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Like cinema-goers all over Australia and New Zealand, filmmaker Jonathan Teplitzky always looks forward to Boxing Day at the movies.
"It's always a nice thing to take the kids to," says the director of Better Than Sex, Gettin' Square and Burning Man. "It's a good tradition."
And so it is: it's time to relax into the holidays. And on the biggest day of the year for cinemas, there is always a rich brew of new movies.
But Teplitzky has a special interest this year. He directed one of those movies - the emotional Colin Firth-Nicole Kidman drama The Railway Man about a survivor of the infamous Thai-Burma railway during World War II who confronts one of his Japanese captors decades later.
While other Boxing Day releases are pitched at different audiences, it has to be a daunting proposition for any director to go up against Peter Jackson's epic fantasy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Disney's animatedFrozen and Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in the comic drama The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.
The Martin Scorcese-directed The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill will also draw a strong audience when it opens in New Zealand theatres tomorrow.
For audiences who prefer art-house films, there is also Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the British/Irish dramaPhilomena and Short Term 12, an American drama set in a foster home for troubled teenagers.
"It's a daunting part of the process whenever you release," says Teplitzky. "You may as well go out when people are really keen to go to the cinema and they're looking for all sorts of films to take their friends and family to.
"It's a day when there's a lot of choice but it's also a day when there's a huge audience looking for choice."
After a patchy few months for Hollywood blockbusters, cinemas are expected to be buzzing from the first Boxing Day session.
A week ago, box office was less than $14 million over seven days. Over the next week, it will likely top $40 million.
Given the creep of ticket prices towards higher priced sessions over the past year, the national tally could easily top last year's $44 million in the same period. That equates to more than 3 million cinema visits - almost 500,000 a day.
Cinema executives are unanimous in believing the second Hobbit movie will lead the box office over the next month.
While the middle movie was the least successful of Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy, it did well enough to still be among the 20 highest-grossing movies in Australian cinema history.
And the strong critical reception for The Desolation of Smaug - "nearly everything ... represents an improvement over the first instalment," said The Hollywood Reporter - suggests it will top the $42.9 million taken by the first Hobbit movie.
One in every three tickets sold over the next week is expected to be for a journey into Middle-earth.
While the industry thrives on hype and hope, there seems solid grounds for the optimism of cinema and distribution executives for the holidays, including continuing audiences for American Hustle and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.
While there is neither a big action movie (like Skyfall last year) nor an acclaimed foreign-language film, there is also nothing as disappointing as Parental Guidance last year orTower Heist and War Horse the year before.
And if the new movies feel familiar, there are good reasons. Once Boxing Day was all about a new Lord of the Rings instalment; now it's a new Hobbit movie. Past years have featured Ben Stiller in Meet The Parents movies and Tower Heist; now he's in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And where there have been animated Happy Feet movies set in Antarctica, now there is Frozen set in an icy kingdom.
David Seargeant, the managing director of Amalgamated Holdings which owns Event cinemas, says he grew more confident about the movie line-up as Boxing Day approached.
"We had a very soft period over July-October," he says. "With [the latest] Thor, we got a little bit of traction. Then [the latest] The Hunger Games has been fantastic. That all-important momentum - people talking about movies and what we're going to see over summer - was on the radar.
"And there's a lot there for everyone. It's a really broad offering this year."
Blending fantasy, adventure and a touch of romance, the new Hobbit is what marketers call a four-quadrant movie - playing to males and females, both under and over 25.
"That's what people want - those big releases - on Boxing Day," Seargeant says. "Then you support it with a lot of well-told stories."
According to the chief operating officer of Hoyts cinemas, Matthew Liebmann, the movie line-up is spot-on.
"Your triple-A blockbusters like Hobbit and Frozen are going to cover the mass market, Mitty will do the same, and for those who have slightly more specialised tastes, there are a couple of great films for them as well."
While weather can be a factor in how often we go to the cinema, Liebmann believes that won't be the case these holidays.
"In our industry, we always like a bit of rain or a bit of extreme heat. But I honestly believe the line-up of films this Christmas is strong enough to withstand whatever weather.
"Sometimes we do the rain dance harder than other years. I think we can go a little easier this year."
Taking into account the Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts family drama August: Osage County on January 1, distributor Troy Lum from Hopscotch calls it "one of the strongest line-ups in years".
Also heading for cinemas in January are Walking With Dinosaurs, adapted from the acclaimed BBC documentary series, Geoffrey Rush in the literary adaptation The Book Thief, the action movies Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 47 Ronin, and the Oscar contenders Inside Llewyn Davis from the Coen brothers and Saving Mr Banks with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson.
Considering the strong competition in cinemas as well as from sport, DVD box sets and improved summer television, some films are bound to get disappointing audiences.
As Lum says, movie-goers are drawn more often to "event" movies in both mainstream and art-house cinemas, which means films tend to be either hits or flops, with little in between.
"In the quality end of the market, you have to be what people want to see," he says. "If you are, you'll get results like Blue Jasmine or The Butler or what we're hoping for with Philomena.
"Then again, we've had films this year like Red 2 that have really disappointed. Even Rush to a certain extent was a disappointment. We really thought that film would do a lot better but it just didn't hit that bullseye.
"What you find is if you're not hitting the bullseye, you're really falling way short."
Jonathan Teplitzky is hoping an interest in meaningful movies helps Railway Man hit that bullseye.
"There's a great thirst among audiences for films about things, for films that have substance and for films that tell a great story," he says. "And Railway Man is not just a great story; it's a real story.
"There's a real interest in those stories where you can go, wow, a real person went through those experiences."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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