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Hollywood left you a big lump of coal this year.
Christmas might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s becoming a pretty bad day to go the movies. This holiday, moviegoers have a full slate to pick from: between yet another Night at the Museum sequel, the Annie remake, and The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s increasingly controversial comedy about assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. The problem is that they’re turning out not to be very good. Last week’s onslaught of leaked Sony emails revealed that execs have been worried about the release of The Interview for months, calling the film “desperately unfunny.” Early reviews seem to agree. Variety remarked that The Interview is as “funny as a communist food shortage.”
But The Interview isn’t the only Sony leak that’s going over poorly with critics: Easy A director Will Gluck’s modern Annie update is getting dogpiled on by reviewers. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls it a “toxic mess,” while the Newark Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty quips, “Think you’ve got a hard-knock life? Try sitting through the new Annie.” In other impending trainwrecks, Slant magazine’s Drew Hunt calls Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb “an uncomfortably transparent contractual obligation,” while Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which appears to be campaigning for the Best Picture Oscar of 1982, is getting lukewarm reviews. The New Yorker’s David Denby warns that it’s “an interminable, redundant, unnecessary epic devoted to suffering, suffering, suffering.”
Even the new movies from once beloved auteurs Peter Jackson and Tim Burton are underwhelming. While Battle of the Five Armies appears to be continuing the series’ tradition of being pretty OK as far as bloated cash-grabs go, bad buzz has been surrounding Burton’s Big Eyes for months. The film, about the fight for ownership over the famed Keane paintings of young girls with saucer eyes, has proven so “divisive” among critics that the film’s star, Amy Adams, may earn a rare Oscar snub. Since her breakout performance in 2005’s Junebug earned her first nominations, Adams has scored four more, tying Meryl Streep for the most bids in that stretch. After getting freezed out at the SAG and Critics Choice nominations, Adams and her movie may get left behind.
This begs the question: What the hell is going on here? When did Christmas become a secret dumping ground at the multiplex?
Dump time is usually reserved for January and February, when studios release their most tortured creations into the wild. No one is going to the movies anyway, so who cares? Last year’s garbage season offerings included the long-delayed I, Frankenstein, and 2015 will bring us the routinely pushed-back Jupiter Ascending, featuring Channing Tatum as an albino vigilante with a vaguely British accent and Mila Kunis as a Russian space princess. But Christmas has more than its own fair share of sins for which to atone. Last Christmas brought us Labor Day, Grudge Match, 47 Ronin, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while previous Yuletides have unleashed such monsters as The Darkest Hour, Parental Guidance, Gulliver’s Travels, Bedtime Stories, The Spirit, and It’s Complicated.
But here’s the thing: Despite being pandering crap, a number of those movies did really well anyway. Bedtime Stories and It’s Complicated both grossed over $100 million, while Parental Guidance outgrossed Judd Apatow’s higher-profile This Is 40 en route to becoming a surprising box office hit, even though almost no one remembers having seen it. This trend likely began in 2004 when Hollywood learned just how much money you can make out of middling dung if you happen to release it while everyone’s in a good mood. Universal’s Meet the Fockers debuted three days before the holiday, earning a whopping $151 million by the new year. I saw that movie on Christmas, and trust me, it plays a lot better with a couple glasses of eggnog in you.
That charitable Christmas spirit is a savvy marketing tool when you’re trying to launch a decent movie that maybe didn’t quite meet studio expectations. Last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street was B-grade Scorsese at best, derivative of his finest work, and David Fincher’s perfectly fine adaptation The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo suffered from comparisons to the Swedish original, released just two years before the American version hit theatres. Both of them seemed unlikely Christmas choices, but a two-and-a-half-hour techno thriller that strongly features sexual assault and Nazism was always going to be a tough sell. With a Christmas launching pad, they both eked past the century mark at the box office, despite being polarizing among audiences. Studios may be using that same strategy this year for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods, neither of which are great or as bad as you might have feared (given their directors’ recent output).
Both Wolf of Wall Street and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were good movies that deserved to find an audience (how wide of one is up for you to decide), but Christmas’ built-in viewership, as we see from this year’s slate, has the tendency to slap a bunch of lipstick on some real pigs. Christmas is the second-biggest moviegoing day of the year (after Thanksgiving), and the idea is to shovel a bunch of crap in theaters no one would otherwise watch, like an in-flight movie without the benefit of travel. Not everyone will be able to buy a ticket to The Hobbit, so maybe some of those folks will end up in Big Eyes. After all, the kids love Tim Burton. And if parents drop their middle-schoolers off in Annie, they might be tempted to check out The Interview, just to see what all the fuss is about. If North Korea threatened to nuke us over it, it’s gotta be good, right?
There’s a saying that the rising tide lifts all boats, but that doesn’t really work if all the boats are filled with holes, as the covert Christmas dump strategy fails as often as it works out. Keanu Reeves’ misbegotten samurai movie 47 Ronin reportedly lost its studio $100 million (hell, even China didn’t want to see it), and The Spirit was an embarrassing box office flop, one so costly that rumors suggest its failure singlehandedly tanked Frank Miller’s Buck Rogers movie. While recouping its budget overseas, the failure of Gulliver’s Travels all but ended Jack Black’s Hollywood career in the U.S.—although Black has found indie success in Richard Linklater’s off-kilter murder comedy Bernie. And the less said about that Fat Albert movie, the better.
Releasing your worst holiday fare in bulk hasn’t worked any better over Thanksgiving—where Homefront and the remakes of Oldboy and Red Dawn were left to die—because there’s no substitute for making a good movie. If there’s any lingering question from the Sony emails, except maybe how Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin sleep at night, it’s why the studio doesn’t simply release better films. Emails further detailed the ongoing saga of Cameron Crowe’s yet-to-be-released movie, hilariously known at one point as Deep Tiki. According to Pascal, the movie was always bad, and the situation has only gotten worse. Pascal writes, “I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous. And we all know it.” Why did they fund it in the first place then? And why did no one step in to stop it? That movie was, of course, originally set to debut this Christmas.
There are a million reasons you shouldn’t go to the movies on the holidays, from long lines at the cinema to parking lot traffic made even more irritating when you’re listening to “Feliz Navidad” for the 20th time. You should stay home to unplug, give up your screens for a day, and spend actual time the people you’ve bought a very expensive plane ticket to see—or you can blow off your family, after they all inevitably fall asleep from turkey coma, and go get drunk with old friends instead. But whatever you do, stay far, far away from the multiplex. Some might joke that there’s nothing like a family to ruin a perfectly good Christmas, but those people haven’t seen Annie yet.
Photo via Sony/YouTube
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.