Every December, millions of families around the country like to sit down and watch a Christmas movie. It’s a way of spending time together, while also doing something to get into the mood of the season. For many, heading out to the cinema on Christmas itself is an annual tradition. December 25th is actually one of the biggest movie-going days of the year, believe it or not. There are, of course, also dozens of holiday films available on DVD and Blu-ray. Some cable channels even run 24-hour marathons.
Each year brings at least one or two new titles designed specifically to draw crowds of people who are ready to get fully into the holiday spirit. The cinematic marketplace is crowded between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, though, so for these Christmas movies to survive, they really need to deliver the goods. Over the years, some of them were huge blockbusters that played to sold-out crowds and reaped impressive grosses. The ones that couldn’t pass muster ended up playing to a few lonely theater patrons before quickly being shuttled off to home video.
We’ve got a breakdown of Christmas movies that were smash hits and others that were busts. In each case, we’ll provide some context to explain why they hit or missed. The financial totals listed are domestic grosses from Box Office Mojo, the leading website for such data and statistics. They keep track of such things from 1982 on, so all the titles on this list were released after that year.
Here are 12 Christmas Movies That Completely Flopped (And 13 That Were Massive Hits).
25 Massive Hit: Bad Santa (2003)
Most Christmas movies are nice, wholesome family affairs. There traditionally hasn’t been a whole lot for viewers who actively try to be on the “naughty” list. Perhaps that’s why Bad Santa caught on so well.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, a con artist with a substance abuse problem who poses as a department store Santa in order to commit robberies. His life changes when he meets an outcast little boy who won’t leave him alone. The film is packed with profanity and crude humor. Bad Santa made $60 million, and spawned a 2016 sequel that bombed at the box office.
24 Flopped: Prancer (1989)
Prancer is about a young girl who stumbles across a wounded reindeer that she thinks might belong to Santa Claus. She nurses it back to health, helping to spread Christmas cheer to everyone around her in the process.
The idea of making a movie about a reindeer other than Rudolph was relatively clever. Unfortunately for Prancer, the studio opted to open it the same weekend as two other high-profile family movies — All Dogs Go to Heaven and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. With so much competition for the same audience, something had to tank, and this was it. Prancer only grossed $18 million.
23 Massive Hit: Jingle All the Way (1996)
In the 1980s, parents literally fought each other in the aisles of stores, trying to get their hands on Cabbage Patch Kids dolls for their children. This scenario was horrific, but also darkly funny. It provided the basis for the comedy Jingle All the Way.
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a dad determined to get an elusive Turbo Man action figure for his son. This means running all over town and trying to outsmart other parents also struggling to get one. Sinbad co-stars as a fellow father desperate for a present. Jingle All the Way‘s satire of consumerism led it to a cheery $60 million gross back in ’96.
22 Flopped: Unaccompanied Minors (2006)
Five years before his directorial breakthrough, Bridesmaids, Paul Feig made a Christmas family comedy called Unaccompanied Minors. It’s the story of a bunch of kids snowed in at an airport on Christmas Eve. They get into all kinds of wacky shenanigans as they attempt to amuse themselves.
Although there’s some potential in the premise, the movie’s reliance on slapstick comedy makes it feel like a bad Nickelodeon sitcom at times. The situations the kids get into are also so implausible that they inspire more eye rolls than laughs. Unaccompanied Minors consequently earned a weak $16 million.
21 Massive Hit: Scrooged (1988)
The story of Ebenzer Scrooge has been told time and again on the big screen. Scrooged, which brought in a healthy $60 million in 1988, put an original twist on the idea by making it a hip comedy.
Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a cynical television executive whose life is changed after being visited by three entities on Christmas Eve. One of them, the Ghost of Christmas Present (played by Carol Kane), literally beats some sense into him at one point. Murray’s hilarious performance and a sharp satiric screenplay made Scrooged a must-see for people who wanted edgier yuletide fare.
20 Flopped: Black Christmas (2006)
Bob Clark’s 1974 horror film Black Christmas has become a cult favorite over the years. It’s the story of a maniac tormenting a bunch of sorority sisters on Christmas Eve. In 2006, X-Files writer/producer Glen Morgan remade it with a hip cast of up-and-coming actress, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Michelle Trachtenberg.
In a major blunder, the studio released Black Christmas on Christmas Day in 2006 — a time when people are feeling warm and happy, and not especially in the mood for bloody horror. A slightly earlier date probably would have helped it make more than $16 million.
19 Massive Hit: The Nightmare Before Christmas (2003)
The makers of The Nightmare Before Christmas would probably tell you it’s a Halloween movie, not a Christmas movie. The truth is that it works as both. This stop-motion animated masterpiece tells the tale of Jack Skellington, the King of Halloween Town, trying to “upgrade” by taking over Christmas.
The Nightmare Before Christmas earned a respectable $50 million in 1993. After home video turned it into a holiday classic, five theatrical re-releases occurred between 2000 and 2009, four of which were a 3D-converted version. They boosted its lifetime take to an awesome $75 million, not adjusted for inflation.
18 Flopped: All I Want For Christmas (1991)
All I Want For Christmas tells the story of two kids, Hallie (Thora Birch) and Ethan (Ethan Embry), who try to get their divorced parents back together with the help of a department store Santa, played by Leslie Nielsen.
Divorce is kind of a downer subject for a Christmas movie, which likely diminished the interest of the young audience at which it was aimed. Lousy reviews didn’t help either. All I Want For Christmas has an abysmal 0% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It limped away from theaters with just $14 million.
17 Massive Hit: Four Christmases (2008)
Unlike most of the other hits on this list, Four Christmases hasn’t really taken on the status of modern holiday classic. It was a massive success upon its initial release, though, raking in $120 million and staying in theaters from November to February.
Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play a married couple trying to visit their respective divorced parents in one day. All kinds of crazy things take place. The two stars were at the height of their popularity in 2008 and audiences loved seeing them together.
16 Flopped: One Magic Christmas (1985)
It’s rare for Disney to have a flop with a Christmas movie, yet they had a big one with 1985’s One Magic Christmas. Mary Steenburgen plays a woman who wishes she had never been born. Guardian angel Harry Dean Stanton shows up to help her see how bad things would be if she never existed.
The problem with this movie is that it’s a great big downer. Among other things, it involves a bank robbery shooting, some stolen children, and a car accident. No one wants to be depressed at Christmas time. The somber tone of One Magic Christmas caused it to stall out at $13 million.
15 Massive Hit: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
When National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation came out on Dec. 1, 1989, the general assumption was that the series had run its course. The less-than-satisfying European Vacation seemingly wore out everyone’s goodwill toward the Griswold family. That assumption was wrong.
An in-his-prime Chevy Chase earned major laughs, while the screenplay recaptured the sharpness of the original Vacation. Audiences identified with the spoofing of yuletide stress. The movie revitalized the franchise, becoming its highest earner, at $71 million. Christmas Vacation was also the 15th biggest hit of 1989, and evolved into an annual must-watch in many homes.
14 Flopped: I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1998)
There was a period in the ’90s when Hollywood worked overtime to make Jonathan Taylor Thomas a movie star. None of his film work came even remotely close to matching his TV success on Home Improvement, though. That includes his starring vehicle I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
The actor portrays a college student stranded in the desert and trying to make his way home in time for the holiday. Bad reviews, which cited the story’s plot contrivances and weak dialogue, doubtlessly contributed to the poor box office performance. Even JTT’s fan base stayed away, resulting in a $12 million gross.
13 Massive Hit: Die Hard (1988)
There’s a long-standing debate among movie fans as to whether or not Die Hard is considered a Christmas movie. For the record, it absolutely is.
Bruce Willis earned a then-record $5 million payday to play John McClane, a cop who tries to save his wife after the office Christmas party she’s attending is hijacked by criminals. Packed with wall-to-wall action and a plot that continually makes you ask yourself what you would do in McClane’s situation, Die Hard sucked viewers in to the tune of $83 million, launching an entire franchise in the process.
12 Flopped: Surviving Christmas (2004)
Surviving Christmas has an utterly preposterous plot. Ben Affleck plays a millionaire who returns to his childhood home and pays the people now living there to spend the holiday with him. James Gandolfini co-stars as the new owner, who can’t stand his rich houseguest.
It’s not hard to understand why Surviving Christmas didn’t appeal to audiences. It’s ninety minutes of people being mean and spiteful to each other, followed by an unearned “heartwarming” message at the end. Not even the star wattage of Affleck and Gandolfini could propel this cynical mess beyond $11 million.
11 Massive Hit: Elf (2003)
If Old School was the movie that opened the door to Will Ferrell’s movie career, Elf is the one that kicked that door right off its hinges. This $173 million-grossing blockbuster opened in second place behind The Matrix Revolutions, but significantly out-performed it in the long run.
Ferrell plays Buddy, a human raised as an elf at the North Pole. He goes in search of his true identity, only to have a hard time fitting in to the real world. Buoyed by Ferrell’s hysterical performance and a ton of quotable lines, Elf turned into one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time.
10 Flopped: Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)
Nothing Like the Holidays centers around a family living in Chicago. They assemble for a Christmas celebration during which mom (Elizabeth Pena) drops the bombshell that she’s divorcing dad (Alfred Molina), and everyone flies into a panic.
It’s rare for a major studio movie to feature an almost exclusively-Latin cast. Given the overall lack of representation, there’s something a bit surprising about the fact that Nothing Like the Holidays couldn’t get beyond $7 million. Then again, it was from Overture Films, a small distributor that didn’t have a ton of marketing muscle.
9 Massive Hit: The Polar Express (2004)
Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis adapted Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book The Polar Express in 2004. He used innovative motion capture technology to allow Tom Hanks to play a computer-generated version of himself. The story finds a young boy hopping conductor Hanks’ train to the North Pole.
Although some complained the CGI people fell into the “uncanny valley” — meaning they were just realistic enough to be kind of creepy — the majority of audiences bought into the movie’s sense of fantasy. Multiple re-releases, including some in IMAX and 3D, helped propel The Polar Express to a lifetime gross of $186 million.
8 Flopped: Miracle on 34th St. (1994)
The late film critic Gene Siskel used to say that Hollywood should never remake a classic, they should remake movies that didn’t get it right the first time instead. The makers of Miracle on 34th St. should have heeded that lesson.
The 1947 original is considered one of the definitive Christmas classics. Nevertheless, writer/producer John Hughes put together a remake of the story in which a little girl ends up in court, trying to prove that a guy claiming to be Santa Claus is the real deal. The paltry $17 million take indicates that people preferred to just stay home and watch the old black-and-white version.
7 Massive Hit: The Santa Clause (1994)
What turned The Santa Clause into a smash hit that amassed $144 million (or the equivalent of $315 million in today’s dollars)? The presence of Tim Allen, whose Home Improvement was one of the hottest TV shows at the time, is a likely factor. An even bigger one is its ingenious premise.
Allen plays a guy who accidentally eliminates Santa and is then forced to take over his job. The Santa Clause devises answers for the classic questions of how Santa visits all the homes in the world in one night and how he fits down chimneys. That was an irresistible hook. Two less-inspired sequels followed.
6 Flopped: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Unlike most of the Christmas flops on this list, The Man Who Invented Christmas is considered a good movie. It boasts an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it made just $5 million at the box office. Dan Stevens plays Charles Dickens in this movie which details, with some embellishments, how the author devised and wrote A Christmas Carol.
A crowded marketplace is the obvious culprit for the failure of The Man Who Invented Christmas. The distributor opened this small picture on Thanksgiving weekend, when bigger movies like Justice League and Pixar’s Coco dominated moviegoers’ attention.
5 Massive Hit: Gremlins (1984)
Gremlins made $148 million in 1984. That’s the equivalent of $403 million today. Add in a 1985 re-release, and the latter total jumps to $415 million. That’s big money for a Christmas-set movie, especially one that opened not in December, but at the beginning of June.
Director Joe Dante’s film about furry little creatures run amok over the holiday appealed to both adults and children, although the graphic nature of its violence helped usher in the creation of the PG-13 rating, following reports of youngsters frightened by the sight of a gremlin in a microwave.
4 Flopped: Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014)
After his ’80s TV show Growing Pains went off the air and his attempt at mainstream movie stardom failed, Kirk Cameron turned his attention to Christian entertainment. He’s found success there, Saving Christmas notwithstanding.
The actor essentially plays himself. When his brother-in-law becomes disillusioned by the over-commercialization of Christmas, Kirk steps in to argue that all the pomp and circumstance of the holiday is Biblically-inspired. Critics found that message bizarre, and even a bit hypocritical. Apparently audiences did, too. Saving Christmas, which has 0% at Rotten Tomatoes, bottomed out with only $2 million.
3 Massive Hit: How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
How The Grinch Stole Christmas was a landmark animated TV special that millions of children grew up watching each year. In 2000, director Ron Howard made a live-action version of it, with Jim Carrey in the lead role. The novelty of that idea worked. The movie dominated the end-of-year box office, making an astonishing $260 million.
Although it featured real people, the whole look of the film was cartoonish. Carrey, of course, fit right into that. Desire to see him as the Grinch helped the film stay stop the charts for four straight weeks and play through the end of February 2001.
2 Flopped: The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)
Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker has long been associated with Christmas. Director Andrei Konchalovsky’s film The Nutcracker in 3D, on the other hand, has been forgotten, except by aficionados of bad movies.
This misguided film is aimed at children, yet contains some truly creepy content. The villain, known as the Rat King, is surprisingly fearsome. His uniformed troops throw living toys into a furnace and generally frighten people. Another problem was the retrofitted 3D, which made the film look murky. Critics warned parents away, and The Nutcracker in 3D earned a pathetic $195,435.
1 Massive Hit: Home Alone (1990)
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the highest-grossing Christmas movie ever made is Home Alone. Its $285 million take in 1990 would amount to $619 million today.
As an indicator of just how big Home Alone was, consider that it held the #1 spot at the box office for twelve straight weeks — an almost unheard of run. Additionally, it stayed in theaters until the end of June 1991. The film also spawned two theatrical sequels, one that went straight-to-DVD, and one made for the ABC Family Channel. More than twenty-five years later, families continue to enjoy the film’s mix of slapstick humor and holiday cheer.
What’s your favorite Christmas movie? What’s your least favorite? Give us your choices in the comments.