This weekend Disney is releasing A Christmas Carol, the much-buzzed-about Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous tale. Thanks to Disney’s marketing machine, awareness of the holiday feature is absolutely huge, and more and more, it’s looking like A Christmas Carol could be a major blockbuster. Jim Carrey, who turned How The Grinch Stole Christmas into a $260 million hit in 2000, has been promoting the film nonstop, and Disney has gone so far as to send a train all over the US for months just to promote the picture. Despite all the hype, though, I’m not whipping out my jingle bells just yet. (That sounds dirtier than I intended…) In my book, there are a few things working against A Christmas Carol which may negatively affect its box office performance.
It’s been frustrating enough that since mid-September, every time I walk into a Wal-Mart, I’ve had to look at inflatable Santa Clauses and holly wreaths, but come on, Hollywood! Can’t we please save the Christmas movies until after Thanksgiving? The typical American consumer side of me is just annoyed that the media seems to be trying to turn the holiday season into a three month affair. But the box office analyst side of me questions whether this release date is a good business decision on Disney’s part. To explain, allow me to take you on a little visit to the ghost of Christmas movies past…
On November 10, 2004, Warner Brothers released The Polar Express, another Robert Zemeckis creation. Based on the popular book by Chris Van Alsburg, expectations were riding high for the film. Indeed, The Polar Express looked like a box office freight train. However, upon opening, the film was only able to gross $30.6 million in its first five days, which was well below expectations. The Polar Express completed its original domestic box office run with a relatively disappointing $162 million. Fortunately for Warner Brothers, yearly re-releases, international grosses, IMAX receipts, DVD sales, and TV rights have since made up for its initially poor showing, but I’ve always wondered: If The Polar Express had come out two weeks later, would it have earned more at the box office?
Now, some of you probably think that I’m crazy. Clearly, the longer the film is in theaters before Christmas, the more time it will have to make money, and therefore the more money it will earn, right? I’m not so sure. Timing is important at the box office. Timing helped The Omen earn $12.6 million on a Tuesday that happened to be dated 06/06/06. Timing helped Independence Day open to $50 million on the July 4th weekend of 1996. And timing, I believe, is what negatively affected The Polar Express‘ box office in 2004. What if Warner Brothers had waited one or two more weeks to release their tentpole production? Sure, that’s one or two fewer weeks of box office revenue before Christmas day, but imagine how much higher the opening weekend could have been had audiences actually been in the Christmas spirit! The combination of a huge opening weekend, good word-of-mouth, parents off of work, and kids out of school is more than enough to carry a film to enormous grosses in five or six weeks, and I think with a stronger start, The Polar Express could have easily outpaced its $162 million run. Need another example? Look at the heavily promoted Fred Claus, which debuted on November 9, 2007, to $18 million on its way to a $72 million total. Again, with the amount of excitement that originally surrounded this movie, this was a disappointing result. If Warner Brothers had held off just a little while longer, I think Vince Vaughn’s Christmas comedy could have been much bigger. I worry that A Christmas Carol is falling into a similar trap.
If the aforementioned trend of underwhelming grosses takes place with A Christmas Carol, Disney is not going to be too happy, especially because they reportedly shelled out $175 million to produce this film, a figure that does not include the massive amounts they’ve clearly spent on marketing. The Polar Express‘ biggest flaw was its huge negative cost. It took The Polar Express a long time to make back its $170 million production budget and $60 million marketing budget, and that is a hurdle that A Christmas Carol will have to clear as well. Add in the fact that Christmas movies aren’t necessarily an easy international sell outside of Europe, and it will certainly prove difficult for Disney to quickly earn back all it has spent on this. The bottom line is that Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture animated movies are very, very expensive to make.
But are they really worth the investment? Critics and audiences alike complained that, despite their incredibly lifelike movements, the characters in The Polar Express had somewhat eerie dispositions, due to the limitations of the motion capture technology, which rendered the actors with porcelain faces and dead eyes. While early reviews suggest that Zemeckis has come a long way with his groundbreaking visual style, the problem apparently still persists in A Christmas Carol, and according to MSNBC’s Alonso Duralde, “…most of the film’s cast look like they just sauntered out of Madame Tussauds.” Considering the vivid facial expressions we all know Jim Carrey is capable of producing, it seems like a shame that the technology is limiting them. The beauty of animation is that it can create a visually exaggerated world that cameras simply couldn’t capture, and I’m not sure why Zemeckis is so insistent on portraying animated humans realistically on the screen. I mean, if you’re going to make an animated movie, wouldn’t you want you characters to look, I don’t know, animated?! While this film will certainly score points for its bold visual style, I’m willing to bet that the traditional animation methods in Disney’s The Princess And The Frog, which comes out a month later, will generate more emotion from audiences, and emotional response is key. The recession has taken its toll on Americans, and the weather outside is chilly enough, so if the characters in A Christmas Carol feel at all cold to audiences, it could spell trouble for its box office.
Alright, I’ll be honest: the 3D factor is only going to help A Christmas Carol at the box office, especially in conjunction with the IMAX release. But seriously, am I the only one tired of the 3D gimmick? I know I harp on it a lot, but it’s just not worth the extra $3 to me to wear sunglasses while watching a movie.
In conclusion, let me say this: A Christmas Carol does have a lot going for it. Jim Carrey is a proven box office draw. Disney certainly knows how to market a film. People are genuinely drawn into theaters to see 3D movies. Charles Dickens’ book is one of the most well known titles in all of literature. All these things are major positives, and the film will not fail in any sort of devastating way. Still, with a massive production budget and one of the most expensive advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen (I would guess it cost about $75-100 million), A Christmas Carol needs to perform brilliantly at the box office to make up for Disney’s huge expenditures. My final prediction: A Christmas Carol will not recoup its costs at the domestic box office, and it will take quite a while for Disney to see positive returns on its investment. I’m sure Disney will re-release A Christmas Carol in theaters each year and slowly rack up annual profits. They will play it on ABC during the holiday season, sell tons of DVDs, prematurely claim that its a Christmas classic, and a few years from now, they’ll be happy to have it in their catalog.
Image Credit: BoxOfficeMojo