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All I want for Christmas is a Hollywood blockbuster

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Some movie fans who await Christmas Day movie openings will be stuck in the middle of cinema closures due to COVID-19 and streaming restrictions. Here, a still from ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’

This year’s Christmas movie superhero will shelter at home with viewers in the United States. But Canadians will have to wait a while longer to stream the eagerly awaited and long-delayed Wonder Woman sequel.

WarnerMedia has announced it will launch Wonder Woman 1984 in both movie theatres and on HBO Max on Christmas day in the U.S. But it’s not being released for streaming in Canada at this time. In Canada, the movie will only show in whichever movie theatres remain open after second-wave COVID-19 closures.

Going to movies during the Christmas holidays has been a time-honoured tradition and, before COVID-19, a financially important one for movie theatre owners planning to attract crowds.

The days of enjoying the company of friends among strangers in movie lineups seem as remote as the paradise of Wonder Woman’s Amazon island. Instead, we need the TV remote for Amazon Prime.

The movie business was already hard-hit by COVID-19, and the decision to simultaneously release a would-be Christmas blockbuster in cinemas and via streaming hit the industry like a bombshell. Warner Bros. plans to launch all its 2021 movies the same way as Wonder Woman 1984 in the U.S.: both in-cinema and exclusively on HBO Max for 31 days.

For film fans like me, beyond how COVID-19 puts the financial viability of making and showing movies at risk, what’s also threatened is discerning hype from promise as we consider how to keep movies part of holiday traditions this year. The fact that parsing streaming options has now become an integral part of movie watching may seem like yet another impact of COVID-19. But, in reality, commentary about what to watch and how new media technologies shape viewing has always enthralled audiences.

Early days of movies

In the early days of moving pictures, theatres were open on Christmas Day, unlike Sundays and other days off. The Chicago Tribune published special holiday advertising in 1915, wishing “a Merry Christmas to motion picture fans.” In 1922, Universal promoted a special “Yuletide Joy Week” for its pictures.

Movie ads on Christmas Day in 1915. Photo credit: The Chicago Tribune.

Through my research into the interplay of movie-going and newspapers, I’ve found theatres offering special charity picture shows and children’s matinees during the holidays as early as 1903.

Since the 1940s, Hollywood has released special movies on Christmas Day to make the most of captive audiences with people on holidays. Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut who wrote A Kosher Christmas recently discussed a Jewish history of movie-going at Christmas with Vox:

It was a day off from work, so what do you do? You can stay home, or you can go to the nickelodeons, or the Yiddish theatre. Eventually, decades later, you could go have a meal in a Chinese restaurant.”

To refer to a phrase that’s inspired tongue-in-cheek headlines for its resonance with age-old movie review clichés, “if you see only one movie a year,” it’s likely to be during the holidays, and perhaps with the entire family.

Box office charts

This Christmas, as many people’s movie watching will involve channel surfing from their couches, it’s clear the whole system of deciding what to watch has shifted during COVID-19.

Before now, simply knowing what movies screen in theatres and how such movies fare in box office rankings have functioned as one kind of quality control.

A computerized tally of movie theatres’ box office revenue began in 1969, giving Hollywood an equivalent of radio’s “hit parade.” On April 16, 1969, Variety reported how it had been working “closely … with a computer service bureau, so that the chart, as it will appear in the paper, is actually a printout from an IBM 360 that already stores and updates its weekly input of information on each picture and title as well as by market and theatre.”

The article explained how the new chart would sample 650 to 800 theatres in 24 key markets in the U.S. and Canada to produce a weekly list of 50 top-grossing films tabulated through movie ticket sales. The sample captured five per cent to seven per cent of all movie theatres, but enough to accurately and quickly predict the total earned across all of North America.

Some viewers may judge a movie by its box office success, while others turn to film critics’ opinions, award nominations or websites that aggregate reviews.

Movie commentary

The first newspaper commentary about cinema goes back to reporters getting previews of new technologies that could project moving pictures.

In my research on publicity for Thomas Edison’s early film projector, the Vitascope, I found news published across the U.S. from a press screening held early in April 1896, three weeks before the first pictures were shown to an eager, paying public in New York. I found stories about cinema in town and village newspapers where movies didn’t appear until a year or more later.

Reporting about cinema has made many of us “movie-crazy” ever since, including reports on past crises that confronted the movie industry with each new home entertainment — radio, then television, cable, home video and now streaming.

Today, commentary provided by movie critics, industry-sanctioned signals like awards, film festival runs or tips from trusted sources have become more important than ever. How else would we know which of the endless options are worth watching and where to watch?

Even before COVID-19, the movie industry faced challenges from home entertainment. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Coming soon?

There’s likely to be little holiday movie-going in 2020. Some wonder if there will be a future for movie-going at all if cinemas can’t turn a profit until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available — and if streaming habits don’t subside with the pandemic.

Vanity Fair reports that the pandemic’s cinematic ripples are projected to delay some planned releases for years, with Avatar and Star Wars sequels now postponed to between 2022 and 2028.

Still, it’s unfathomable that Disney would launch those blockbusters online — although it’s easy to imagine rebranding a bankrupt chain of cinemas as a local, miniature Disney++ theme park.

My advance ticket for Star Wars Episode 12 in December 2028 is all but in hand, but I’ll also eagerly await the reviews.