December Delusions

It's the most agonizing split-second in show business. As millions of television viewers and thousands of panicky filmmakers look on, the Academy Award presenter grips the envelope, breaks open its seal and announces the winner. Yet months before that harrowing moment, the fate of many Oscar hopefuls is revealed in a nearly equally swift instant.

If the Oscars are Hollywood's general election, its primary takes place in December, when more than a dozen big movies are opened simultaneously. Like politics, it's a blood sport, and the carnage can be devastating. Only a handful of movies emerge from the holiday season with any shot at awards recognition, and the rest vanish almost as fast as Jim Carrey's disastrous "The Majestic," which literally closed as soon as it opened. "Ali," which debuted strongly on Dec. 25, started wobbling a mere three days later, and never regained its stride. "The Shipping News" washed out just as quickly, and "Charlotte Gray" was out of theaters before people had packed up their holiday decorations.

But year-in and year-out, every studio throws many of its best films into the year-end schedule, knowing the odds are long, the price of failure high. So why do it? Call it December delusions.

In Hollywood, there's no such thing as being too optimistic (why else would a film like "Rollerball" get made?). No matter how many Academy Award contenders are crushed in the stampede, at least one movie will get a surprisingly war reception from critics and audiences. This year's example: "Monster's Ball," which debuted Dec. 26 and could well win the best actress prize for Halle Berry. But it's not simply about shiny hardware for the trophy case. Movies that are lucky enough to collect several top nominations can enjoy a windfall at the turnstile, even if they are already blockbusters. New Line Cinema estimates that the leading 13 nominations gathered by its "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" are worth an extra $30 million in revenue between the Feb. 12 nominations and the March 24 awards.

Not every December release tanks, of course. "In the Bedroom" and "A Beautiful Mind" established themselves as Academy Award contenders at their very first Christmas-time showings. And even some December releases that don't get a ton of Oscar attention can make a mint. "The Royal Tenenbaums" (one nomination, for original screenplay) has grossed more than $50 million, twice what Disney originally projected. "Black Hawk Down," which got but one major nomination, for director Ridley Scott, just passed $100 million. And Tom Cruise's poorly reviewed "Vanilla Sky" (one nomination, for song) will somehow pass the $100 million mark very soon. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" won't win many Oscars (it's only nominated for three lesser awards), but after opening Nov. 16, the children's film collected much of its robust $315 million in ticket sales during December, when most kids were out of school.

So what's not to like about releasing a movie in Santa season? One word: "Ali." Like a high roller who bets the house on red only to see the roulette ball stop on black, the Will Smith movie dramatizes how an Oscar wager can backfire when a movie fails to get any "traction." A word most commonly associated with winter driving in Buffalo, traction has a more provocative Hollywood definition, especially in crowded December: a movie's ability to stick with its audience. Films that have traction are remembered not only by moviegoers but also by critics and awards organizations. Although "Ali's" Smith is nominated for best actor and Jon Voight for best supporting actor, "Ali" didn't connect with audiences. The boxing biography made $10.2 million its first day, the most money of any movie ever released on Christmas Day, breaking the old mark set by "Patch Adams" by $2 million. But literally within hours, poor "Ali" word of mouth had spread from multiplex to multiplex, and by the following weekend "Ali" was fading fast.

Sony, the film's maker, blames the sudden collapse of the $105 million film on more than Oscar indifference. The studio says the movie was hurt by its R rating, a long running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, and subject matter with limited appeal. But when "Ali" failed to get a best-picture nomination, its fate was sealed. With that top recognition, the film might have gone on to gross some $75 million. As it stands, the film is destined to earn little more than $60 million, which means "Ali" will lose money rather than make it. And thus, it will join a growing list of movies crushed during the Christmas season. It has become Hollywood's cruelest month.