LOS ANGELES - 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 20th Century Fox's "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 Kriss 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?

As they say in Hollywood, it's nothing personal - or religious. It's just business.

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 rereleased that year that one of them, Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," had to open before Halloween to avoid opening-day collisions.

It turns out that too much holiday cheer can be, well, too much for audiences. Several of the movies that year, including the Danny DeVito comedy "Deck the Halls," flopped.

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.

In a way, holiday movies were ahead of their time.

Today's filmmaking culture is obsessed with "branded" entertainment. But Christmas films did it first, using Santa Claus, snow, reindeer and other holiday symbols to draw an audience that sought a kind of cinematic comfort food.

These days, however, actual brands have been ascendant - whether it's sequels such as "Tron: Legacy," literary adaptations such as "Harry Potter" or twists on children's toys such as "Transformers" and "Battleship" - making the need for holiday movies redundant. This year, several December films aimed at the family audience don't hang any garland, including the latest installment in the "Chronicles of Narnia" series, "Yogi Bear" and "Gulliver's Travels."

"It may be that the animated movie and other all-family films have taken the place of the traditional holiday dramedy," said Michael London, who produced 2005's "The Family Stone," about a man who brings home his fiancée (Sarah Jessica Parker) to meet the family at Christmas.

It's hardly just a creative matter. As the major studios reduce the number of films they finance, executives have been growing more selective about the types of films they make. They're reluctant to green-light projects that are tied to such a specific moment in time and therefore have a limited theatrical shelf life.

"Family Stone" writer and director Thomas Bezucha said he encountered this objection as he sought to get his film set up at a studio.

"There was a moment in time when it was suggested to me that perhaps, for business reasons, it could not be a Christmas movie - because of the release schedule. [One studio executive suggested] 'What if it was somebody's anniversary?' " Bezucha recalled. "There was all this anxiety about narrowing the window of playability. They didn't want to be locked into a specific calendar."

With a holiday film, studios also postpone sales of the DVD until the following Christmas - well beyond the customary four-month waiting period after a theatrical premiere. (The DVD for "A Christmas Carol" arrived in stores just last month.) The wait can put a further financial squeeze on studios.

"That's the tricky thing about the Christmas movie," said Wade Holden, an analyst with researcher SNL Kagan. "With things coming out faster and faster and faster, I wonder if perhaps studios are maybe not so keen on the release strategy of the Christmas movie. It comes out in the theaters, then it's practically a whole year before they release it on home video."