By Angela Hill
Staff Writer, Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group
With little else to do on a lazy, nog-filled Yuletide afternoon, many people opt for a trip to the movie theater to catch a flick or two. Not unlike the shepherds of old watching their flocks by night because they didn't have cable.
Yet on Christmas Day, this blessed time heralding peace and goodwill to mankind, Hollywood is offering these joyous tidings: blown-off heads, men being ripped apart by dogs and the n-word uttered at least 110 times (someone actually counted) in Quentin Tarantino's "Django: Unchained," a pre-Civil War "Kill Bill" with vengeful slaves and bounty hunters. It opens Christmas Day. Joy to the world.
Or this year's holiday moviegoers might choose "Les Misérables," yet another Dec. 25 release to leave viewers with sweet visions dancing in their heads -- scenes of wretched lives, consumptive prostitutes and, for some unknown reason, Sacha Baron Cohen. One critic said this version of the popular Broadway musical feels like "a nonstop series of death arias."
Indeed, if George Bailey were alive and a real person, this stuff would probably kill him.
"That does seem wrong," Joann Zimmerman, 58, of Oakland, said of the "Django" release. "If it's Tarantino? On Christmas Day? No."
Zimmerman, who manages a dental office, doesn't typically go to the movies on this holiday anyway and will spend the afternoon with her 88-year-old mom. "And I sure don't think she'd like to see 'Django,'" she said.
On the other hand, Irma Glidden of Alameda just might.
"We always go to the movies on Christmas. Have for years. It's a family event," she said last week out in front of Alameda City Hall, where she works. "The day is always so lazy and relaxing. You don't have to work, all the shopping's done. Even if you went to a movie like 'Django,' it's still an escape."
No matter which film she chooses this year, Glidden will not find herself in an empty theater. What began sometime last century with folks -- of various faiths or none at all -- heading to the movies because nothing else was open, has swelled into a multi-million-dollar holiday gift for the film studios. The online ticket service Fandango reported last week that "Les Miz" is already the No. 1 advance ticket-seller among all Christmas Day releases, surpassing its previous record-holder of Robert Downey Jr.'s "Sherlock Holmes" in 2009.
Ho, ho, horror
And while there have been plenty of lighter-weight Dec. 25 releases like 2008's "Marley & Me," we've seen some oddly violent, depressing or just plain perplexing offerings over the decades. Just last year, we had "The Darkest Hour," where five young travelers were stranded in Moscow, fighting to survive in the wake of an alien attack. And "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" about a boy trying to make sense of his dad's death in the 9/11 catastrophe.
Don't forget "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem" in 2007. Oh, and 2006 was a good year with the dystopian sci-fi film "Children of Men," plus the horror flick "Black Christmas." The list goes on from the alien body-snatching terror of "The Faculty" in 1998 to "The Godfather: Part III" in 1990. And on the day after Christmas in 1973, "The Exorcist" opened. The day after Christmas! "The Exorcist"!
"That one always stood out to me as a weird Christmas opening," said movie industry analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com's box office division. "Maybe it's a matter of counterprogramming to all the happy holiday stuff. Even Santa may need a break from the lighthearted fare of the season."
Hollywood's apparently not totally insensitive to the impact of violent movies -- or at least studio execs are aware there could be a backlash. The opening of Tom Cruise's "Jack Reacher" was postponed a week because of the Sandy Hook school shooting, as was the Los Angeles premiere of "Django" last week.
Such "downer" movies might even be a way to deal with real-life atrocities, said Mills College film studies Professor Ken Burke, who vividly remembers seeing "Sophie's Choice" on Christmas Eve in 1982.
"Talk about a buzz kill," he said. "But I guess sometimes you just have to immerse yourself in life's tragedies -- like with this massacre of children in Connecticut -- to understand the full impact of our existence. Maybe that's what draws audiences to the aggressive and downer stories that Hollywood's been releasing lately at Christmas -- a sense of necessary sober reflection to balance out all of the presents and eggnog."
"Django" bells, all the way
It's also about variety, says Ron Regalia, manager of Camera Cinemas in San Jose. Not all who flock to theaters during holidays are people with kids, so there's a market for nonfamily-oriented films.
"Something like 'Django: Unchained' may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas release," he said, "but distributors like to cover all the bases during a busy period like this."
Grant Kien, associate professor of communications at Cal State East Bay, says the bottom line for movies opening on Christmas is, well, the bottom line.
"There's a market for it," he said. "It very much ties in with the consumerism and commercialization of Christmas. This isn't just haphazard. (Studios) calculate to win big. And as to horror or violent movies, there's widespread interest right now in monster movies, zombies. So the studios probably say, 'Why not on Christmas?'"
A Christmas Day release is also considered a "touchstone day" in the industry, Dergarabedian said, because everyone automatically knows the date. Plus, films squeeze in under the wire to qualify for the Oscars, and will be fresh in the minds of Academy voters as they get their ballots in January.
Even big-name stars of this year's Christmas openers are poking fun at the bleak aspects of their respective "holiday" films. In Santa hats and with hilarious profanity-laced barbs, "Django's" Samuel L. Jackson and Anne Hathaway from "Les Miz" recorded a "sad-off" video for FunnyOrDie.com.
"My movie's literally called The Miserable," Hathaway jabs, noting the film's themes of poverty, prostitution and tuberculosis. "But OK, I guess your movie's kind of dark too," she adds.
"Kind of dark too," Jackson says. "Interesting choice of words there, Ann. You know my movie's about slavery, right?"
Ah, good times. Have yourself a merry little Christmas movie!