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Why the Box Office This Christmas Has Fewer Presents Under the Tree

In addition to "Rogue One," look for "La La Land" and "Sing" to excel. Other films may find numbers that are solid but less shiny.

“Sing”

When 2016 soon comes to its grateful end, it will be a record year at the box office. Bringing up the rear are four wide studio releases and a fifth initial expansion with “Sing” (Universal), “Assassin’s Creed” (20th Century Fox), and “Passengers” (Sony) on Wednesday, “Why Him?” (20th Century Fox) on Friday, and the national release of “Fences” (Paramount) on Christmas Day.

They will all play in the wake of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (Disney), which should remain on top through the holidays. Meantime, “Moana” (Disney) and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (Warner Bros.) will hold and thrive, with the more recent “Office Christmas Party” (Paramount) and “Collateral Beauty” (Warner Bros.) joining the fray.

Deleted Scene from Rogue One

“Rogue One”

Jonathan Olley..© 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd.

Top awards contenders like “La La Land” (Lionsgate), “Manchester by the Sea” (Roadside Attractions), and “Jackie” all plan to add new dates, and could do as well or better than some studio releases.

Christmas isn’t the prime launch date it once was. Starting with the “Lord of the Rings” and then “Hobbit” films, launching sure-fire franchise films earlier in the month has become standard. And “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” last year rewrote the rules on how big a film could be. Still, nothing is positioned to grow in the shadow of “Rogue One.” Recent years have seen hits like “Unbroken,” “Les Miserables,” “Django Unchained” and “Into the Woods,” but the 2016 slate looks more like films that could have played any random weekend.

The nature of holiday play time means it often takes two weeks or more to gauge success. In-person word of mouth during the influx of holiday parties can have an influence equal or greater than social media. That makes results less predictable than nearly any other season.

The surest bet looks like “Sing.” It comes from Universal’s Illumination animation unit, which provided the only title (“The Secret Life of Pets”) to interrupt Disney’s dominance among the top grossing releases of the year. It’s got lots of animals, this time in a sustained musical format, and has a marketing spend to rival “Rogue One.” What it doesn’t have is critical support (or a strong chance at an Oscar nomination), but that will have little to do with its success. Its biggest competition comes from the continued interest around “Moana.”

On paper, “Passengers” would seem, if not a sure bet, at least a strong contender for success. The science-fiction romance stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum, who broke out internationally with “The Imitation Game.”

With its combination of sophisticated sci-fi, a top director and younger stars, Sony might have hoped for a success like “Gravity,” Interstellar,” “The Martian” and most recently “Arrival.” However, reviews for “Passengers” have been downbeat to negative. Combining the stars of the “Hunger Games” films and “Jurassic World” gives it traction, but neither Lawrence nor Pratt has yet shown the ability to single handedly carry a film that’s neither a franchise nor an ensemble.

“Assassin’s Creed”

Faring even worse in initial reviews is “Assassin’s Creed.” Based on a popular video game, Australian director Justin Kurzel works again with his “Macbeth” costars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (neither guaranteed to draw in the masses). The game’s worldwide appeal could make up for the cast, which is no small matter with a budget well above $100 million.

James Franco and Bryan Cranston in Why Him?

“Why Him?”

How’s this for an original concept? In “Why Him?” family conflict causes comedic results when a wealthy young entrepreneur rubs his prospective father-in-law the wrong way during a holiday visit, with James Franco and Bryan Cranston playing the characters in mortal conflict. The R-rated hilarity adds Cedric the Entertainer and others in hopes of broad-based appeal and something less grim this season. It’s worked, at least short term, before; “Daddy’s Home” ended up around $150 million last year as a strong comeback for Will Farrell.

Fences

Denzel Washington in “Fences”

Paramount

Denzel Washington’s “Fences” is the last out of the gate with its Christmas Day widening. Its four-theater New York/Los Angeles opening this past weekend was disappointing, with a $32,000 per-theater average, but that might not have reflected its appeal to bAfrican-American and/or older audiences. It could be analogous to “The Butler,”which might not have fared as well as a platform film despite its later success.

Even more uncertain is how high the on-fire “La La Land” will place after expanding to 750 theaters next Sunday. Despite the hindrance of normally weak attendance right before Christmas, Damien Chazelle’s original musical placed #7 this past weekend in only 200 theaters, with an average of more than $20,000 per theater.

This continued breakout success could suggest a full national release of 2,000-4,000 theaters. Christmas week would have been perfect, except that further opportunity awaits the likely Oscar frontrunner. Keeping it high in the Top 10 will improve its odds, and a long-term payoff rather than an immediate gross is a key strategy.

“Manchester by the Sea” already has passed the 1,000 theater mark, and managed sixth place last weekend. It likely stays steady at this level and could raise its gross while losing its position. Again, the game plan here from Amazon and Roadside is to continue showing it has not only critical but also popular appeal.

“Jackie” is moving more slowly, but is expected to up its total to over 300 theaters this week.

Recent success of “The Revenant,” “American Sniper,” “Selma” and other Christmas platform releases seems to have opened a floodgate of titles from studios that want to get awards qualified while positioning themselves for the less competitive January market.

“Silence”

The four non-specialized, platform-release studio titles are the Boston Marathon bombing story “Patriots Day,” Martin Scorsese’s Japanese missionary epic “Silence,”  the African-American female NASA math-whiz trio biopic “Hidden Figures” and “Live By Night,” Ben Affleck’s first outing as a director since his “Argo” Oscar win. None are likely to soar like “The Revenant” or “American Sniper,” though initial results might not reflect their ultimate appeal.

These four are joined by seven high-end more independent/specialized releases with prominent earlier 2016 festival play, some with crossover hopes. On Wednesday there’s Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta” (Sony Pictures Classics); Friday is Ken Loach’s Cannes Palme d’or winner “I, Daniel Blake” (IFC) and J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” (Focus); Sunday is Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” (A24) and the acclaimed German comedy “Toni Erdmann” (Sony Pictures Classics), with Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (Bleecker Street) wrapping up the year’s releases next Wednesday.

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