Marketing Christmas releases in international territories can prove a challenge for the US studios.

Christmas films should be an easy sell in the highly commercialised months that lead up to December 25. But a look at the US studios’ output over the past decade suggests end-of-year festive movies can sometimes be tricky marketing and distribution propositions, especially in the international marketplace.

Just over a decade ago, Universal’s Dr Seuss adaptation How The Grinch Stole Christmas set the recent standard — and became the year’s top domestic earner — by grossing $260m in North America over Christmas 2000. Three years later, New Line’s comedy Elf became 2003’s seventh-biggest domestic performer and 12 months after that Warner Bros’ 3D motion-capture fantasy The Polar Express just cracked the year’s 10 highest-grossing films.

Since then, however, even the biggest Christmas films — New Line’s 2008 comedy Four Christmases and Walt Disney’s 2009 3D motion-capture outing A Christmas Carol — have failed to break into the domestic top 20. And the trend is likely to continue with this year’s 3D animation Arthur Christmas, which has taken a modest $33.4m after three weeks on US release for Sony Pictures.

‘There were things Universal could market on Love Actually, other than love-at-Christmas-time’

Randy Greenberg, The Greenberg Group

The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol are two rare examples of Christmas films that have performed equally well in the international marketplace. And, perhaps because of its UK provenance and UK voice cast, Arthur Christmas, which has so far grossed $57.5m outside North America, looks set to join the small group of studio-distributed Christmas films that have done significantly better internationally than domestically — a group that also includes Universal’s UK-made romantic comedy Love Actually and partially UK-set romance The Holiday, released by Sony and Universal.

Far more common is for Yule films to take the bulk of their grosses in North America, as did How The Grinch Stole Christmas (with 75% of its global tally from domestic), Four Christmases (73%), Elf (79%), Disney’s The Santa Clause 2 (81%) and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (76%).

The imbalance may be due to the fact many Christmas films are comedies and comedies sometimes do not travel. Or it may be the result of variations in Christmas legends and customs.

“Even though they celebrate Christmas in Italy and Spain, they celebrate it in a different way than we do [in the US],” points out Cam Galano, former international president at Elf distributor New Line. “In certain territories there may be Santa Claus or Father Christmas or [Italian gift giver] Babbo Natale, but he doesn’t have elves.”

To improve their Christmas films’ chances, studios frequently set domestic opening dates on or before the late November Thanksgiving holiday weekend. And they start marketing a lot earlier.

Disney began promoting A Christmas Carol, which opened a few weeks before Thanksgiving, on a specially designed train that toured the country in summer 2009. Sony had teaser trailers for Arthur Christmas — which opened over this year’s crowded Thanksgiving weekend — in cinemas last July, to catch the summer animation audience. The studio also formed tie-ins on the film with Toys R Us, UPS and family restaurant chain Denny’s, and worked with a specialised marketing company to sell the title to the growing faith-based US audience.

Distribution and marketing executives say they always aim to release a Christmas film internationally within a few weeks of its US launch, especially in the European, Latin American and English-speaking territories where Christmas is widely celebrated. Opening in other territories for subsequent Christmases — as 2009 UK independent film Nativity! is doing this year in Germany — is rare.

Beyond the obvious markets, some Christmas movies are released in South Korea and Japan (where they can perform decently in spring or even summer) and a few make it into predominantly non-Christian countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

But marketing plans often need to be tailored for each territory, particularly when a film’s release date falls outside the Christmas period. In those instances, says Randy Greenberg, president of entertainment consultancy The Greenberg Group, marketing campaigns have to focus on elements other than the Christmas theme.

Greenberg was an international marketing executive at Universal when the studio had a worldwide success with Love Actually, which even managed a respectable February run in Japan. He says the company was able to build marketing on elements such as the film’s strong cast and soundtrack. “There were things they could market other than love-at-Christmas-time,” as Greenberg puts it.

Though some less overtly seasonal films hit the video market in the spring after their theatrical launch — recent examples have included The Holiday, The Family Stone, Bad Santa and Love Actually — studios often create a second opportunity for end-of-year revenue by releasing titles on DVD the Christmas after theatrical.

‘In Italy and Spain they celebrate Christmas in a different way than in the US’

Cam Galano

And a few films may have enough appeal to warrant DVD or even theatrical re-release for subsequent Christmases. Love Actually, for example, is being re-released on DVD this year with a ‘bonus holiday CD’. And The Polar Express was re-released theatrically in the Imax format every year from 2005 to 2010, adding an extra $20m to the film’s domestic box-office take.

Whether Christmas films’ recent track record indicates a decline for the genre or just a temporary lull remains to be seen. Some marketing experts say one big hit could return the genre to favour. Others suggest that in a digital world where the best of Christmas films past are easily available, new offerings have less appeal. Or that Christmas movies’ relative weakness internationally does not fit with Hollywood’s increasing reliance on international grosses.

It could even be that in tough economic times the audience for Christmas and other family-oriented films has become even more selective than audiences for other genres. As Greenberg points out, some families are now having to weigh a $50 trip to the cinema against more basic needs.

“If you’ve got $50 and that’s all you’ve got,” says Greenberg, “you’re going to go to the grocery store.”