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Why Is Christmas Day a Go-To for Movie Releases?

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Four potential blockbusters are due for release on December 25th this year. Here's why Hollywood's elves work so hard to hit that date.

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If you happen to be looking for a 90-minute pit stop on the way home from whatever Christmas Day revelry you have planned, Hollywood has a seat facing the big screen just for you. This year, Paramount Pictures (NASDAQ:VIA), 20th Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX), and a couple of independent production companies will converge on multiplexes across America to bring moviegoers a choice of four brand new offerings.

Though vastly different films, The Wolf Of Wall Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, August: Osage County (in photo below), and the Justin Bieber documentary Believe are all are perfect Christmas Day releases because each has the promise to either make a lot of money or earn a lot of Academy Awards.

Indeed, Christmas is a magical time of year for the box office and for Oscar bait. Among the top 20 highest grossing movies of all time, nearly one-third were released during the holiday season and 40% comprised the top ten. The number one and two slots are occupied by director James Cameron for Avatar (December 18, 2009) and Titanic (December 19, 1997) which, respectively, grossed nearly $2.8 billion and $2.2 billion.

These two films also represented well at the Academy Awards. Avatar received nine nominations including best picture and director, and won for cinematography, art direction, and visual effects, while Titanic won 11 of its 14 nominations, including best picture, director, actress, editing, and cinematography.

Each film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy opened on the Wednesday before Christmas, and the lowest grossing of the lot, The Fellowship of the Ring, still ranked #33 on the highest grossing list and pulled in $871.5 million. All of the pictures were nominated for multiple awards including best picture and director, and The Return of the King won for both, as well as for adapted screenplay.

To understand the Christmas blockbuster phenomenon, we'll take peek at Hollywood's history of box office jockeying on the holy holiday.

On December 25, 1947, Paramount Pictures took a big chance. The studio chose one of the most sacred squares on the calendar to debut, not a moralistic tale about Christmas or even one that championed family values, but a comedy romp about two vaudevillian stowaways named Scat and Hot Lips.

The release of Road to Rio, the fifth installment in the Road to… franchise, starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, ushered in a new American tradition that would become nearly as ubiquitous as exchanging gifts under the tree: going to the movies on Christmas Day.

Paramount's seemingly heretical move -- considering the evangelical boom of post-war America -- turned out to be a savvy one for its bottom line. In spite of Road to Rio's theatrical release on this highest of holy days, the movie made $4.5 million and was the sixth highest grossing movie of the year. It even managed to draw an Oscar nomination for best music, scoring of a musical picture (and subsequently snagged a 100% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

And so the precedent was set for a holiday movie release enjoying commercial and critical success. The classic Old Yeller would beget, 51 years to the day, the depressing dog gold mine Marley & Me, and the social commentary of best picture winner To Kill a Mockingbird rang in a new cultural touchstone, one that eventually lead to Slumdog Millionaire.

But the strategy that has movie studios reserving their most critically acclaimed pictures for release at the end of the year has little or nothing to do with Christmas but, rather, Oscar season -- with which it happens to overlap. Film openings positioned in November and December lend them that late-game visibility when the Academy picks its nominees in late January while still meeting the eligibility cut-off for the ceremony in late February or March.

Sifting through the release dates of the best picture winners over the last ten years tells us that half of the films were baited during that shared Oscar/holiday calendar space.

This year, nine of Indie Wire's 14 best picture predictions -- from the long shots to the locks -- share end-of-the-year openings. Aside from the Christmas Day releases, American Hustle, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Saving Mr. Banks, Dallas Buyers Club, and Philomena all benefited from Oscar-season campaigning.

See also:

Beyond 'Wolf of Wall Street': The Top 9 Movies About Finance and Trading
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