Christmas in Blockbusterland

July 18, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

"Having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true. " - Spock, "Amok Time"

When I was a kid, my favorite day of the year was December 24. Not Christmas Day, but the day before. For me, that was the culmination of the season. Every radio station played Christmas carols. All the houses that would have lights were illuminated. On no other night was I as eager to go to bed and as utterly unable to fall asleep. Sure, there was something to be said about waking up and staring wide-eyed at all those wrapped presents under the tree while waiting for the appointed hour of 8:00 to arrive when it was okay to awaken my parents. For the most part, however, Christmas Day was deflating. Playing with the new toys in actuality never seemed as fun as thinking about playing with them. Then it was time to get ready for Grandma and Grandpa. More presents - mostly clothing. Around 5 pm, the radio stations went back to normal programming. And next Christmas seemed an eternity away.

I learned at an early age that Christmas wasn't about magic or religion, at least not for me. It was about anticipation. And the anticipation was over once December 24 was ticked off on the calendar. Somehow, December 25 was never able to live up to the hype.

Throughout my life, there have been movies I have awaited as eagerly as I did those Christmas Eves when I still believed a fat man in a red suit would visit. Perhaps surprisingly, one was not Star Wars. I became aware of George Lucas' space opera in the spring of 1977 and was eager to see it, but there was no real awareness of "Opening Day" or a countdown to when that would be. My opportunity sneaked up on me. One afternoon, my friend/next door neighbor's parents approached us while we were playing and asked if we would like to see it that night. I enjoyed the movie immensely and became a huge fan, but there was not much of a build-up.

The situation was much different five years later with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. By early June 1982, I was as deeply immersed in Trek-dom as I would ever be, having seen all the original episodes at least twice and owning audio recordings (taped off TV) of every one. The "countdown" for The Wrath of Khan (which opened June 4) began in earnest in early May as Paramount's publicity machine shifted into high gear. TV stations showing the syndicated Star Trek aired a two-hour special that included canned interviews with cast members, a "behind-the-scenes" look at the making of the movie (minimal spoilers, as I remember), and an airing of the unedited "Space Seed." Merv Griffin devoted an entire program to the movie. And so forth. By the time I saw it on June 6 (a Sunday - I was unable to procure transportation to the theater for either Friday or Saturday) in a sold-out 2000-seat theater, I was more excited than I had ever been for any movie, including The Empire Strikes Back.

I loved The Wrath of Khan. For a short while, it was my favorite movie. If I had been writing reviews at the time, it would have received an unqualified **** rating. But, in the wake of the high that came from sitting in the theater and experiencing "new Trek", came an unexpected sensation: a letdown, a recognition that the thing I had been looking forward to for so long was past. I had seen it. I could see it again (and did, multiple times), but it would no longer be new. It's that way with all greatly anticipated events: the build-up, the moment, the letdown. Of the three phases, the actual experience has by far the shortest duration.

Personal history aside, the movie with the greatest worldwide anticipation in my lifetime has unquestionably been The Phantom Menace. Ignoring issues of quality, there was no doubt that it was not only the most hotly anticipated release of the year but of the last 30 years. The build-up had started in one form or another as early as 1983 and hit a fever pitch in the mid-'90s when it was announced that Lucas was starting pre-production. The website Ain't It Cool News owes its existence to The Phantom Menace. For anyone under the age of 17, it's difficult to imagine how overheated the marketing campaign became. Everyone had to see it. Had it opened today, when first weekend binges have become commonplace, it would have made $200M in its first few days. (Its actual adjusted first weekend gross was $101M.) The Phantom Menace followed the expected path: overheated expectations, event, massive letdown. And, because so many fans were underwhelmed by the production, the hangover was that much deeper and most long-lasting. The festering anti-Lucas ill-will had its genesis in 1999. Before then, he was mostly regarded as a hero and an all-around good guy.

The pattern is the same for all big movies, especially those with an established fan base. Hollywood has found a way to exploit the build-up phase through increased marketing and media awareness. "Event" motion pictures used to be few and far between. Now, especially during the summer, they happen regularly. One thing I have discovered is that it's usually not the biggest movies that provide the most lasting satisfaction (there are exceptions, of course). Smaller films, especially those that "sneak" into theaters with little or no marketing, can provide the best theatrical experience because there's no letdown or hangover. Those movies are allowed to stand on their own. They do not suffer from being overhyped and their perceived success is not defined by their opening weekend gross.

The power of the letdown has proven integral to the Hollywood business plan. While no one has suggested that the antidote to the post-Christmas blues is to replicate the holiday three or four times per year, the movie industry has done something like that. What better way than to distract a rabid public from a post-blockbuster letdown than to start the hype for the next big movie? So, in summer 2012, the superhero genre gave us The Avengers in early May. Before the dust had settled, The Amazing Spider-Man was in the hype barrel. Now, all the attention is being focused on The Dark Knight Rises, which is probably the most anticipated major movie in three or four years. Things will be just as intense in the November/December period: Skyfall, Breaking Dawn Part 2, The Hobbit Part 1. One after another, allowing movie fans to delay, if not escape, the letdown.

The flip side to this is that too much of a good thing can mute expectations. If Christmas was a weekly event, no one would much care about it. The holiday's specialness comes from its relative infrequency (if once per year can be considered "infrequent"). Likewise, if there's a big, must-see movie opening every week, it won't take long before it's difficult to generate any kind of juice for the biggest and brightest. A kind of fatigue sets in. There's a law of diminishing returns at work. That's one possibility for why studios never release their biggest titles after mid-July (July 20 is actually a little late). The stated reason is that they don't want to open films when families are on vacation, but July is a bigger vacation month than August. The real reason is that many people are "movied-out" by July 31. It's possible to score big in August (especially early August), but not $300M+ big.

In its quest to achieve the #1 box office spot for 2012, The Dark Knight Rises has an uphill battle. Even if it matches or slightly exceeds The Avengers in total number of admissions, it will slot into the #2 position. The Avengers will end up with a gross of about $650M domestic (unless a rumored "Director's Cut" is thrown into theaters in August - then the total will increase substantially), but an estimated $90-100M of that is from 3-D surcharges. Thankfully, The Dark Knight Rises is not available in 3-D, so that $100M will be almost impossible to make up. Roughly 12 million additional tickets would need to be sold for The Dark Knight Rises for its gross to match that of The Avengers. That is unlikely to happen.

Still, nothing has stopped the hype, and the level of excitement for The Dark Knight Rises is as high as one could imagine at this juncture of the year. July 20 is looking a lot like December 25. People are atwitter with anticipation; theaters will be packed. For big movie fans, however, this will be the last hurrah. A harsh downtime awaits - an August-September-October with only medium-level offerings to whet the appetite. People will see The Bourne Legacy and The Expendables 2, but how many fans are doing countdowns to their openings? That's the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One is a pleasant diversion. The other is an event.

In a strange way, however, even the letdown has a certain charm to it. Yes, there's a peculiar emptiness. Something building for weeks or months has evaporated, but the memories remain, often divorced from the actual experience of seeing the movie. Consider The Phantom Menace, which is regarded in many circles as an abject failure. Yet man, even those disappointed by the product, treasure their memories of the build-up. Fellowship, speculation, and savoring the media saturation - those things happen no matter how good the movie is and the memories remain largely untainted, especially after a long period of time has passed. And maybe that's why I have so many strong childhood memories of Christmas Eve and so few recollections of Christmas Day.