
Just Friends 42/71
Babes in Toyland (1961) 36/60
40. Home Alone 2 35/62
Four Christmases 24/47
Jingle All the Way 20/38
Christmas With the Kranks 5/38
While critical acclaim (or even Audience Scores on Rotten Tomatoes) doesn’t seem to contribute to Christmas movies being anointed as Christmas classics, there does seem to be one factor that significantly increases a film’s chances.
Pre-existing familiarity at the time of a film’s release.
PRE-EXISTING FAMILIARITY PATTERNS
When looking for other patterns within Christmas classics (the most popular Christmas movies today), I looked at the content of those classics. Just like with critical acclaim, I could analyze the content of TV specials (and not just theatrical releases) by looking at the 2019 Tubi/OnePoll survey’s complete list of 50 films.
What commonalities do all or most Christmas classics share? In brand choice, we gravitate toward the familiar. It’s called Availability Bias. We perceive brands that are the most familiar to be the best ones, and we usually proceed to buy those brands.
The most familiar brands, for most consumers, are the brands that advertise the most, are the most widely available, and/or have been bought more by those consumers in the past. The more commercially successful a brand is, the more familiar it becomes for the most significant number of people, and the more that brand is bought.
Based on my research, it would appear that the more commercially successful a Christmas movie is when first released, the more likely it is to become familiar and is then more likely to be watched every year.
Whether films became more familiar over time because box office hits are easier to remember years later or because theatrical success incentivizes studios, rental stores, and streaming platforms to invest in distribution after a theatrical run, I can’t prove without accurate performance data. But could Availability Bias be at play even before a film is released? We all know of at least one element in movies where the answer to this question seems obvious. Actors.
THE ROLE OF CELEBRITY IN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS
The bigger an actor’s name, the more people trust a movie when it’s first released.*
*I’m making an assumption here, but I would love to see a study on whether or not big names come before commercial success or if films with big names are released by bigger studios and therefore have bigger promotional budgets. Is there a sweet spot for star power where studios could save money by investing in smaller names?
Of course, the film industry assumes big names = box office success too. That’s why famous actors are paid so much. But is this true for Christmas movies as well? Do Christmas movies with A-list actors perform better in theaters? Do A-list actors contribute to the future popularity of a Christmas movie?
I analyzed every Christmas movie in Tubi/OnePoll’s survey to find the answer. Of the 50 films in the survey, 24 (48%) starred an A-list actor at their release. That’s significant but not as high as I would have thought.
However, like all stories, this one is more nuanced as well.
7 of the 24 films that didn’t star an A-list actor were animated, but animated movies haven’t historically starred A-list actors, so this is in line with what we might expect.
7 of the 11 films in Tubi/OnePoll’s top 50 survey do not star any A-list actors. The 4 that do were all released after 2004.
Before the 1992 film Aladdin, A-list actors were never used in animated movies, so those 4 are also in line with what we would expect.
TV specials have also historically been void of stars until recently. 18/50 films in Tubi/OnePoll’s survey are TV specials, and not a single A-list actor stars in any of them.
Of the 28 live-action theatrical releases, only 4 popular Christmas movies are void of a celebrity. We seem biased toward Christmas movies with A-list actors when anointing them as classics.
Home Alone, Home Alone 2, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street are the only films where we expect to see an A-list actor but don’t. So how did those 4 films fill the star void?
Home Alone 2 relied on the familiarity of its predecessor; Home Alone, A Christmas Story was overplayed on TV after its release, increasing its accessibility, and 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street relied on the familiarity of the original 1947 hit.
My research suggests that initial commercial success and star power are two main ingredients of a Christmas classic, and both seem to be (at least partially) attributed to Availability Bias. I hypothesize that we tend to be biased toward those actors when a live-action film is released in theaters and stars an A-list actor. But then, once that film is theatrically successful, we become biased toward the popularity of that film.
I wanted to go deeper than star power and look for other familiarity factors that might contribute to a Christmas movie’s success.
THE ROLE OF FAMILIAR STORYLINES AND CHARACTERS IN CHRISTMAS CLASSICS
I discovered that 48 out of Tubi/OnePoll’s top 50 Holiday movies relied on pre-existing familiarity when they were first released. Those 48 films prominently featured either familiar storylines, familiar characters, and/or familiar actors.
50% were adapted from a familiar storyline, and (60%) were adapted from a familiar storyline and/or prominently featured a familiar character at the time of its release (i.e., Santa, The Grinch, Charlie Brown, The Muppets, Scrooge, The Griswold family, etc.).
19 films weren’t adapted at all, but only 2 of those did not include an A-list actor.
A Christmas Story wasn’t an adaptation and didn’t star an A-list actor, but it was effectively anointed by TV studios as a Christmas classic.
Only one film didn’t star an A-list actor, wasn’t adapted from a familiar story or character and wasn’t anointed by TV studios. If there ever was a sleeper Christmas hit, this film was it.
THE HOME-ALONE EXCEPTION
In November 1990, Home Alone surprised its studio. According to Box Office Mojo, Home Alone only played in 1,200 theaters during its opening weekend. As a result, it sits in the 38th percentile for all theatrically released Christmas movies in terms of the number of opening weekend theaters. This is very telling because it suggests that 20th Century Fox (the studio behind Home Alone) didn’t seem to believe their film would be that successful.
Despite being released in fewer theaters than 64% of all Christmas movies, Home Alone absolutely killed in its opening weekend. 20th Century Fox took note and drastically expanded its release in the weeks following.
At the time of Home Alone’s release, most films averaged around 4 weeks per theater. Home Alone averaged 22 weeks! By the end of its theatrical run, Home Alone was the single highest Lifetime Adjusted Grossing Christmas movie of all time and 43rd among all films! So why was 20th Century Fox so surprised by Home Alone’s success?
It was an entirely original film, void of any stars.
A film like that had never become a Christmas classic then and still hasn’t today! So 20th Century Fox gambled on Home Alone and hit the jackpot.
In some ways, familiarity is an obvious factor in making a Christmas movie a classic. If a Christmas movie doesn’t feel “Christmassy,” it likely won’t become a Christmas classic. We turn to Christmas movies to experience Christmas nostalgia. But there are 4 popular Christmas movies from Tubi/OnePoll’s survey that aren’t very “Christmassy.”
4 films starred A-list actors but did not have a strong Christmas theme. Instead, their stories merely happened to end during the Christmas season.
It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bishop’s Wife, and The Shop Around the Corner. But half of these films star Jimmy Stewart! So has Jimmy Stewart himself become an iconic Christmas character?
If you want to release a Christmas movie tomorrow that will become a Christmas classic in 20 years, we have some clues that suggest a formula for success.
Historically you should probably do the following:
Adapt your film from a familiar story that features iconic Christmas characters.
Hire at least one A-list actor. Preferably someone who will stand the test of time. Even better, hire an A-list actor on the verge of becoming an iconic Christmas character like Jimmy Stewart (i.e., Tim Allen, Jim Carrey, Hugh Grant, Will Ferrell, Bill Murray, etc.)
If you want to cheat, make a sequel to an existing Christmas hit, and release it in theaters. It doesn’t have to be good.
If you are releasing your film theatrically, nail that opening weekend. Promote your movie to get enough people to see it while it’s in theaters. Shoot to break records. 2018’s The Grinch achieved record-breaking box office success, with a record-breaking promotional budget of over $120 million.
If you bomb in the box office, it’s ok; just pull an It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Sell your film for super cheap to every TV studio and streaming platform. Make sure they promote it as an annual event. Then sit back, and pick up those sweet, sweet royalties.
If you make an animated film and base it on a famous song, you might be able to bypass the theaters entirely and go straight to TV like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Similarly, try putting the words “Christmas,” “Santa,” “Holiday,” or a famous song lyric in your film’s title.
If you’ve already made a highly successful film that has some snow and Christmas lights in a couple of scenes, reframe it as a Christmas classic. Especially if it sparks a heated debate online. I see what you did with Die Hard and Gremlins...
Above all else, get as many people to watch your film as often as possible. Your movie likely won’t become a Christmas classic through cult followers who propel it into the mainstream.
In a nutshell, your film can suck (according to critics) as long as it’s “Christmassy,” has star power, and is backed by a major studio with a significant advertising budget.
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