Ah, the holidays. That special time of year when blessings are counted, families join together, and Hollywood studios tear each other’s eyes out in a vicious scramble for your wallet. (Makes you feel all fuzzy, doesn’t it?) With box office up 5.6 percent over last year for a total of $8.4 billion, the period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving was more brutal than ever: There were some unlikely triumphs and more than a few contenders that ended up celluloid corpses. So in the spirit of the season, here’s a look at the battles that left some filmmakers lamenting the coal in their stockings and others thanking Santa (or those suits at CAA) for that rich back-end profit participation deal.
THE BIG GUNS
The Departed vs. Flags of Our Fathers
Hollywood got giddy just thinking about it: Two masters locked in a battle for box office lucre and little gold statues. Early word was that Flags of Our Fathers was the safe bet, since Clint Eastwood was coming off Million Dollar Baby’s $100 million and four Oscars. Plus, he had a nice, Academy-friendly story line, having pulled off two WWII dramas in one year. Well…oops! While Flags sputtered terribly — earning only $33 million and disappearing so completely from the Oscar conversation that Warner Bros. apparently felt the need to release Eastwood’s companion movie Letters From Iwo Jima early — Martin Scorsese’s return to the gangster genre proved to be the most lucrative move of his career. The Departed opened at No. 1 on Oct. 6 and held on to finish second three times in a row. Remarkably, the flick has never once dropped more than 50 percent on a given weekend and has now pulled in $117 million.
Flushed Away vs. Happy Feet
Attention casting directors: Penguins are now officially bigger stars than Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and that ridiculously hot shirtless spy. (More on him later.) Proof? Look no further than Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet, which tap-danced to a gaudy $99 million in its first 10 days of release. Flushed Away, on the other hand — which reportedly cost $149 million — went down the tubes, grossing just $57 million in 24 days and leaving DreamWorks Animation execs with a lot of ‘splaining to do on Wall Street. Hey, at least they have some serious time to try and figure out what went wrong. Here’s a hint: Their movie was about an adorable dancing penguin. Yours was about a rat that gets flushed down a toilet. We’re just saying.
WAR OF THE IDIOTS
Jackass 2 vs. Borat vs. Tenacious D
We’ll spare you the ”niiiicccee” jokes. When you gross $109 million on your way to passing Porky’s as the sixth-highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, you deserve better than that. In non-Borat news, either Jackass devotees are legion or the nation delights in seeing Johnny Knoxville’s nether regions gored by a bull. (We don’t care to speculate.) Either way, the reported $11.5 million movie opened in the top spot and went on to gross a disgustingly good $72 million-plus. Of course, not everyone yukked their way to the bank: Tenacious D fans were apparently too busy breaking exciting new ground in bong technology to head out to the multiplex. The HBO cult fave debuted at No. 11 with $5.2 million and a face-meltingly bad $1,686 per-screen average.
Marie Antoinette vs. The Queen
Cats and dogs. Lindsay and Paris. The French and the English. So many great rivalries get played out on the streets of Hollywood. Well, score one for Old Blighty. After being booed at Cannes, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was swiftly guillotined at the box office. (In Tinseltown, you’ll be lucky if $16 million can buy you a sack of gruel, let alone cake.) The other side of the channel, however, saw the most unlikely success of the season: The Queen. After Stephen Frears’ film dominated the Venice Film Festival, it opened to $122,014 in limited release. Then it built. And built. And built. Now in its ninth week, the low-budgeted indie has made just under $21 million and has star Helen Mirren looking like a lock for an Oscar nomination. All hail, indeed.
The Santa Clause 3 vs. Casino Royale
Our long national nightmare may finally be over. Not only did the gutsiest gamble of the fall — a total reboot of the Bond franchise that featured a darker tone and lighter hair — pay off, but the disturbing hold that Tim Allen has over our country seems to have been broken. While Casino Royale star Daniel Craig grossed $94 million on the way to what seems likely to be the most profitable installment in Bond history, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (no, we did not make that title up) managed just $67 million and will probably become the only Clause movie not to top $100 million. Brothers and sisters, our liberation is at hand. Begin celebrating in the streets anytime you want.