In 1974, when Canadian director Bob Clark’s seminal holiday slasher movie “Black Christmas” was first released in the United States, the studio changed the title to “Silent Night, Evil Night.” According to producer Gerry Arbeid, “Warner Bros. executives wanted the title changed because they felt white audiences would stay away, thinking ‘Black Christmas’ was for blacks.”
What a difference four decades makes: 2013’s holiday season boasts three Christmas movies with mostly African-American casts, and while all these films are ostensibly being marketed to viewers of all ethnicities, distributors are clearly courting a black audience and relying upon those ticket-buyers to support these releases.
So far, it’s a strategy that’s working: “The Best Man Holiday,” released by Universal on Nov. 15, topped “Thor: The Dark World” to win its opening Friday, eventually coming in second for the weekend with a strong $30 million take. Even with a 60 percent dip on the following weekend, the film is expected to take in at least $75 million — not bad for a sequel to a film that came out in 1999.
The big numbers for “The Best Man Holiday” must certainly give hope to the makers of “Black Nativity” (opening Wednesday from Fox Searchlight) and “Tyler Perry‘s A Madea Christmas” (which Lionsgate will roll out Dec. 13). Time will tell if these films boost or undercut each other, but the fact that there are three Christmas movies about African American characters is almost revolutionary.
When I wrote the holiday film guide “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas” a few years ago, there was only one major title that I could find boasting a black cast: “This Christmas,” which took in an impressive $49 million for Screen Gems in 2007.
Mind you, that $49 million reflects only the movie’s original theatrical box office, but when you’re talking about Christmas movies, that’s just the ribbon around a much bigger package. When a film does well in theaters, it can be expected to generate more revenue from cable and DVD and streaming and all the other channels, maybe for a few years, and sometimes maybe longer.
A Christmas movie that strikes a chord with an audience gets returned to year after year, with generations passing it along to their children and grandchildren. The Christmas holidays are the only time of year that you hear Andy Williams and Bing Crosby on FM radio, and they’re definitely the only time when “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a 1946 black-and-white Frank Capra movie, gets three hours of primetime on NBC.
Christmas films are by no means guaranteed to have a shelf life, but when they hit the bulls-eye, they become standards that are re-played and re-watched and, perhaps most importantly for the industry, re-purchased again and again and again.
And it’s about time, frankly, that Christmas movies stopped being so consistently white. With movies like “Instructions Not Included,” Pantelion Films have tapped into a market that’s starved for glossy, audience-friendly movies in Spanish, so why shouldn’t every demographic out there have its own choice of big, sparkly, sentimental Christmas movies?
(Pantelion should hop on this holiday bandwagon, and quickly — when it comes to American Christmas movies aimed at the Latino market, it pretty much begins and ends with 2008’s “Nothing Like the Holidays.”)
As more cable channels serve a more diverse marketplace — there’s more out there than just BET and Telemundo — more holiday programming hours will need to be filled, which is where this new spate of Christmas movies will continue to rake it in.
The latest “Madea” saga gets just two weekends in theaters before Dec. 25, and one can assume that, like most Christmas movies, it will be gone by the end of January. But for this new Tyler Perry title — and for its two rivals this season — Christmas 2013 is just the beginning. All three films will hope to come down the chimney for years to come, eventually via media as unimaginable to us now as Netflix would have been for George Bailey.