Los Angeles - Despite critical acclaim and massive promotional budgets, a wave of anti-Santa holiday pictures floundered at the box office over the Thanksgiving opening weekend, leading some entertainment industry analysts to question whether Hollywood had overestimated the American public's loathing for the Claus administration and a seemingly endless shopping season.
"I'm not sure what went wrong," said Jeff Bell of the MPAA after the release of the weekend Nielsen/EDI movie box office figures. "With all the griping you hear about the holidays, it stood to reason that people would flock to theaters for a chance to vent their hatred at that fat red fascist bastard. I blame illegal downloaders."
Whatever the reason, the financial results were grim.
"Kringle's List," starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts in a cautionary tale of rogue elf agents inside the North Pole's illegal Naughty and Nice wiretapping operation, led the pack of anti-Claus releases with weekend receipts of $68,500, for a $26 per-screen average. The film's take was only good for a #34 showing overall, just behind the limited arthouse re-release of the 1965 Don Knotts classic "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," but studio spokesman Rob Foulet said the film could eventually recoup its $180 million production budget through strong word-of-mouth and a new advertising campaign that downplays the film's elfin geopolitical psychodrama in favor of Miss Roberts' breasts.
"We're not saying she has a nude scene in the film, but we're not saying she doesn't," said Foulet. "That's up to the ticket buyers to find out."
A similar fate befell "In the Valley of Elves," TriStar's $80 million claymation remake of the 1964 Rankin-Bass classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." With an all-star cast including Tommy Lee Jones as Dasher, a reindeer father haunted when his naive red-nosed son Rudolph (Ryan Phillipe) volunteers for a dangerous rooftop mission only to be killed by Santa (Javier Bardem) in a friendly fireplace incident, the film's strong Oscar buzz was expected to carry it to a big opening weekend. Instead, the fog-of-Christmas-Eve drama could only muster $24,813 from 2,505 screens. One Tri-Star executive blamed the disappointing receipts in part on the the film's R rating and controversial interspecies gay love scene between Rudolph and Herbie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young elf who undergoes a sexual and dentistry awakening.
Star power was also unable to save Sundance Films' "Dialog On 34th Street," Writer/ Producer/ Director/ Star/ Costume Designer/ Makeup Artist Robert Redford's take on the Christmas quagmire. Just last month the film had a triumphant debut for Redford at Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it brought home Best Picture and earned Redford the Golden Redford for his portrayal of a young, gauzily-lit rugged dissident intellectual cowboy filmmaker who exposes the lies told by a department store Santa Claus (Tom Cruise) to a cynical 7-year old girl (Meryl Streep). During its national weekend opening, however, it was only able to generate $7,425 in tickets sales, a figure which some industry analyst said would not cover the film's advertising budget, let alone the CGI and spackle cost for Mr. Redford's closeup scenes. The film may have also suffered from lukewarm reviews that faulted its overly cerebral tone, and 68-minute laptop dialog between Cruise and Streep.
Faring even worse was "The Midnight Polar Express," Searchlight's $250 million computer animation tale starring Reese Witherspoon as a mother whose children are falsely accused of naughtiness, abducted to the North Pole on a magical rendition train, and taken to Chrismo Island where they are iceboarded by a sadistic Santa's Helper (Sean Penn). Its five-day weekend take was an anemic $3216, or $1.47 per screen. While clearly disappointed in the results, Searchlight studio spokeswoman Renee Sachs said that the film would make up some of the shortfall through merchandising tie-ins, like the new MPE torture toy Happy Meal at McDonalds.
"Collect all six!" said Sachs.
The most controversial of the new releases, Brian De Palma's "Red on Green," also proved to be the weekend's biggest financial disappointment. The film's documentary-style depiction of brutal gang rapes, genital torture, and candy cane stabbings by North Pole workers earned critical raves and a Palm d'Or award for De Palma when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year, but the positive advanced notices were not enough to fill theater seats. According to Nielsen/EDI the film generated only $18.00 in box office receipts -- apparently two tickets sold to DePalma and producer Mark Cuban -- and was later revised downward to $9.00 after Cuban asked for a refund.
De Palma defended the film's weak opening box office, noting that it was based on only 15 screens in New York, Los Angeles, and Pyongyang.
"I think it'll really break out when we open in Dallas," said De Palma. "We're giving away free Dirk Nowitzki posters to the first 500,000 ticket buyers!"
"I have a Palm d'Or award," added De Palma.
Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who gave glowing, 5-star reviews to each of the films, said he was not surprised by their poor financial performance.
"It's sad, but hopefully these wonderful films will do much better in the overseas market," said Ebert. "No matter how much down inside they know how Christmas is wrong, and Santa is wrong, it's hard for Americans to see their elves portrayed in a balanced, realistic way, as tragically haunted sadistic pederasts. By contrast European filmgoers are much more sophisticated and educated, so they eat that shit right up."
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, another enthusiastic review of the films, agreed.
"These new films are complex and challenge our cherished assumptions about Christmas," said Scott. "But American audiences can't deal with anything that isn't mindless escapism. Americans want their movies simple, with fart jokes and boobies. Face it, west of the Hudson this country is a vast group home of 300 million drooling retards. No matter how many times you pile them in the shortbus, drive them to the mall, and herd them into the cineplex to watch a daring, groundbreaking film that fearlessly points out just what a bunch of violent, soulless retards they really are, before you can collect their ticket money they've escaped and gone wandering off to spend it all at Hot Topic and Sports Authority."
Despite the disappointing weekend showing, MPAA spokesman Bell said that industry still has high hopes for 17 more anti-Santa films that will open nationwide this weekend, including "The Reindeer Hunter," "Shop Loss," and Quentin Tarantino's much anticipated "Workshop of Blood."
"Chances are, one of them will be a hit," said Bell. "There's got to be a pony in there somewhere."
Related: The Reel World