more turkey movies, please

Cinematic leftovers: Why Hollywood views Thanksgiving as a second-rate holiday

Cinematic leftovers: Why Hollywood views Thanksgiving as a second-rate holiday

Today, just as you surrender your fork in defeat after helping number three of turkey and stuffing, perhaps you’ll be inclined (or rather reclined) to watch a movie.

You switch off the football game and head to the video store, looking for something to perfectly encapsulate this glorious day. By about the time you’ve walked past the third endcap display for Christmas movies, you ask the clerk for the Thanksgiving section. You are met with an expression that elegantly straddles befuddlement and disgust. You are directed to the comedy section, to the titles Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the arguably erroneously shelved Hannah and her Sisters (if anything, it’s a dramedy, but that’s another argument for another day).

Yes, that is about the extent of your options. Sure, there may be another title here or there, if you really rack your brain or engage in diligent research. But where it would take you all day to reach the end of the list of Christmas movies you could recall off the top your head, the tally of movies that center on Thanksgiving is decidedly small. There are plenty of movies covering wide spans of time that may feature a scene or two taking place on Thanksgiving, but finding films that take place entirely on the last Thursday of November or that focus specifically on the holiday are as rare as being the first in line for a Black Friday sale.

Year after year, as one or more new Christmas movies are released in theaters shortly after Halloween, we are left to ponder why Hollywood has historically neglected Thanksgiving.

According to the principle of Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is probably the best. We cannot overlook the obvious cultural limitations of the holiday and its effects on box office returns. While people in countries all over the world celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving is a distinctly American institution. Especially in recent years, studios have grown conscious of the lucrative nature of international box office to the point where it now curries equal consideration to domestic returns in terms of marketing strategy. It would therefore be unwise for a studio to alienate a gigantic portion of their audience by marketing a film that holds no cultural relevance outside of the states. It’s the same reason France doesn’t bother to export many films based around Bastille Day.

Another possible explanation for the dearth of Thanksgiving films could stem from emotional associations with the holiday that are less than pleasant. Christmas conjures a wealth of positive affective responses bred of the perceived magic of the season. Christmas is a time of peace, caring and hope. There are many different customs and traditions from which screenwriters can mine a host of jovial and universally relatable experiences. A substantial portion of what these films are selling is the warmth and comfort of holiday cheer and family togetherness.  

The problem is that while Thanksgiving offers a similar atmosphere of family togetherness, its only other defining qualities are gluttony and drama. Thanksgiving, as the commencement of the holiday season, is often the first time all year that distant relatives gather together. With nothing but a dinner table and an entire day’s worth of stressing in the kitchen to commemorate the occasion, it isn’t hard to understand how arguments can break out. It is a holiday that lends itself more to drama than anything else.

Heavy drama isn’t as powerful a box office draw around the holidays as comedy or upbeat family fare; two genres on which Christmas has the market cornered.

Finally, an enormous setback for the proliferation of Thanksgiving films is the holiday’s staggering lack of iconography. Christmas has an abundance of different symbols that have come to canonize the season. For the more religiously minded, Jesus and the Nativity are the duly appointed representatives of Christmas. But Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, reindeer, elves, snowmen, candy canes, ornately decorated trees and neatly wrapped gifts are also easily recognized emblems of the holiday. Thanksgiving has three identifiable trademarks: pilgrims, Native Americans, and turkeys. Obviously, Christmas provides more creative fodder for a holiday film than does Thanksgiving.

There are only so many different variations on that historic feast at Plymouth colony that will drive audiences to theaters. Until a better option presents itself, our only advice is this: do not let your cousin convince you that a post-feast Twilight marathon is a good afternoon idea.

Austin Photo Set: News_brian salisbury_thanksgiving cinema_Nov 2011