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Top 15 Christmas Day Movie Box Office Winners

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What's in the recipe for a big Christmas Day box office take? Surprisingly, it has less to do with Jolly Saint Nick and more to do with action, big stars, and special effects.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, December 25 can be a great day to go to the theater. Not only is it a good excuse to get out of the cold (or not have to talk to that annoying relative for a few hours), there are often blockbuster movies geared for the whole family on the big screens.

This year was no different. The World War II-themed “Unbroken” took top honors on Christmas Day, according to preliminary estimates from Box Office Mojo, with the fairy tale offering “Into the Woods” coming in second place, followed by “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”

So what’s in the recipe for a big Christmas Day box office take? Surprisingly, it has less to do with Jolly Saint Nick and more to do with action, big stars, and special effects. Also, as “The Hobbit’s” success demonstrates, sequels to film favorites do particularly well during the holiday season—maybe movie execs are taking advantage of people’s generous Christmas spirit!

Box Office Mojo tracks the highest one-day grosses for movies on Christmas Day, as well as just about any other day you can imagine. Here are the Top 15 highest-grossing movies, all-time, on December 25.

Note: The list does not include 2014 films, as available data is still preliminary. Movies with an asterisk opened on Christmas Day.

15. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - $11.6 million

Released: 2001

Lifetime Gross: $315.5 million

The first installment of Peter Jackson’s recreation of the classic books was a big hit with audiences around the world. Both longtime fans of Tolkien as well as those new to the story and the characters marveled at the scenery and the epic tale unfolding. Not to mention an all-star cast of Hobbits, Dwarfs, Elves, Men, Wizards, and, well, Others that drew you in as one of the fellowship.

Despite everyone knowing going in that this was a 3-movie commitment (not to mention a nearly 3-hour commitment), families went in droves (and sometimes in costumes) to see “The Fellowship of the Ring.” This was the first of several years that Frodo and Sam were part of the family Christmas celebration.

14. Night at the Museum - $11.8 million

Released: 2006

Lifetime Gross: $250.9 million

Ben Stiller makes his first of several appearances on this list, alongside Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, and Dick Van Dyke. The hijinks-filled family-fun movie had everything: special effects, animate artifacts, and a heartwarming father-son relationship.

The third installment arrived in theaters this month, so this list might need to be updated on January 1.

13. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button* - $11.9 million

Released: 2008

Lifetime Gross: $127.5 million

On imdb.com, people who rated this movie highly also liked “Titanic,” “Black Swan,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” File under: emotional tour-de-force. The Brad Pitt—Cate Blanchette, man-aging-backwards flick opened up on Christmas day against a movie starring a Labrador retriever, yet still did 8-digit numbers. Unlike some of the other movies on this list, though, Benjamin Button earned 10% of all its box office take on this one day.

12. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - $12.4 million

Released: 2002

Lifetime Gross: $342.6 million

Frodo, Sam, and the gang returned a year later, drawing everyone to the theater for the second “Lord of the Rings” installment. The sequel bested the first, but was still not the top-grossing LOTR Christmas movie (hint, hint).

After the success of the first film, anyone who did not see it in the theaters definitely did not want to get caught missing “The Two Towers” on the big screen. And they were rewarded with the epic battle of Helms Deep at the end of the film. Unfortunately, this blockbuster also initiated the over use of “You shall not pass!” LOTR giveth, LOTR taketh away.

11. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol - $13.7 million

Released: 2011

Lifetime Gross: $209.4 million

Appropriately following hobbits, Tom Cruise jumped back onto the screen as Ethan Hunt in the fourth Mission: Impossible movie. The espionage thriller is the highest-grossing film of Tom Cruise’s career. The movie also starred not-yet-Marvel-ed-or-Bourne-d Jeremy Renner.

Some credit the film’s box office haul — as well as those of a few others on this list – to the movie’s dual release in IMAX theaters. IMAX tickets, of course, come at a higher price. But don’t tell that to Cruise. He can’t handle the truth.

10. National Treasure: Book of Secrets - $13.7 million

Released: 2007

Lifetime Gross: $220 million

The string of sequels doesn’t end with this Nicholas Cage film. He returns with Diane Kruger and Jon Voight on another impossible treasure hunt that screams “fun for the whole family!” With new heroes and villains — Helen Mirren and Ed Harris – joining in on the code-cracking adventure, there was just enough fresh material to get fans of the first film back into the theaters and satisfied.

9. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel - $13.9 million

Released: 2009

Lifetime Gross: $219.6 million

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When “Glee” meets pest control, you get the Chipmunks’ second “live action” film. The high-pitched rodents brought in hordes of cash from families in 2009, so much so that they made a third movie. But this one introduced audiences to the Chipettes, the rival, all-female trio competing against Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. Stars such as Amy Poehler, Justin Long, and Christina Applegate lent their voices to the Chipmunks and Chipettes, and with a little adult humor thrown in the movie was a commercial hit.

8. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King - $14 million

Released: 2003

Lifetime Gross: $377.8 million

For those who didn’t have the patience to wade through Tolkien’s verbose tomes, the 2-year wait to find out what happened to the One Ring finally ended in 2003.

This is the second-highest overall grossing film on this list, and definitely the most successful Christmas-time film of that year. The Return of the King won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, and cemented Peter Jackson as the only director who could do the fantasy trilogy justice. Jackson’s third installment of The Hobbit franchise also scored well this Christmas. One question, though, remains unanswered: Where were those eagles in the first place?

7. Marley & Me* - $14.4 million

Released: 2008

Lifetime Gross: $143.1 million

Based off of the book that inspired millions of people to ugly-cry, Marley & Me opened on Christmas Day 2008 with great success. Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson were the hapless couple that belonged to the fuzzy bundle of cute shenanigans, Marley. Opening day sales accounted for 10% of the movie’s entire US gross, likely because too many parents began to second guess their choice of a puppy as the kids’ Christmas gift.

6. Little Fockers - $14.6 million

Released: 2010

Lifetime Gross: $148.8 million

Stiller, Robert DeNiro, and crew return for the offspring of “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers.” Like one too many glasses of eggnog, Little Fockers seemed to turn the stomachs of critics. But people who love Greg, the male nurse, and his lunatic father-in-law, Jack, turned out for the film. Looks like studio execs relied pretty heavily on their circle of trust to make this one successful.

5. Django Unchained* - $15 million

Released: 2012

Lifetime Gross: $162.8 million

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to shake things up at Christmas time. For a movie with gratuitous violence, swearing, and racial slurs, about a freed slave rescuing his wife from a Mississippi plantation, it did remarkably well on its Christmas Day opening. In fact, it’s the third highest-grossing Christmas Opening movie of all time.

Perhaps people wanted a little less romantic comedy, kids cartoons, or dramatic operetta to wash down their pumpkin pie.

4. Les Miserables* - $18.1 million

Released: 2012

Lifetime Gross: $148.8 million

In a stark contrast to Django Unchained, the highly-anticipated film adaptation of “Les Miserables” opened the same day to a bit more success. The familiar tale of former-convict Jean Valjean and his arch-nemesis Inspector Javert was updated with a star-studded cast: Anne Hathaway (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Fantine), Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, and Russell Crowe. Yes, that Russell Crowe. One of the draws of the movie was that the singing was not pre-recorded, then lip synched by the actors, as has been traditionally done in musicals. Die-hard fans of the live theater version of the play found the singing not up to par for the most part, but the story and the music were introduced to another generation of potential fans.

3. Meet the Fockers - $19.5 million

Released: 2004

Lifetime Gross: $279.3

Four years after we initially met Greg Focker — and a nation learned that you can indeed milk a cat – we got the sequel. The stress of introducing your parents to your significant others’ parents is ramped up to 11 when Greg’s trippy, new-age parents, played by Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, meet Pam’s now-notorious father, Jack, played by Robert DeNiro, and mother, Blythe Danner. Hilarity ensues, as it did in the previously mentioned third movie of the series. What better way to spend Christmas than laughing at families that are more dysfunctional than your own!

2. Avatar - $23.1 million

Released: 2009

Lifetime Gross: $760.5 million

James Cameron’s 3-D manifesto became the highest-grossing film of all time, including an incredible opening weekend and the second-best Christmas Day take in history. Cinema-goers were not deterred by higher prices for 3-D screenings, although some people did get headaches keeping those glasses on for 2.5 hours. The entertaining sci-fi romp was a hit with kids and adults, and has been greenlighted for a sequel, due in 2016. Disney is also in the process of building an Avatar-based “land” at the Animal Kingdom Park in Florida. If anyone knows how to make money based off of unusual on-screen characters, it sure is that mouse.

1. Sherlock Holmes* - $24.6 million

Released: 2009

Lifetime Gross: $209 million

Interestingly, the only film to beat Avatar for Christmas Day box office receipts was released the same year. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s reboot of the investigators from 221B Baker St. debuted Christmas Day 2009, and pulled in nearly $25 million. While not necessarily the most faithful adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous crime-solving duo, the entertaining and action-packed movie was a huge hit, spurring … you guessed it … a sequel, released in 2011. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” was released a week before Christmas that year, and never reached the success of the first film. It doesn’t take a trained sleuth to deduce that perhaps the franchise should have stuck to Christmas Day openings!


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