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Christmas movies scarce as new approaches dry up

This year, the role of Grinch will be played by Hollywood.

The release of new Christmas movies long has been as much a tradition of the season as the annual late-night TV showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and shoppers stampeding stores on Black Friday.

But this year, there’s hardly a holiday movie in sight.

Instead of playing off time-tested and universal plot lines such as a return home for the holidays or trotting out Christmas icons such as Santa Claus, Tinseltown is forgoing the usual, uh, tinsel.

The lone Christmas movie, “The Nutcracker in 3D,” has received tepid reviews and is appearing in only a token number of theaters.

In past seasons, there have been as many as half a dozen holiday movies jostling one another in theaters in the closing weeks of the year.

The scarcity of Christmas movies reflects a change in traditional Hollywood thinking. Family films are as popular as ever, industry executives note – indeed, the year’s biggest-grossing picture is the kid-friendly “Toy Story 3” – but the film world thinks Yuletide themes are getting a bit long in the whiskers.

“The way to do a big-budget film these days is to take stories that everyone in the world knows and take them in a new direction,” said Joe Roth, a producer and former chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

“But no one’s come up with a fresh way to do a holiday movie, so we’re all doing it with other kinds of stories.”

Roth should know. He helped create the Christmas blockbuster, overseeing two holiday-oriented “Home Alone” movies at Fox and the first release in Disney’s “Santa Clause” trilogy.

But this year he’s not readying any Christmas films, instead concentrating on new takes on the “Snow White” and “Wizard of Oz” stories.

Those hoping Hollywood’s Kringle-less Christmas is an aberration will be disappointed. There is only one known holiday movie in the development pipeline for 2011 – and that’s an import from Britain.

For decades, Christmas films have been the closest you can get to an old chestnut in Hollywood. No fewer than 57 holiday movies have been released since MGM debuted “A Christmas Carol” in 1938 (the first of six adaptations of the Charles Dickens classic, including one starring the Muppets).

St. Nick in particular has enjoyed cinematic appeal, going back to 1947. That’s when Edmund Gwenn portrayed the cultured gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and an ample belly who was hired as a department-store Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

The red suit had currency through 2006, when Tim Allen wrapped up the “Santa Clause” franchise after $369 million in domestic box office.

Along the way there were darker, more contemporary takes. Billy Bob Thornton played a con man doubling as Kris Kringle in “Bad Santa,” and “Scrooged,” starring Bill Murray, turned Dickens’ classic miser into a (what else?) misanthropic TV executive.

So why are the studios putting Santa and Scrooge on ice?

Industry insiders say the beginning of the end came in 2006, when the megaplex was overrun with what might be called irrational seasonal exuberance. So many holiday films were released or re-released that year that one of them, Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” had to open before Halloween to avoid opening-day collisions.

Several of the movies that year flopped, including the Danny DeVito comedy “Deck the Halls.”

And last year came the poor performance of Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol.” The 3-D extravaganza pulled in only $137 million in domestic box office despite star Jim Carrey and a huge production and marketing budget.

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