20 Years Ago, Elf Became A Huge Box Office Hit (And A Modern Holiday Classic) 

When we talk about Christmas movies and holiday classics, so often, we're talking about movies that came out decades ago, like "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), "Miracle on 34th Street" (1957), "A Christmas Story" (1983), or "Scrooged" (1988). Even "Home Alone" was released in 1990 and that feels downright modern compared to many of these films that have been in rotation for longer than a fair number of you reading this have been alive. The point is, it's tough to gain that coveted holiday classic status. But 20 years ago, Jon Favreau and Will Ferrell teamed up to give us the definitive modern Christmastime classic: "Elf."

The journey this movie traveled to eventually become the classic that it is today was not a simple one. It was in development for a decade with various actors attached — including Jim Carrey at one point — before eventually becoming a big part of what made Ferrell a huge movie star after his departure from "Saturday Night Live." It also helped turn Favreau into the A-list filmmaker we know him as today, with blockbusters like "Iron Man" and "The Jungle Book" under his belt. Both of their careers — and even the holiday season — might look very different today had this movie not panned out.

In this week's edition of Tales from the Box Office, in honor of the 20th anniversary of "Elf," we're looking back at the film, how the original darker version of the script kept the movie from getting made, the difficulties that went on behind the scenes during production, what happened when the movie finally hit theaters, and what lessons we can learn from it all these years later. Let's dig in, shall we?

The movie: Elf

Both of the men at the top — director Jon Favreau and star Will Ferrell — were not yet the powerhouses we know them as now in the early 2000s. Favreau had been a character actor known for roles in films like "Swingers." As a director, he had only done a couple of made-for-TV movies and 2001's "Made," which wasn't by any means a big success. He wasn't the obvious choice to helm a family-friendly Christmas film. Ferrell, meanwhile, had broken out big on "SNL" but had yet to prove his worth in movies, as "Old School" (also released in 2003) hadn't come out yet.

Not surprisingly, Favreau wasn't the studio's first choice. Originally written by David Berenbaum, "Elf" had been in development since the early '90s and New Line Cinema had yet to crack the code by the early 2000s. It started as a much darker picture, which might explain why Terry Zwigoff ("Ghost World") was offered the film, which he turned down. "I got the script for that, and I turned it down right away. Against my wife's better judgment," Zwigoff said to the New York Times in 2003. "She said: 'This film's going to make a million dollars. It's got Will Ferrell in it.” And I said, 'Yeah, I like Will Ferrell, but the script is just based on this contrived silliness.'" Zwigoff would go on to direct "Bad Santa" instead.

The script for "Elf" went through a rigorous series of rewrites, with Ferrell and his longtime filmmaking partner Adam McKay taking a crack at it while they were still trying to get "Anchorman" off the ground. Speaking to the Chicago Tribute in 2013, McKay explained they had no idea what the film would ultimately become:

"We were in my apartment in New York rewriting 'Elf,' and we were like, 'How did this happen?' We were supposed to make 'Anchorman,' but instead, we were rewriting a movie where a grown man is playing an elf. Like we didn't know how good 'Elf' was going to turn out to be."

From a dark PG-13 to an innocent PG

The movie that eventually made its way to theaters centers on an elf named Buddy (Ferrell), a human who snuck into Santa's bag as a baby. He grows into an adult three times larger than the biggest elf and realizes that he doesn't fit in at the North Pole. He then goes to New York City to find his real father (James Caan), a workaholic who's on Santa's "naughty" list. Buddy discovers his destiny is to save Christmas for New York and the world.

Favreau was eventually approached about the film and, initially, he turned out down. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2013, the filmmaker explained how — though reluctant at first — he eventually wound up in the director's chair.

"For a year, I rewrote the script. It turned into more of a PG movie from a PG-13. He was a darker character in the script I had read originally. The character became a bit more innocent, and the world became more of a pastiche of the Rankin/Bass films. The studio [New Line] read it and agreed to make it, and that's when I was brought on to direct."

Filming finally got underway in December of 2002, with production taking place in New York City and Vancouver, Canada. But for budgetary reasons, the filmmakers had to get creative and even repurposed a mental institution. Not exactly what one would expect for a sweet Christmas movie. The film had a reasonable budget of $33 million but that still necessitates some level of compromise. To his credit as a director, Favreau made it work.

'It was a bit of a nail-biter for everyone'

While there might not have been a great deal of enthusiasm for Ferrell at the beginning of the film, that tune changed as production rolled on. "Halfway through the production of 'Elf,' there was this infusement of enthusiasm for him," Favreau explained in a 2014 appearance on The Nerdist podcast. "But in the beginning, it was seen as a concept film. It was a bit of a nail-biter for everyone involved because Will did appear on the scene in a very big way ... but people were like, 'Is this movie too soft for the audience that is clearly coming out for him?'"

To Favreau's point, "Old School," a very R-rated comedy, opened in February 2003 and took in $87 million at the box office. It was a big hit, but not exactly hitting the same target audience that New Line was going for with this one. Even so, once they began testing the movie with actual moviegoers, it became clear they had accomplished something. Favreau, in that same interview, explained how the testing process went.

"We had two tests in one day. The first test was with young kids and it tested through the roof. But then I realized every movie tests through the roof with young kids. Don't celebrate too fast! Then, the next group was kids with piercings and flannel shirts ... It was a rough and ready alt/comedy college crowd. They were saying, 'Don't worry, we just want to see how it plays with this group. Don't concern yourself with it. We like the movie. We know it's for kids.' I snuck in the back of the theater, watched it, and when my credit came up, even then, there was applause."

In short, both audiences ate it up. "It was the first time I had a magic moment with a movie," the director concluded. He couldn't have possibly had any idea just how far that magic would extend.

The financial journey

Interestingly, Warner Bros. decided to release two movies on the same day. On November 7, 2003, the studio released "The Matrix Revolutions" as well as "Elf" through New Line Cinema. The thinking was that these films were going for very different crowds and wouldn't get in one another's way. That thinking proved to be correct, as it turned out.

"Matrix" took the top spot that weekend with a $48.4 million haul, but "Elf" did very well for itself, pulling in $32.1 million. It's a classic example of counter-programming working as intended, which is something studios got away from for a little while – particularly after the pandemic hit. What's also interesting is that another modern holiday classic in the form of "Love Actually" opened domestically that very same weekend, even though it had already been released overseas. It debuted at number six with $6.8 million.

The difference with "Elf" in the weeks to come is that the film held like gangbusters, dropping just 15 percent in its second weekend to take the top spot with $27.2 million. By contrast, "Matrix" fell off a cliff, dropping 66 percent, and took in just $16.4 million. The film continued on like that and finished its initial run with a monster $173.3 million domestically to go with $47 million internationally for a total of $220.4 million. Favreau had crafted a runaway hit and Ferrell's star power extended well beyond the realm of R-rated comedies. That much was certain. What nobody knew at the time was that the film would live on well beyond that theatrical run.

A holiday classic is born

"Elf" has become a downright staple of the Christmas season, much like some of the classics mentioned earlier. It is always in the rotation on cable TV in November and December, and it regularly screens at any theater chain that puts together a holiday lineup. The film has done well in its various re-releases over the years and even pulled in more than $2 million in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. That served as definitive proof that Favreau's film is an enduring one. It's a film that has been included in many "best of" Christmas movie lists and, in many cases, is one of — if not the only movie made after the turn of the millennium on many such lists.

"Our goal, even then, was to make a movie that could be part of that pantheon," Favreau said in that Rolling Stone interview from 2013. "The fact that it's in rotation is the highest honor that movie can have." Even Ferrell knows they captured lightning in a bottle. Even though the studio offered him a great sum of money to return for a sequel, the actor turned it down. Explaining why in a 2021 interview, he had the following to say about it:

"I would have had to promote the movie from an honest place, which would've been, like, 'Oh no, it's not good. I just couldn't turn down that much money.' And I thought, 'Can I actually say those words? I don't think I can, so I guess I can't do the movie.'"

Understandably, the bean counters look at the success of this kind and want to further capitalize on it. Ferrell knows better. As he learned with "Anchorman 2," recapturing magic is often a fool's errand.

The lessons contained within

First and foremost, it's pretty incredible that Warner Bros. hasn't forced a sequel to happen at any point. It's hard to imagine them doing it without Ferrell, and the actor had enough integrity to walk away from a king's ransom to preserve what came before. That's pretty rare to find. That's not to say a sequel — or God forbid a reboot of some kind — will never happen. But 20 years later, it hasn't happened, and that's kind of amazing.

The other thing that stands out is the fact that the studio waited a long time to get this movie right. In the '90s when Jim Carrey was at the absolute height of his powers, it's easy to see why making it with him in the lead would have been an attractive option, even if it was a darker iteration of the film. And sure, maybe that version would have been a hit, But would it have been a hit as big as "Elf" as we know it? Would it have become a part of the holiday lexicon? We can't say for certain but it's hard to argue against the way things played out. Rather wisely, everyone exercised patience with this one and put their faith in the right people — even if those people were relatively untested at the time.

Looking at the Christmas movie of it all, the final thing worth looking at is the fact that very few movies break through and become annual traditions. Dozens of holiday movies are made every year and most (if not all) of them are forgotten to time. It's easy enough to take some Christmastime tropes and wrap them up in a warm package. It's another thing entirely to do so in a way that truly strikes a chord with people. "Elf" is undoubtedly one of the rarest of rare genuine bits of cinematic holiday magic.



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