Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas disowned

If you're selling something and there's even the flimsiest way to tie it in to Christmas, wouldn't you take that opportunity?

Not if you're the distributors of the 2005 movie The Family Stone.

More on that in a moment.

Around Christmastime each year, the conversation among film fans inevitably turns to the greatest Christmas movies of all time. Because it's been a notoriously weak genre, I always contend in these discussions that there are exactly three classic Christmas movies: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Elf. I'm sure I'm drastically oversimplifying things (I haven't seen a number of the prominent Christmas movies from the 1940s and 1950s), and you could also argue that It's a Wonderful Life was never intended to be a Christmas movie. But I can never think of another title that I would elevate to this Christmas Valhalla beyond those three.

The discussion does get me thinking about the second-tier Christmas movies, the ones you really like, even love, but are not prominent enough to enter any discussion about the genre's touchstone films. One I might put forward is The Family Stone, Thomas Bezucha's generally unheralded 2005 film, whose all-star cast (seen above) suggests it should have gotten a lot more attention than it did. I really enjoyed this film, though part of that could be because it presents my idealized version of a modern liberal family (dysfunctional though they may be).

So when I saw it on sale last weekend at Target, it seemed a perfect choice for someone on my Christmas list (I'll remain vague who it is, on the off chance they're reading this).

Tuesday night I went to wrap it, and happened to scan the back of the DVD to read the two short paragraphs providing a plot description and evidence of critical praise. They are as follows:

"An incredible all-star cast shines in this deliriously funny comedy that 'balances heart and humor' (Houston Chronicle) with a 'sharp comic edge' (Rolling Stone)! Featuring Sarah Jessica Parker in a Golden Globe-nominated role, The Family Stone is 'engaging, enticing [and] first-rate' (Los Angeles Times)!

Corporate executive Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) is as uptight and ultra-conservative as her pin-striped designer suit. Her boyfriend Everett Stone's (Dermot Mulroney) family are as relaxed and quirky as their aging New England Colonial. So when Meredith ventures out of Manhattan to meet Everett's clan, it's no wonder her arrival is met with all the enthusiasm of a nasty Nor'easter. But one surprise guest, two shocking romances and several beers later, Meredith's icy exterior begins to thaw ... and she may just melt the hearts of the Family Stone!"

This description makes the movie sound pretty lame, but it's about what I expect from the ad copy on the back of a DVD. These things are always written by people with an excessive fondness for exclamation points.

What's more troubling: No mention of Christmas whatsoever.

And it's not like this movie is only tangentially about Christmas. The whole movie takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, if I remember correctly -- in any case, the action starts no earlier than December 23rd. The whole lumpy Stone clan is gathered for Christmas, their area of Connecticut is blanketed in snow, and logistics related to Christmas comprise much of the action.

Yet Fox, which released The Family Stone, used the back of the DVD to play up a clash between political dispositions, which is really only a minor part of the story. (My wife and I actually went to a special screening of the movie on the Fox lot back when it was released.) Apparently, Fox had no interest whatsoever in any of the fringe benefits of being a Christmas movie.

My conclusion? The decision was made to help immediate DVD sales, since right after its release is when a studio can expect to make the most money on a DVD.

Unlike many Christmas movies, The Family Stone did not wait until the following November to come out on DVD. After a December 16, 2005 theatrical release (which, granted, is already very late in the season for a Christmas movie), the movie hit DVD for the first time the following April 17th. And it's true, at that time, its status as a holiday film would have very little value to the buying public. (Speaking of Elf, I just had an argument with someone yesterday about their decision to watch Elf for the first time in the month of April. When this person didn't end up liking the movie, I argued that she had set herself up to fail.)

While I get why they did it, the problem is, it brands The Family Stone as not a Christmas movie for the rest of its existence, therefore minimizing all potential future holiday sales. Could they really have thought that this movie would fly off the shelves in April of 2006? Wouldn't it have been better to sit on it for another seven months, then try to play up the Christmas angle (which wouldn't even need playing up, since the movie is all about Christmas) and try to establish this as a word-of-mouth favorite? Retailers will always be looking to sell Christmas movies to people each November, so The Family Stone could have been a modest seller for years to come, and maybe even outperformed that modest level if it caught on with people. That's also a time of year when shoppers are not particularly selective about what they buy, as long as they can check someone off their list. You could say that I myself did not buy this movie selectively -- I made the decision to buy it in under a minute. But I was only able to do that because I happened to already know that it was a Christmas movie -- which most people never will. (I know what you're now thinking -- "Vance, was it being marketed alongside other Christmas movies?" I don't think it was -- though its position of prominence probably meant that someone at Target chose to feature it specifically because it takes place at Christmastime.)

You could say they didn't really know what to do with The Family Stone from the start. Here was the original poster for it:

So not only were they not pushing the Christmas angle in the original advertising campaign, they were actually making it seem like some kind of assault on good taste, which it isn't. You could argue that they were trying to appeal to a darker Christmas audience, the kind that had made Bad Santa a modest hit two years earlier. But if that's what they were trying to do, wouldn't they have chosen at least some iconography related to the holiday?

Maybe Fox was just uncomfortable with this movie's politics, and having found themselves unwittingly in bed with a film that turned out differently than they expected, wanted to do what they could to bury it. After all, Bezucha presents Sarah Jessica Parker pretty unsympathetically here. It won't be spoiling much to say that she doesn't finish the movie as a one-dimensional stereotype, but she certainly starts out that way. Plus, the whole thrust of this movie is to sing the praises of the liberal mindset and make conservatives seem stiff and humorless. That couldn't have sat well at Fox corporate.

In this post I've been talking about seeing movies in a context that gets the most out of them, but as I conclude, I'm realizing that we are always setting people up to fail when we buy them Christmas movies for Christmas. I think you'd agree that the best time to see a Christmas movie is in the month leading up to December 25th. But when you buy someone a Christmas movie for Christmas, and they open it on Christmas, Christmas is already "over" for that year. Unless they want to wait until the following Christmas to appreciate their present, they will be watching it at a time when Christmas is no longer an upcoming excitement in their hearts, an event on the horizon symbolizing joy.

So I guess I'm hoping that at least one of the two Christmas movies I'm buying people this year gets watched that night, when the last vestiges of this year's Christmas will still be with them. Considering who I'm buying them for, that seems unlikely at best. But neither can I really suggest that they open the present early, because that ruins the fun of Christmas morning -- while also implying that I expect them to watch it before Christmas, and will be waiting for their full report.

At least The Family Stone should be just as good of a watch in April, according to Fox.

No comments: