Go early and beat the rush.
The Australian tradition of Boxing Day as the biggest cinema-going day of the year is shifting ground as the summer’s big movies are either released or given extensive preview screenings before Christmas.
For the third year in a row, the reignited Star Wars franchise has delivered a new movie two weeks before Christmas. And as with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, The Last Jedi is virtually guaranteed to be the biggest movie of the holidays.
Blockbusters have opened in mid-December before – Titanic and Avatar among them – but all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, plus such Hollywood hits as Frozen and Meet the Fockers, were all held back until Boxing Day.
The industry thinking was that once all the presents had been unwrapped, the festive tables cleared and the celebrations were winding down, Australians were ready to head to the cinema.
After all, anticipation for a new Peter Jackson movie or Disney animation had been building for months. And for many of us, Boxing Day is still the first chance to relax into the holidays.
The movies are also an outing with family or friends. An excuse to get away from the dining table and the wreckage of the lounge room. Sometimes an escape from a stressful family situation. And it can be a holiday treat by splashing out on a premium session such as Hoyts’ Luxe or Gold Class at Event and Village.
But Disney’s acquisition of movie brands – Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilm and now 20th Century Fox – is changing the game.
While many of us are struggling to wrap up work, studies and shopping, turning a new Star Wars movie into an event before Christmas means the studio avoids competing against the traditional Disney or Pixar animated family movie out on Boxing Day.
This year Pixar’s Coco is expected to be one of the hits of the holidays.
In art-house cinemas, distributors have taken the tip, too. While the French comedy Just to Be Sure is nominally a Boxing Day release, it is getting two full weekends of advance screenings before it opens.
Publicity and what the industry calls “word of mouth” build up awareness of a film, which helps it find a place among the crowded line-up of new releases.
And it is certainly crowded this year.
With Christmas on Monday, the action comedy Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is getting preview screenings on the weekend.
And two other movies that are sure to be popular, the family sequel Paddington 2 and the Oscar-contending American drama The Florida Project, open five days before Boxing Day to beat the rush.
With all the intense competition in entertainment, including the rise of streaming services, the cinema industry is having to be strategic to counter declining ticket sales.
They worked out years ago that premium screenings, including giant screen and 3D sessions, encourage us to spend more each cinema visit.
While the top standard ticket has nudged up to $23 in some multiplexes, other cinemas are discounting prices to attract viewers.
The general manager of entertainment at Event Cinemas, Luke Mackey, thinks the line-up of films will make it “a pretty good Christmas” for cinemas.
But he recognises it has become even more important for films to become “events” to attract an audience.
“People are looking for something special,” Mackey says. “Something unique – making something special and giving people an additional reason to come out is going to become increasingly important.”
Even if it is an exceptional Christmas for ticket sales, annual box office is still expected to be down by 3 to 4 per cent on last year’s record $1.259 billion.
Early this month, it was down 6 per cent on the corresponding period last year, reflecting that Hollywood has delivered some disappointing blockbusters this year, including Transformers: The Last Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Mummy, Baywatch, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Monster Trucks and Justice League.
But with the exception of Beauty and the Beast, even the hits have taken less than would have been expected two years ago.
The managing director of Sony Pictures Australia, Stephen Basil-Jones, believes this shows the impact of streaming services.
“The quality and number of great programs has really signalled that they’re a force to be reckoned with,” he says. “Particularly in the drama area for adults, you have to have something compelling and cinema-worthy to take them on. It’s a new challenge for our industry to compete against.”
While Basil-Jones concedes July to September was “pretty grim”, he is optimistic about the Boxing Day line-up, especially for Jumanji.
“I think it’s going to be terrific,” he says. “There’s a film for everyone.”
Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Director: With a background in visual effects and commercials, Australian Michael Gracey is making his film directing debut.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron.
The story: After losing his job, P. T. Barnum brings together performers of all descriptions to create the famous Barnum & Bailey circus.
Rating and length: PG, 105 minutes.
Who it’s for: Fans of Our Hugh, musicals and colourful entertainment.
Buzz: A feelgood musical that is a Hugh Jackman passion project, with music by La La Land’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Director: Lee Unkrich, whose strong track record includes Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2 and 3, with screenwriter-storyboard artist Adrian Molina
Stars: Voices of Benjamin Bratt, Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garc??a Bernal
The story: A 12-year-old Mexican boy’s quest to play guitar like his hero, despite his family’s long-time opposition, sees him trapped in the land of the dead.
Rating and timing: PG, 105 minutes
Who it’s for: Fans of Pixar movies
Buzz: The studio has delivered yet again with a vibrant comic celebration of Mexican culture.
Kristen Wiig plays Audrey Safranek, Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, Maribeth Monroe plays Carol Johnson and Jason Sudeikis plays Dave Johnson in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.
Director: Alexander Payne of Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska fame.
Stars: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau.
Rating and timing: M, 135 minutes.
The story: After scientists discover how to shrink people as a solution to over-population, a couple abandon their stressed lives in Omaha to move into a tiny community.
Who it’s for: Fans of adult dramas and Payne’s films.
Buzz: It’s a thought-provoking parable about a modern-day Lilliput.
Director: Andy Serkis, Gollum himself, who is making his film directing debut.
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville.
The story: Based on the real-life parents of producer Jonathan Cavendish, a love story about adventurous couple who have rich inspiring lives despite a polio diagnosis.
Rating and timing: M, 118 minutes.
Who it’s for: Fans of romance and inspirational greeting cards.
Buzz: Very British, very sentimental.
Kevin Hart (Franklin “Moose” Finbar), Karen Gillan (Ruby Roundhouse) Jack Black (Professor Shelly Oberon) and Dwayne Johnson (Dr. Smolder Bravestone) star in Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Director: Jake Kasdan, best known for the Cameron Diaz comedies Bad Teacher and Sex Tape.
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas.
The story: In an action-fantasy sequel to 1995’s Jumanji, four teenagers discover an old video-game-console and get sucked into a jungle with adult avatars.
Rating and length: PG, 119 minutes.
Who it’s for: Fans of action comedies, the Rock and Jack Black.
Buzz: It’s had a mixed reception by critics, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it “an enjoyable modernisation” of the Jumanji children’s book and Variety dismissing it as “trash”.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Director: Luca Guadagnino, the Italian director of I Am Love and A Bigger Splash
Stars: Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet
The story: A romantic coming-of-age drama – adapted from a novel by Andre Aciman – about a 17-year-old boy’s first love with an American student who stays with his family in Italy in 1983.
Rating and length: M, 132 minutes.
Who it’s for: Fans of love stories, affecting dramas and LGBTI films.
Buzz: The acclaim has included numerous top 10 lists of the year’s best films and three Golden Globe nominations – for best motion picture drama and the acting of its two stars.
JUST TO BE SURE
Director: Carine Tardieu, the French director best known for The Dandelions.
Stars: Francois Damiens, Cecile de France, Guy Marchand, Andre Wilms.
The story: Sharp French comedy about lonely 45-year-old bomb disposal expert, a widower who has to deal with a pregnant daughter while searching for his own biological father.
Rating and timing: M, 100 minutes.
Who it’s for: Fans of French films and intelligent comic tales.
Buzz: Well-acted charmer about the complications of families.
DOCTOR WHO: TWICE UPON A TIME
Director: Rachel Talalay who has moved into TV – including the Dr Who series – since the films Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Tank Girl.
Stars: Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whittaker, David Bradley.
The story: This Christmas special is the last appearance of Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor – he joins the First Dr on an adventure involving aliens stealing victims from frozen time – before the arrival of Whittaker as number 13.
Rating and timing: M, 103 minutes including two shorts.
Who it’s for: Hardcore Doctor Who fans given it’s also on TV.
Buzz: One British review called it “a surprisingly slight tale”, beefed up by special features celebrating Capaldi’s time as the Dr and Steven Moffat’s as showrunner and lead writer.
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