How Star Wars is changing the game for holiday season movies

Mark Hamill reprises the role of Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Photo: Disney, Lucasfilm
Mark Hamill reprises the role of Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Photo: Disney, Lucasfilm

Go early and beat the rush.

The Australian tradition of Boxing Day as the biggest cinema-going day of the year is shifting ground as the summer's big movies are either released or given extensive preview screenings before Christmas.

For the third year in a row, the reignited Star Wars franchise has delivered a new movie two weeks before Christmas. And as with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, The Last Jedi is virtually guaranteed to be the biggest movie of the holidays.

Blockbusters have opened in mid-December before – Titanic and Avatar among them – but all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, plus such Hollywood hits as Frozen and Meet the Fockers, were all held back until Boxing Day.

The industry thinking was that once all the presents had been unwrapped, the festive tables cleared and the celebrations were winding down, Australians were ready to head to the cinema.

After all, anticipation for a new Peter Jackson movie or Disney animation had been building for months. And for many of us, Boxing Day is still the first chance to relax into the holidays.

The movies are also an outing with family or friends. An excuse to get away from the dining table and the wreckage of the lounge room. Sometimes an escape from a stressful family situation. And it can be a holiday treat by splashing out on a premium session such as Hoyts' Luxe or Gold Class at Event and Village.

But Disney's acquisition of movie brands – Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilm and now 20th Century Fox – is changing the game.

While many of us are struggling to wrap up work, studies and shopping, turning a new Star Wars movie into an event before Christmas means the studio avoids competing against the traditional Disney or Pixar animated family movie out on Boxing Day.

This year Pixar's Coco is expected to be one of the hits of the holidays.

In art-house cinemas, distributors have taken the tip, too. While the French comedy Just to Be Sure is nominally a Boxing Day release, it is getting two full weekends of advance screenings before it opens.

Publicity and what the industry calls "word of mouth" build up awareness of a film, which helps it find a place among the crowded line-up of new releases.

And it is certainly crowded this year.

With Christmas on Monday, the action comedy Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is getting preview screenings on the weekend.

And two other movies that are sure to be popular, the family sequel Paddington 2 and the Oscar-contending American drama The Florida Project, open five days before Boxing Day to beat the rush.

With all the intense competition in entertainment, including the rise of streaming services, the cinema industry is having to be strategic to counter declining ticket sales.

They worked out years ago that premium screenings, including giant screen and 3D sessions, encourage us to spend more each cinema visit.

While the top standard ticket has nudged up to $23 in some multiplexes, other cinemas are discounting prices to attract viewers.

The general manager of entertainment at Event Cinemas, Luke Mackey, thinks the line-up of films will make it "a pretty good Christmas" for cinemas.

But he recognises it has become even more important for films to become "events" to attract an audience.

"People are looking for something special," Mackey says. "Something unique … Making something special and giving people an additional reason to come out is going to become increasingly important."

Even if it is an exceptional Christmas for ticket sales, annual box office is still expected to be down by 3 to 4 per cent on last year's record $1.259 billion.

Early this month, it was down 6 per cent on the corresponding period last year, reflecting that Hollywood has delivered some disappointing blockbusters this year, including Transformers: The Last Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Mummy, Baywatch, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Monster Trucks and Justice League.

But with the exception of Beauty and the Beast, even the hits have taken less than would have been expected two years ago.

The managing director of Sony Pictures Australia, Stephen Basil-Jones, believes this shows the impact of streaming services.

"The quality and number of great programs has really signalled that they're a force to be reckoned with," he says. "Particularly in the drama area for adults, you have to have something compelling and cinema-worthy to take them on. It's a new challenge for our industry to compete against."

While Basil-Jones concedes July to September was "pretty grim", he is optimistic about the Boxing Day line-up, especially for Jumanji.

"I think it's going to be terrific," he says. "There's a film for everyone."