Studios bank on boffo year-end box office

Buoyed by last year’s record holiday box office, theater owners and studio execs are optimistic that this December could be as good or even better. And one key factor is fueling their optimism: The calendar.

The sweet spot for a distributor is when Christmas falls on a Wednesday or a Thursday, with Thursday being the best scenario possible (as it is this year). Most moviegoers will get Friday, Dec. 26, as a holiday, and through Jan. 4, many companies will be easing up on work hours, allowing for plentiful filmgoing.

A record haul this year is possible, but it won’t be easy, due to the overcrowded marketplace and an economy that’s making everything a question mark. With massive layoffs and cutbacks in consumer spending, will folks want to escape to the movies — or save their pennies?

In an otherwise brutal economic climate, with cutbacks and layoffs happening across Hollywood as elsewhere, box office has been a bright spot. Domestic B.O. is running even with last year’s record-breaking take.

Part of the reason is inflation; another factor is the ever-more crowded release calendar, which has expanded the marketplace. It remains to be seen whether the Christmas sesh can keep up with last year’s record holiday haul of $853.4 million.

There are a host of unique rules applying to the Christmas box office.

  • Christmas is the merriest time of the year. For that two-week stretch, more people are available to go to movies than at any other time of the year, resulting in grosses that eclipse any two-week summer numbers.

  • It’s routine for a year-end film to make 80% or 90% of its entire gross during the Christmas corridor.

  • On Christmas Eve, theater traffic drops dramatically. In 2002, for instance, total box office grosses for Dec. 24 were $17.1 million, compared to $28.7 million on Dec. 23. In 2003, grosses on Dec. 24 dropped to $14 million, compared to $24 million and $23.7 million on Dec. 23 and 24, respectively.

  • For Hollywood, the magical hour on Christmas Day is 5 p.m. That’s when Americans decide it’s time to get out of the house and see a movie. Last year, total grosses on Christmas Eve came in at $23.9 million. On Dec. 25, they were $63.2 million.

In 2006, box office revenues dropped to $21.5 million on Christmas Eve; the next day, they totaled $58.5 million.

Look for the biggest grosses to come the week between Christmas and New Year’s weekend. From 2001 to 2004, weekday grosses for that frame were consistently in the $30 million to $40 million range. Beginning in 2005 and through last year, weekday grosses climbed into the $50 million and, in some cases, the $60 million range.

But the number of Christmas releases has ballooned in recent years. This year, there are 11 wide releases opening between Dec. 12 and Dec. 26, the most ever. There’s also a crowded pack of specialty films opening, or expanding, in the hunt for awards attention.

And just as the summer season has crept up into early May, so has Christmas. Studios have begun using the middle week in December to introduce the first batch of year-end holiday titles.

This year, 20th Century Fox opens “The Day the Earth Stood Still” on Dec. 12, looking to replicate the success of last year’s Dec. 14 Warner Bros. release “I Am Legend.” Also on Dec. 12, Overture Films opens comedy “Nothing Like the Holidays.”

On Dec. 19, the Will Smith drama “Seven Pounds,” from Sony, and Warner Bros.’ Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man” both open, along with Universal toon “The Tale of Despereaux.”

It’s on Christmas Day that things get very tricky, when five more films open: Paramount’s Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett starrer “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Sony’s Adam Sandler comedy “Bedtime Stories”; Lionsgate’s “The Spirit,” directed by Frank Miller; and 20th Century’s Jennifer Aniston-Owen Wilson starrer “Marley and Me,” based on the bestselling tome.

There’s a lot of comedy. “Yes Man” and “Bedtime Stories” will both vie to play as broadly as possible, making for a showdown between the two. Whichever film plays most to families could do the best.

“Marley and Me” will likely play more to females, which could be a blessing. When there’s a crowded field of players, a film with a targeted audience can benefit.

Lionsgate’s “The Spirit” will be distinct in that it reaches out to fanboys.

United Artists/MGM opens Tom Cruise starrer “Valkyrie,” directed by Bryan Singer, on Dec. 26. UA is marketing the pic as an adult thriller to differentiate it from other titles on the marquee.

Par’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” directed by David Fincher, is a more curious animal. It has aspects of a specialty film, but hopes to play more commercially on the strength of its director and cast. Production budget was north of $160 million.

“Benjamin Button” will have to compete with a slew of specialty titles opening or expanding over the year-end holiday sesh. They include “Frost/Nixon,” “Gran Torino,” “Doubt,” “The Reader,” “The Wrestler,” “Revolutionary Road” and “Defiance.”

Even specialty distribs view the Christmas season as optimal viewing. This year in particular is busy, causing the awards season to be back loaded with product. The downside is that films have to fight for attention at the last minute, instead of rolling out in October or November, giving more time to woo awards voters.

Kudos consultants say distributors are opting to wait until December for the sheer box office potential of Christmas, even if that’s at odds with award campaigning.

But does Hollywood risk reaping the rewards of Christmas by cluttering up the marquee with commercial and specialty films? Each year has brought more wide releases. In 2005, there were seven wide releases (beginning with the middle weekend of December), followed by eight in 2006 and 10 last year.

Overall, the 2007 Christmas box office did well. The season kicked off with the release of Smith starrer “I Am Legend” on Dec. 14. By the time New Year’s weekend rolled around, the tentpole had grossed $228 million at the domestic box office — 89% of its total gross, $256.4 million.

Fox also used that weekend to debut family pic “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which grossed $176.2 million by Jan. 1, repping 81% of its domestic cume.

Family pics generate enormous biz during the year-end holiday. “Night at the Museum” grossed $163.7 million during the 2006 Christmas sesh on its way to a total domestic take of $250.9 million.

Like family fare, broad dramas and actioners also do well.

In 2006, Smith starrer “The Pursuit of Happyness” earned 76% of its cume over the holidays. In 2005, “King Kong” made 90% of its total gross by the time the New Year rolled around.

Turns out Santa can fill lots of stockings at the holiday box office.

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