Holiday Movies 2016: All The Films to See This Month, and How They’re Being Marketed

From comedy to drama, and indie to blockbuster

Headshot of Chris Thilk

Harry: "Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Year's."

Sally: "A lot of suicides."

Yeah, it's a stressful time of year. Many of us are dealing with extended family more than we do any other time of year, and so are looking for moments of respite and escape. We might disappear into our phones, we might hide a small bottle of wine in the linen closet, or we might drive to Target and just sit in the parking lot for a sec.

Hollywood is, of course, hoping we got to the movies. To that end, it's put together a December release slate that mixes in a little bit of everything, from family-friendly comedies to big-budget blockbusters to prestige dramas vying for awards consideration.

Let's have a look at the contenders.


Based on a True Story

Jackie (12/2)

Fox Searchlight created a campaign that focuses heavily on the style and visuals of director Pablo Larraín's biopic of one of the most famous First Ladies in U.S. history. Everything in the marketing emphasized the framing of the scenes of Natalie Portman in the title role moving through the stations of historical events that impacted the 1960s on a massive scale. We don't need to be told this is based on a true story because hopefully (if our Social Studies teachers did their jobs) we know that already.


Hidden Figures (12/30)

Less well known is this story of a group of black women who helped send the first U.S. astronauts to the moon. Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in this story of, essentially, racial equality in the workplace and that's been the tack the studio has taken with trailers that focus on the barriers the group faces as they just want to do their jobs. There's a clear message that this is a true story we may not be aware of as the movie is also obviously vying for award nominations.


Patriots Day (12/23)

Mark Wahlberg stars in his second movie of the year where he plays a real person who leaves his loving wife to go to work on a fateful day that will change everything. This one (the other was Deepwater Horizon) chronicles events from just a few years ago on the day of the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the manhunt for those responsible. The campaign has emphasized the drama, tears and other ground-level stories of the people involved in those events.



Indie Auteurs

La La Land (12/9)

Hey girl, how do you sell an original theatrical musical (most of which haven't fared well recently) about falling in love in L.A.? By leaning the hell into the premise and emphasizing, both in the marketing and the press, not just the starring turns by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling but also that it comes from the director of the acclaimed Whiplash. The movie will likely benefit not just from those stars but also with the almost universal praise it's earned from screenings at various festivals in the second half of this year. Oh, at it just looks incredibly damn charming.


20th Century Women (12/30)

Writer/director Mike Mills' follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Beginners seems genetically designed to dominate the Best Actress categories come awards season. Most importantly, it seems to be reminding everyone that Annette Bening is one of the most amazing actors around while selling what has constantly been referred to as a very autobiographical film from Mills about the women in his life.


Paterson (12/30)

Adam Driver stars in the latest drama from director Jim Jarmusch as a New Jersey bus driver. The campaign so far, particularly the trailer, has focused on just what an ordinary nice guy Paterson is as he helps and listens to the citizens of the city that shares his name. The overall emphasis is on Jarmusch's brand while it also sells Driver's titular character as a sensitive soul who writes poetry and has meaningful conversations with strangers in the park.



Let's Just Laugh

Office Christmas Party (12/9)

T.J. Miller joins Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman and Olivia Wilde in this comedy about a "holiday mixer" that gets epically out of hand. With the exception of Almost Christmas, which came out a few weeks ago, this is the only Christmas movie hitting theaters this season and it's R-rated, meaning it's not something to take the kids to. The campaign has played up the outrageous antics and seems to be taking pains to emphasize Kate McKinnon's supporting role as she's so hot right now.


Why Him? (12/23)

No, this is not an Encino Man remake, but the premise is close: A young woman (Zoey Deutch) introduces her buttoned-up family (Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally) to her new, totally wild boyfriend (James Franco) who in this case is an internet millionaire. The campaign to date has focused almost entirely on the pairing of Cranston and Franco not just in the trailers that show the basic story outline but in TV spots that put the two of them together talking about Snapchat, Movember and more as opposed to specifically selling the movie.



For the Whole Family

Sing (12/23)

This Zootopia sequel focuse…wait, I'm sorry, I'm being told this is *not* a Zootopia sequel. OK, so this story of a *different* society of intermingling anthropomorphic animal species sells it as a series of stories of the animals who audition for an "American Idol"-like singing competition. While the trailers have contained plenty of story points, it's also being sold as a continuation of Illumination Entertainment's overall brand, most specifically the ties it has to Despicable Me and those adorable little Minions.


A Monster Calls (12/23)

Sorry, we'd love to talk about the strategies the studio is taking to sell this story of a boy whose imagination creates a creature that acts out his fantasies as the boy copes with his mother's illness and death but (sniff) we seem to have something (sniff) in our eye. Please move (sniff) on.



Science Fiction / Fantasy

Passengers (12/23)

With the recent success of Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian it makes a lot of sense that Sony is focusing on the space traveler elements of this story, which finds two deep-space passengers (natch) waking up 90 years too early on their trip to a faraway planet. And it doesn't hurt that it stars two of today's hottest and most beautiful stars with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. The entire campaign sells this as a sci-fi love story combining all the things that have drawn audiences to those other out-of-this-world movies.


Assassin's Creed (12/23)

20th Century Fox is looking to score that most elusive of beasts, the successful video game adaptation. Michael Fassbender stars as the time-traveling (kind of) assassin. And…that's the pretty much the pitch being made to the audience. Come enjoy the spectacle on display but instead of controlling the action yourself you get to just watch. On the plus side, there seems to be more backstory that's added to explain just how Callum Lynch, Fassbender's character gets roped into the situation.



Serious Dramas

Collateral Beauty (12/16)

More arrows aimed straight at the audience's feels with this story of a man whose wife and child dies and grieves by writing letters to emotions like death, love and more, who eventually appear to him in the flesh. Will Smith plays the grieving widower with supporting turns by Kiera Knightly, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton and others. The marketing has been all about the conversations between Smith and the personified emotions and has been shot in a hazy style, making this look like a Hallmark Channel original with A-list stars and a big studio budget.


Live By Night (12/30)

Ben Affleck wrote, directed and stars in this period drama about a gangster life in the 1930s. There has been plenty of focus on the story, but the emphasis has really been on the style of the filmmaking, with everything being drenched in browns and oranges, the better to emphasize the fedoras being worn and old cars being driven. It's being sold as an uber-violent morality tale in an attempt to bring in the adults who made Gone Girl, Argo and other non-Batman Affleck turns a hit and others who just want to not see Sing with their kids again.


Fences (12/30)

Let's just give Denzel Washington, who also directed this adaptation of a popular stage play, and Viola Davis all the awards now. If you aren't drawn in by Washington's emotional monologuing skills that are on display and the relationship between the married couple at the heart of the story I'm not sure how to help you see the light.


Silence (12/23)

Director Martin Scorsese returns with a historical drama that takes him far outside the "New York crime drama" he's most well known for. This story of the search for a 17th century Jesuit priest in the wilderness of Japan by two of his students. The movie has been at the top of Scorsese's to-do-list for decades and been gestating for quite a while. What's particularly notable is that for as long as it's been in the works, the marketing just kicked off officially a month prior to release, an incredibly short window for a prestige release from one of cinema's most important directors.



Star Wars

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12/16)

Let's just be honest and say this gets a category of its own. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has been getting a big marketing blitz for the last eight months but it's really turned up the heat in the last month as we get closer to release, with TV spots that show more of the story, press stories that talk about how big a star Felicity Jones is and will continue to be and more. The campaign has emphasized "Hope" as the central theme, one expressed by Jones' Jyn Erso and others, though the tone has shifted from selling a character drama to focusing more on the "war movie" aspects of the story.

@ChrisThilk Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategy consultant in the Chicago suburbs. You can find him at, where he shares his thoughts on content marketing, media and movie marketing.