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Big business for ‘A Christmas Story’

Merchandising, home video a boon for Warner Bros.

From humble beginnings, a cottage industry has grown.

A Christmas Story,” the 1983 MGM/UA release starring Peter Billingsley as a 9-year-old Indiana boy who yearns for a BB gun for Christmas, has not only joined “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” on the list of holiday movie classics through its perennial airings on Turner cablers, it has spurred a merchandising business that is a gift that keeps on giving to Warner Home Video and Warner Bros. Consumer Products.

Rabid fans of the pic, set in 1941, turn out by the thousands to the Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, where much of the film was shot. The house, acquired via eBay by a San Diego entrepreneur in 2004, serves as a clearinghouse of memorabilia related to the pic, and it hosts an annual “Christmas Story” convention in November.

The biggest moneymaker for Warner Bros., of course, has been homevid sales. The pic helmed by Bob Clark has sold more than 6.5 million copies on DVD and Blu-ray over the past 10 years. Since the dawn of the DVD in 1997, Warner Home Video has shipped 500,000 copies to retailers every year, even though “Christmas Story” has no shortage of exposure on TNT and TBS. For the past 14 years, one of the Turner cablers has carried a “24 Hours of ‘A Christmas Story’ ” marathon that begins at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. (TNT started the marathon tradition in 1997; it moved to TBS in 2004.)

” ‘A Christmas Story’ has achieved cult status and is an evergreen film,” said Jeff Baker, senior veep and g.m. of theatrical catalog for Warner Home Video. “The annual multiple airings that drive high ratings on Turner networks only serve to feed the demand for the film in packaged media.”

As an adult, Billingsley has branched out into producing and directing, and he is involved in a legit tuner adaptation of “A Christmas Story” that opened in previews this month at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater. With holiday-themed shows performing well on the Rialto, it’s a no-brainer that producers are hoping for an eventual Main Stem transfer.

Back in 1983, there were few indications that “Christmas Story” would have such a prosperous afterlife.

The pic bowed in about 900 theaters on Nov. 18, 1983, during an ebb in MGM/UA’s fortunes, so there wasn’t much of a marketing push. Clark was coming off the success of the raunchy hit “Porky’s,” which gave him the clout to push through a passion project he’d nurtured for a decade, based on an autobiographical story by humorist and radio raconteur Jean Shepherd.

“Christmas Story,” which also starred Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as the boy’s parents, grossed $19.3 million. It was popular enough to play in some theaters through January 1984, and it had a brief limited re-release during the holidays that year.

The title came into the Turner fold in 1986 through Ted Turner’s acquisition of the Lion’s pre-1986 film library. But the pic didn’t make its Turner debut, on TBS, until Dec. 1, 1992. Since then, it has aired about 260 times (and counting) on TBS, TNT and TCM, according to Turner.

Viewer appreciation for the story of Ralphie’s quest to persuade his parents to buy him the Christmas present of his dreams — or, as Billingsley recites, “an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” — snowballed quickly. Pic’s sweet but not syrupy tone and universal themes of childhood fantasies, holiday pressures and family idiosyncrasies continues to resonate with auds and critics.

One of “A Christmas Story’s” most distinctive touches involves McGavin’s character winning a “major award” in a contest, which turns out to be a leg lamp. Those lamps have become a merchandising bonanza for numerous manufacturers.

Brian Jones began selling leg lamps out of his San Diego home in 2003. His parents had sent him a homemade one to raise his spirits when he failed to make the cut for Navy flight school. Based on the amount of interest the homemade lamp generated among his friends, Jones started thinking about a “Christmas Story” market opportunity.

“I was getting out of my second tour of the Navy and trying to decide what I should do with my life,” Jones said. “I decided I should sell leg lamps.”

As his business prospered, another acquaintance informed Jones that the house where “Christmas Story” was filmed was for sale on eBay. Jones bought it in 2004 for $150,000 with the goal of turning it into a tourist stop. But first he had to completely redo the inside to make it look like the film, because most of the movie’s interiors were shot on a soundstage in Toronto.

An additional $240,000 later, Jones opened the Christmas Story House and Museum in 2006. After an initial hiccup with Warner Bros.’ legal department, he worked out a licensing agreement with the studio. He averages about 30,000-35,000 visitors a year — July is the third-busiest month behind November and December. He’s since bought up adjacent properties to expand the museum and gift shop, which sells leg lamps and nearly 200 other products tied to the pic (Christmas ornaments, action figures, T-shirts, mugs, hats, etc.). In a good year, Jones said he moves about 5,000 leg lamps of various sizes.

Jones’ inaugural fan convention, which encompasses a weekend of “Christmas Story”-related activities and guest appearances, drew about 5,000 dedicated fans. This year’s event, held Nov. 26-27, drew about 2,500. Jones said his big regret is that helmer Clark never made it to the house before he and his 22-year-old son, Ariel, were killed in April 2007 by a drunken driver.

What is it about “Christmas Story” that makes people travel from as far away as South Africa to spend a weekend at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel playing Ralphie trivia and hobnobbing with actors who had small parts in the pic? Jones credits the heart, humor and timelessness of the yarn spun by Shepherd and translated onscreen by Clark.

“Everybody seems to relate to this story regardless of where they grew up,” Jones said. “It’s about that time in your life where there’s just that one thing you want bad for Christmas, and it’s about family life at Christmastime. It’s just a little bit more real than most films about Christmas.”

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