Have a Very Heavy Christmas at the Movies

This year's holiday movies bring a heavy dose of reality
December 18, 2014 Updated: December 22, 2014

NEW YORK—It used to be that come Christmas Day we could expect either Tim Allen, Will Ferrell, or Adam Sandler at the movies, dressed in green or red velvet. This year, not only do we not have a tinsel-and-Santa-suit option, but the box office also leans dark, with a heavy dose of reality.

Among wide releases coming out on Dec. 25 is the Angelina Jolie-directed “Unbroken,” about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II. Two other based-on-real-life titles have limited releases: “American Sniper” and “Selma,” respectively about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, America’s deadliest sniper, and Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s three rather in-your-face films this Christmas, an uncharacteristically high number compared to Christmas Days in the last decade. Bruce Nash explains the reasons. He’s the founder and analyst of The Numbers, a film industry data tracking website.

1. The Oscars

“All three films are really looking at the Oscars,” Nash said in a phone interview. “It might be a little of a coincidence that they’re all true stories. That’s what you’ll often see in a Oscar-hopeful film or something that captures the moment in history.”

In order to qualify for the next Oscars, a film must be shown in commercial theaters (specifically in Los Angeles County) during the 2014 calendar year. Christmas weekend is just about as late as a studio can push it and still qualify.

2. Christmas Is on a Thursday

Because Thursday is not a big opening day, instead of aiming to cash in on a one-off Christmas-themed movie, studios are playing for longevity, Nash said. All three of these films are meant to be seen well into next year.

“There’s a lack of obvious seasonal fare this year,” Nash said, speaking about the holiday season generally. “I guess ‘Annie’ fits that category. ‘Frozen’ last year fit that. There’s less this year because big studios are reducing the number of films they are making. They are focusing on tentpoles. They’re making fewer risky films.”

3. Christmas Comes Earlier Each Year

The Christmas lights go up the day after Halloween now, haven’t you noticed? So too do Christmas movies.

“Over time, studios moved Christmas-appropriate movies back. They started coming out in November,” Nash said. “If a film has a particular Christmas theme and is expected to play well, they will move it earlier to give maximum time to recoup the investment.”


A Decade of Christmas Day Releases

Looking back on the socially and politically-themed, based-on-true-story films releasing on Dec. 25 in years past.

(Source: The-Numbers.com and IMDB.com)


  • The Gambler (Wide)
  • Into the Woods (Wide)
  • Unbroken (Wide)— In WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini is captured by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. 
  • American Sniper (Limited)— Chris Kyle is the deadliest Navy SEAL sniper. After four tours of duty, he is haunted by war.
  • Big Eyes (Limited)
  • Selma (Oscar Qualifying Run)—Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches of Selma, Ala.
    Reality factor: 43%


  • 47 Ronin
  • August: Osage County
  • Grudge Match
  • The Invisible Woman
  • Justin Bieber’s Believe
  • Lone Survivor—Marcus Luttrell sets out to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
    Reality factor: 13%


  • Django Unchained—A freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal plantation owner.
  • Les Miserables
  • Parental Guidance
  • Ta-weo
  • West of Memphis—An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three.
    Reality factor: 40%


  • The Darkest Hour
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—A nine-year-old searches for the lock to a key left by his father who died during the Sept. 11 attacks.
  • War Horse—A young Englishman enlists in World War I after his beloved horse is sold to the cavalry.
    Reality factor: 67%


  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • L’illusionniste
    Reality factor: 0%


  • The Girl Who Played With Fire
  • The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
  • It’s Complicated
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Sita Sings the Blues
    Reality factor: 0%


  • Bedtime Stories
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Ghajini
  • Last Chance Harvey
  • Marley & Me
  • The Spirit
  • Valkyrie—A dramatization of the political coup plot by desperate renegade German Army officers against Hitler.
  • Waltz with Bashir—An Israeli film director interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
    Reality factor: 25%


  • Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem
  • The Bucket List
  • Shattered (Butterfly on a Wheel)
  • The Great Debaters—Based on the story of a Wiley College Texas professor who inspired students to form the school’s first debate team.
  • Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust—The history of Hollywood’s handling of the Nazis and its later depiction of the Holocaust they perpetrated.
  • Persepolis
  • The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
    Reality factor: 29%


  • Black Christmas
  • Children of Men
  • Notes on a Scandal
    Reality factor: 0%


  • Casanova
  • The New World—The story of the English exploration of Virginia, and of the changing world and loves of Pocahontas.
  • Rumor Has It
  • Wolf Creek
    Reality factor: 25%


  • Darkness
  • Fat Albert
    Reality factor: 0%