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December 16, 2018

Using data to determine if Die Hard is a Christmas movie

Ok, enough bickering and fighting.

Let’s settle this once and for all in the only way I know how – going into a topic in way too much detail. As we prepare to enter the year 32 ADH (a.k.a. After Die Hard), the world is gripped by a constantly nagging question.

No, it’s not “Why does everyone call Hans Gruber and his gang ‘terrorists’ when they were clearly bank robbers?”

Today we’re going to use data to answer the question “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” Along the way, we’re going to test Die Hard’s Christmas bona fides against all movies in US cinemas for the past thirty years, using a variety of methods.

I have put details of my sources and methodology at the end of the article. The short story is that unless I say otherwise, the data for ‘all movies’ relates to all movies shown in US cinemas between 1988 (ie the year of our Lord John McClane) and 2017.

What is Die Hard?

Die Hard is an action thriller from 1988 in which a grizzled NYPD cop becomes a one-man army to take on a group of German bank robbers who are holding his wife and her unlucky colleagues hostage in a high-rise office block.

The film takes place at Christmas time but Santa is nowhere to be seen (or was deep undercover – the movie doesn’t make that clear). The movie’s plot came from the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, which was a follow up to The Detective.  There was a 1968 movie adaptation of The Detective starring Frank Sinatra and so, contractually, a then 73-year-old Sinatra had to be first to be offered the role of action hero John McClane. Fortunately for us, he turned it down and our dirty-vested protagonist was instead played by Bruce Willis.

The movie has been a hit with critics and audiences for just over three decades and it often appears high on lists of top action movies.

In recent years, there has been growing debate as to whether Die Hard should also be included in the pantheon of great Christmas movies and it’s this question which we will settle today.

What is a Christmas movie?

Some Christmas movies are obvious – Jingle All the Way is hands-down a (bad) Christmas movie.

Some movies are obviously not Christmas movies – Last Action Hero is just a bad movie.

The reason Die Hard sparks such fierce arguments is that film appreciation is subjective. Filmmaking is a highly collaborative art without one single ‘creator’ and films are typically designed to be seen by large numbers of people around the world. We are all aware that we have differing preferences but few people consider that we also have differing perspectives on what a ‘movie’ actually is.

I contend that there are three distinct perspectives through which we can consider a movie:

  • Creative. By seeing the film as an artistic work, we can parse the intent of the filmmakers and limit our enquires to what we see and hear while watching it.
  • Commercial. We could focus on the film as a commercial product, made to fuel a capitalist industry which is propelled by marketing and responds to customer demands.
  • Cultural. We could put aside the story within the movie (i.e. the plot) and focus on the story OF the movie. This means considering what a movie means to people, how it is regarded and how it fits in the wider discourse of movies and of culture more broadly.

I have gathered data for each of these perspectives to see what we can discover about the essence of Die Hard’s Christmasness (or its Christmaslessness, as remains to be seen).

Part 1 – Creative

Let’s start by assessing the artistic work of Die Hard (as opposed to the commercial product or cultural icon).

We’ll do this by measuring the Christmas references in the script, on-screen and in the soundtrack.

The script

By going back to the film’s script we are able to see what the screenwriters saw as part of their vision. The word “Christmas” appears 18 times in the script, which is more than the words “explode” (4), “die” (5),”hard” (11), “shoot” (12), “kill” (13) and “blood” (13), although far fewer times than”gun” (73), “terrorist” (51) and “suddenly” (45).

The script also includes a rather meta reference to whether a song (RUN-DMC’s Christmas in Hollis) is Christmassy enough.

Creators’ intent

One of the two credited writers of the film, Steven de Souza has publicly declared “If ‘Die Hard’ is not a Christmas movie, then ‘White Christmas’ is not a Christmas movie”.  He pointed out that, unlike White Christmas, his movie took place entirely at Christmas, featured a Christmas party and the “Christ-like sacrifice” of John McClane walking on broken glass.

However, Bruce Willis is firmly in the “No” camp.  He told the Hollywood Reporter: “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!

Visual references

There are a total of 21 distinct Christmassy elements in the movie, ranging from Santa hats and Christmas Trees to festive treats and a pivotal piece of “Christmas Greetings” tape. Sadly, I can’t do detailed visual analysis on every movie released over the past thirty years as they would take 1,356,242 hours to watch – or until 6th Sept 2173 if I watch them back to back, which my wife says I’m not allowed to do.

All this means that, so far, we are only able to say that Die Hard “contains some Christmassy elements” but not how it compares to other films.

I have found other movies which are not generally regarded as Christmas movies but which could pass this test – e.g. In Bruges, Trading Places and About A Boy are all set at Christmas time. And non-Christmassy movies with more uses of the word “Christmas” in their scripts than Die Hard include The Apartment (31), L.A. Confidential (24) and Annie Hall (19).

Audible references

Let’s turn to a cultural measure of Christmasification for which we can get large-scale data: songs.  I gathered song listings for three-quarters of all movies released over the past thirty years and identified the songs culturally associated with Christmas. Of these films, 95.5% did not feature any Christmas songs at all. Shame. The prevalence of Christmas songs in modern movies varies considerably but in most years it ends up that between 3% and 7% of movies have at least one such ditty.  This means that having even one Christmas song makes a film unusually Christmassy compared to most other releases. The most widely used Christmas song is Jingle Bells, followed by Deck the Halls and Joy to the World. Note: Jingle Bells wasn’t actually written as a Christmas song but was intended to be about Thanksgiving. Not only is this a bit of trivia to bore your family with over Christmas dinner, but it also sets the stage for our third perspective which looks how artistic products are perceived over time, no matter their creators’ initial intent. More on that later.

Die Hard features Christmas in Hollis, Winter Wonderland, a whistled section of Jingle Bells and a rousing rendition of Let It Snow over the end credits. This means that audibly, Die Hard is more Christmassy than 99.2% of all movies released over the past thirty years.

To conclude this first perspective, it could be argued that Die Hard is a Christmas movie from the point of view of what’s creatively in the movie but it’s far from being a slam dunk case. Plus, there are other movies which would pass some of these tests despite being less Chritsmassy overall.

Part 2 – Commercial

Let’s move on to the commercial side of the movie. This takes us far away from the piece as an artistic work and sees it as a product in the audio-visual distribution machine that is Hollywood. We’ll look at the choices made by the film’s studio, 20th Century Fox, to learn how they viewed the movie at the time of release.

Release dates

A movie’s release date can reveal a lot about how the studio or distributor views the movie. In the past, I have looked at how the annual release calendar contains the same repeating patterns each year and no-one will be surprised to hear that Christmas movies tend to come out around, well, Christmas.

In order to decode the release date, let’s look at the US release dates of movies we are absolutely certain are Christmas movies – those with Christmas-related terms in their title (such as A Bad Moms Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks and Bad Santa).

Over half of such movies were released in November and a further 30% opened in December. 40% of these Christmas movies opened between five, six or seven weeks before Xmas day. By contrast, Die Hard opened in the US in July 1988 and in the UK in February the following year – distinctly un-Christmassy months.

Poster

Next, we turn to how the movie was marketed to moviegoers.  Across all 13,255 movies, only 0.5% have explicitly Christmassy imagery on their main poster (i.e. the posters used on IMDb and Wikipedia).  The most common elements are Santa suits, wrapped presents and Christmas trees with red and green colours taking precedence. Some movie posters make vague references to the season, such as snow or frosted windows, but I did not include these as being Christmassy because otherwise we’re not being serious about this and we might as well include Touching The Void.

None of Die Hard’s contemporaneous theatrical posters featured any Christmas elements, instead sticking to explosions, guns and a big picture of Bruce Willis’ worried-looking face.  However, it’s worth noting that some extremely Christmassy movies do not use Christmas imagery on their posters, such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Holiday and Home Alone.

Tagline

The posters for Die Hard used a mix of taglines, including;

  • Twelve terrorists. One cop. The odds are against John McClane… That’s just the way he likes it.
  • High above the city of L.A. a team of terrorists has seized a building, taken hostages and declared war. One man has managed to escape. An off-duty cop hiding somewhere inside. He’s alone, tired… and the only chance anyone has got.
  • 40 stories of sheer adventure!

Not a Christmas reference in sight. Whereas most true Christmas movies highlight how important the holiday season or festivities are to the plot:

  • Krampus – You better watch out.
  • Elf – This holiday, discover your inner elf.
  • The Polar Express – This holiday season… believe.
  • The Escape Clause – ‘Twas the fight before Christmas.
  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Yule crack up.
  • Home Alone – When the McCallisters went on holiday they forgot one minor detail… Kevin

To conclude the commercial perspective, it’s abundantly clear that 20th Century Fox did not see Die Hard as a Christmas film.

Part 3 – Cultural

Finally, we turn to the last of our three perspectives – viewing the film as a cultural icon, above and beyond the movie or its commercial impact. We will measure this by looking at how many people regard Die Hard as a Christmas movie, when people think about Die Hard and how this is shifting over time.

IMDb user lists

IMDb allows registered users to make public or private lists of films. I found 2,007 public lists which directly purported to contain Christmas movies, such as The Top 100 Christmas movies of all-timeChristmas Movies and 100 Movies set in winter time: Christmas time.

By gathering all of the movies in these lists, we have a dataset of 1,320 feature films which people are happy to publicly describe as Christmassy. Not only that, but we can see which are the most frequently cited. Die Hard is the 22nd most frequently cited movie of all time in Christmas-themed IMDb lists.

Wikipedia page views

If a movie truly is “a Christmas movie” then we would expect to see a significant increase in interest in the movie around the Christmas period.  To see if this is the case for Die Hard, I have gathered Wikipedia pageview data from the past three and a half years for two sets of movies – top action movies and top Christmas movies.  This will show us what kinds of patterns we should be looking out for when we turn to Die Hard’s pageview data.

Interest in action movies does not fit an annual pattern – views are spread fairly evenly through the year. Conversely, page views for Christmas movies spike… well, exactly where you’d expect them to – in December. Let’s look at Die Hard’s page views and see which of these two patterns best matches our film du jour. While not as pronounced as the other Christmas movies, it’s clear that public interest in Die Hard spikes in December.

Google Trends

Finally, let’s look at how public interest in Die Hard changes over a longer period of time. Google Trends allows us to do just that and the chart below shows the results for the term “Die Hard”. The releases of Die Hard 4.0 and A Good Day To Die Hard are the two busiest periods for “Die Hard” references. Once we discount these Die Hard sequels, we can see a clear trend of the phrase being used around Christmas time. This seems to be increasing significantly in recent years.

The final result: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

After taking this long journey with me, I’m sure you can appreciate the complexity involved in answering a seemingly simple question. We’ve had to consider what is a movie, who is asking the question (plus who is answering it) and how the perception of movies change over time.

The neatest summary I can provide is to say that there are many Christmas elements in the movie. Although the studio did not intend it to be a Christmas movie, some of the film’s key creators did.

Either way, it’s certainly fair to say that Die Hard is regarded as a Christmas movie in popular culture. Like it or not, the association between Die Hard and Christmas is fast increasing and in years to come its Christmassyness will be beyond question.

Future generations will read in wonder that Die Hard was ever thought not to be a Christmas movie and articles such as the one you’re reading now will be seen as nothing but a massive waste of everyone’s time. Imagine that!

Notes

Data for today’s research came from IMDb, Box Office Mojo, The Numbers / Opus and Wikipedia.

Unless otherwise stated, all data relates to the initial US theatrical release of the movies in question.  Wikipedia data relates to the period 1st July 2015 and 14th December 2018.

For each dataset created and used in this research, I have tried to be as complete and thorough as possible. It’s never going to be possible to be 100% comprehensive as much of this work relies on the accuracy of public sources of data. If a Christmas song is featured in a movie but not listed as such on any public movie database then I too would have overlooked it.

There were a few threads I did not have time to explore. A major one is an uptick in screenings of Die Hard, both on television and in cinemas, over the Christmas holiday period. I also could have used my data more broadly, to look at other Christmas movies. This could be a future article if there’s interest.

There were also a few threads I chose not to follow.  For example, some people suggested the number and volume of Christmas-themed merchandise around a movie should be taken into account.  Given the rampant capitalist world we live in, I don’t think this is a reliable metric of anything other than the lengths companies will go to sell us rubbish at Christmas. Game of Thrones is not Christmas-related in any way but you can buy Ho Ho Hodor Christmas jumpers, Jon Snow Christmas tree decorations and ‘Christmas is Coming Jon Snowman’ mug.

I’m very grateful to all of my readers who responded to a call asking for tips on what to track, to the students at Birmingham City University for their ideas last week and to Liora for helping with research and structuring the piece.

Epilogue

If you have a question or objection to any of my methods, please either leave a comment below or drop me a line privately.

If you would like to complain about the result and demand a second referendum then… well, tough. This is the only deal on offer. Ho-ho-ho.

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34 Responses

  1. imtiaz barolia December 17, 2018 at 10:47 am #

    and last but not the least every time the song “Let it snow..let it snow ..let it snooooow!
    plays most of my friends jump up and scream “Die hard”!

    Die Hard is definitely as much a X’mas movie as Santa clause is to X’mas!
    we now have sub Genre folks “X’mas action movie!”

    Sorry Bruce!but it had to be said.u are the Santa’ cause’ of this new sub Genre!

  2. Janet Wells December 17, 2018 at 11:10 am #

    I thought this was your most interesting analysis yet! Thanks for sharing that. Tbh, I thought you were going to spend more time delving into ‘what makes a christmas movie’ in terms of theme (family, giving, love) and compare the messages of the most popular, indisputable Christmas movies with Die Hard and see if it fit (which I think it does) (but so do so many other movies). Nevertheless, I found your analysis very interesting. cheers (and Merry Christmas!)

    • Stephen Follows December 17, 2018 at 12:48 pm #

      Hi Janet. I did actually study that but this article was already too long and so I have held that back for another article looking at Christmas films more generally. It would only inform the first viewpoint (i.e. artistic) and that seems well covered already.

  3. James D Madara December 17, 2018 at 2:40 pm #

    Q: Does Christmas plan an integral part to the story?
    A: Yes John McClain wouldn’t have gone if he wasn’t asked to attend the Christmas party.

    Q: Is there Christmas music in the movie?
    A: ‘Let it Snow’ by Bing Crosby along with some sleigh bells SFX

    • Quandary December 19, 2018 at 8:05 pm #

      Wow that’s so integral. Nobody has parties any day but Christmas.

      • kjbeggs December 21, 2018 at 6:50 pm #

        Well, families take vacations in the Summer, so home alone didn’t have to be set at Christmas…

      • ReadItsFundamental December 24, 2018 at 6:00 am #

        @Quandary – reading comprehension fail. No one has Christmas parties anytime but Christmas time.

  4. Richard Gehron December 17, 2018 at 3:42 pm #

    Stephen,

    Another fascinating read. A few tangential observations.
    It’s interesting that Die Hard just missed your Top 20 IMDB list by 2 spots. I would be interested to know where Gremlins falls on that list. It is also frequently a “forgotten” Christmas movie by many people even though it would rate higher in all your categories than Die Hard. I feel that it suffers similarly to Die Hard in the fact that it is a multi-genre movie and is thought of as “scary” before it is thought of as “Christmassy”.

    I also read a fascinating and completely accurate observation on Twitter last week where an athlete was asked about his favorite Christmas movies. Not only did Die Hard make his Top 3 list, but he also made sure to note that ” ‘Die Hard’ is basically the adult version of ‘Home Alone’.” And since Home Alone tops your IMDB Christmas (references) List, I just had to mention it. It made me smile, anyway. Cheers!

  5. Andrew Graeme December 18, 2018 at 11:01 am #

    Die Hard is a very important movie (IMO of course!) because of the innovative set design and the way the lighting is integrated into the set, giving the viewer the feeling of being in a real office building. For that reason alone, it should be on the ‘must-see’ list of every student of film.

    Great article BTW, thanks!

  6. Alex Stitt December 18, 2018 at 1:04 pm #

    Epic analysis!

    I had more laughs per quarter page than many a fine comedy script.

    Thank you Stephen, and Merry Christmas!

  7. Robin December 18, 2018 at 7:03 pm #

    Thank you for this analysis! You’re correct that it is a hotly debated topic, especially in my family of action-movie lovers. Something I have always noted, and regarded as Christmassy, is the use of the last part of Beethoven’s 9th “Ode to Joy” themes throughout the soundtrack to Die Hard. Perhaps I feel it’s relevant because that melody is also used as a relatively-Christmassy Presbyterian hymn (Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee) in the USA. Beethoven didn’t write the 9th for Christmas at all. But as I researched just beneath the surface at Wikipedia, I found this reference: Brasor, Philip, “Japan makes Beethoven’s Ninth No. 1 for the holidays”, The Japan Times, 24 December 2010, p. 20, retrieved on 24 December 2010; in which it is asserted that Ode to Joy is a popular end of year/Christmas-time musical tradition in Japan. Knowing that tidbit makes me appreciate that compositional choice even more, as it ties the Japanese Nakatomi Corp, the German “terrorists” and Christmas hymns all up together in a nice little bow. Kudos to the late Michael Kamen.

  8. Dianne A December 18, 2018 at 10:14 pm #

    How ’bout The Ref?

  9. Jon Shonebarger III December 19, 2018 at 9:11 pm #

    As Jay Z once said, ‘Men lie, women lie,numbers don’t.’ You can’t argue with science. As a side note Die Hard 2 is most definitely a Christmas movie and in my opinion the best of the bunch.

  10. Noma December 19, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    The only ornament on my tree is a homemade John McClane crawling through the air ducts. On Christmas I wear a gray sweatshirt with the now infamous words handwritten in red marker. And I always watch Die Hard on Christmas day. As many people like me might say “It just isn’t Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi building.” Rest in peace Alan Rickman. You always made the best and most unforgettable bad guy. Your are sorely missed.

  11. Pete Cardinal December 19, 2018 at 10:10 pm #

    If you include “Die Hard” as a Christmas movie, then you also have to include “Lethal Weapon”, “Gremlins”, and “Trading Places”.

  12. Mikey Orloff December 20, 2018 at 2:45 am #

    “The Long Kiss Goodnight”
    I’ll say it if nobody else will, because it’s my favorite Christmas movie.

  13. Iain December 20, 2018 at 11:42 am #

    Great article, check you tube for 20th Century Fox 30th anniversary Die Hard Festive trailer. They even consider it is a xmas movie now 🙂

  14. Ferg December 20, 2018 at 1:12 pm #

    *Sigh*

    I’m a die-hard Die Hard fan, but it’s simply not a Christmas movie – it’s a movie set at Christmas time.

    The Christmas angle is simply a plot device to ensure that all remaining tenants of Nakatomi Plaza are located within a single space so when the “terrorists” move in, they can easily contain all the hostages with a small team, and have no need to conduct a floor-by-floor sweep to pick up any loose occupants. Plus, it’s the holidays, so it makes sense that this is the time of year that John McClane takes time off from putting away New York scumbags to go visit the family on the other side of the country.

    Now, the scriptwriters & filmmakers, clearly being clever little beavers, decided to play up this angle somewhat and throw in some Christmas tunes and even a few gags, and after all “It’s Christmas, Theo, it’s the time of miracles”, but this just isn’t enough to qualify Die Hard as a Christmas movie. It is neither about Christmas, nor does it involve any Christmas themes, and the plot doesn’t revolve around Christmas or anything especially associated with Christmas. But the ultimate nail in the coffin as far as I am concerned is you could remove all reference to Christmas and the movie would still play perfectly well without any other changes.

    And by the logic “Die Hard is set at Christmas, therefore is a Christmas movie” – Raiders of the Lost Ark must be a magnificent biblical epic; Avengers is a classic New York story; Labyrinth is an awesome heist movie; and Terminator is clearly the ultimate 80s rom-com.

    Having said that, whenever any one asks what’s the best Christmas movie, I’ll always answer Die Hard!

  15. Morejello December 20, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

    I only have 1 disagreement – You stated at the beginning that they weren’t terrorists, they were bank robbers. That is incorrect. They are stealing from a private vault, not a bank. That makes them burglars.

    • C. Blue December 25, 2018 at 9:22 pm #

      I second this.

  16. Scott December 21, 2018 at 11:14 am #

    Great post. Going to disagree on the taglines, because ’12 terrorists’ is very likely a reference to 12 Days of Christmas.

  17. santa klaus December 21, 2018 at 8:58 pm #

    Frankly, I’m offended by this entire debate. In my humble opinion, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie at all. Just because you put some Santa hats on a few characters in the flick, Does not make its a Christmas movie. ” Oh look, There’s a Christmas tree in the backround at the airport. What a holiday classic” Nonsense, Utter flippin’ nonsense. Die Hard holds no comparisons to real holiday films such as Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas story.

  18. Hans Gruber December 24, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    The answer is simple: It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis Christmas movie!

  19. Jake Peralta December 24, 2018 at 10:40 pm #

    Nice job validating my favorite movie.

  20. Valentine December 25, 2018 at 9:40 am #

    To add to the cultural element, in Italy the role of non-Christmassy Christmas movie belongs to Trading Places instead. It has been broadcast on Christmas Eve every year since it came out.

  21. Hans Gruber December 25, 2018 at 3:47 pm #

    You forgot the most important part: John McClane’s wife is named HOLLY.

    • C. Blue December 25, 2018 at 9:24 pm #

      And “John” means “Gift of God.” Certainly God’s greatest gift (and I don’t mean Ellis) is the reason for the season.

  22. Skk December 25, 2018 at 4:06 pm #

    Hey, you claim to apply analytics, but where’s your test, training set, logistic regression formulation, use of deep learning and do on ? This is an EDA – exploratory data analysis. A pretty good one too. This is a good Xmas vacation problem for data scientist. Merry Christmas.

  23. Arwen Evenstar December 25, 2018 at 6:47 pm #

    That was a great and entertaining read.

    I too agree that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. And for that mater, agree with Richard Gehron that it could very well be an adult Home Alone.

    Now can you figure out what category Big Trouble In Little China should be in?

    That was an interesting movie that defied normal pigeon holing when it came out. Because of that, the studio and distributors failed to advertise it properly. Even today, it’s a hard one to categorize.

  24. George J December 25, 2018 at 7:02 pm #

    My wife and I always watch it at Christmas as a Christmas movie alongside Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Scrooged, Muppets Christmas Carol and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol! This year our daughter was old enough to watch it with us for the first time and even she agreed, it’s a Christmas movie! So in our family at least the Die Hard Christmas tradition has been passed on to the next generation!

  25. C. Blue December 25, 2018 at 9:08 pm #

    Die Hard also features “Ode To Joy” in the soundtrack, as the vault is opened.

  26. Mr. Ian S Grange December 26, 2018 at 2:31 pm #

    Now – is Die Hard 2 a movie ABOUT an airport? Or just a movie SET at an airport?

  27. Mike Spooner December 26, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

    The Wikipedia page-view data and the Google search-frequency data are highly self-referentially skewed here – a considerable portion of the lookups will be due to people actually *trying to determine whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not* ie: the definition of a Christmas movie becomes “a movie we argue about most”.

  28. Santana January 5, 2019 at 2:34 pm #

    From which point of view is this so important?
    Cultural?, Commercial?, Artistic?
    No… RELIGIOUS!

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