The Weekend Warrior

Long Distance Box Office: Thanksgiving Weekend 2012

Source: Edward Douglas
October 22, 2012

We've been getting heavily bogged down in other stuff over the past few weeks, which is why "next week" ended up being in "a couple weeks," but we do want to continue doing these "Long Distance Box Offices" as often as possible since maybe it'll help us get our bearings for upcoming preview columns.

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday at the box office and anyone who has been reading this column over the past ten years will already know that it's also the absolute bane of the Weekend Warrior's existence, not because I don't like spending time with my family, but because it's the weekend where it's almost impossible to really predict anything. One of the key reasons Thanksgiving does so well is that many American families get together, often for the first time all year, and they're constantly looking for things to do together. One option is to go see movies together, and it allows many people to catch up on movies they may have heard of but haven't had a chance to see.

Let's start by looking at some past numbers--and we'll focus on the five-day weekends, since Thanksgiving really does start on Wednesday even if many movies do more of their business over the weekend. In the past, we've seen movies gross as much as $73 to 83 million over the five-day extended week with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone holding the record with $82.4 million over the five days in its second weekend. Disney's Toy Story 2 holds the record for the biggest wide opening with $80.1 million, but it's rare for a movie to open that big as 11 of the 12 top movies over the Thanksgiving five-day were movies that opened a week earlier.

There are some known facts: family movies do well over the Thanksgiving weekend and movies about Christmas and the holidays do especially well with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey, being a hallmark for this phenomenon and movies like Elf, Christmas with the Kranks and Four Christmases benefitting greatly from their Christmas themes.

This is actually a good thing for DreamWorks Animation's
Rise of the Guardians, based on the book series by William Joyce, which combines both the key ingredients for a Thanksgiving hit, making it somewhat surprising this will be the first time DreamWorks Animation has opened their holiday movie over Thanksgiving, since they usually prefer early November. This is a smart move since they know that the presence of Santa Claus, called "North" in the movie and voiced by Alec Baldwin, makes this a bonafide Christmas movie, even though the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost are also in the movie, voiced by Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher and Chris Pine, respectively.

This is probably going to be the first choice for kids and parents this weekend with Disney's Wreck-It Ralph being a strong second, although that will be in its fourth weekend and probably will have done a good amount of business already. Then again, we do have to remind ourselves of last year when Sony Pictures Animation's Arthur Christmas opened to a disappointing $16.3 million in 3,376 theaters despite having all the elements that should have made it a hit. Not having "Christmas" boldly emblazoned in the title does put Rise of the Guardians at a slight disadvantage, although we think DWA and Paramount will be pulling out the marketing stops to make sure parents and kids know that the Guardians are coming to town.

While "Guardians" might start slow on its opening day Wednesday, business should pick up on Thanksgiving and then again on Black Friday as families look for things to see together, and we can see it doing $30 million or more just on the weekend. The film is really heartwarming--you can read our early thoughts here--and word-of-mouth is going to drive business through the month of December so that it won't be as frontloaded to the Thanksgiving week.

Thanksgiving is also a time to launch Oscar-worthy movies and more grown-up prestige films, though that doesn't necessarily mean any of them will do particularly do big business on the weekend. Movies like last year's My Week With Marilyn and Gus Van Sant's Milk opened in limited release, plus the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men also expanded wide over Thanksgiving 2007 on its way to $74.2 million.

We have two very different movies that presumably fall into that category this year, Ang Lee's Life of Pi and David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, both from Oscar-nominated directors, both which have received high praise at the festivals where they premiered. We've seen and loved both movies ourselves.

Silver Linings Playbook has the advantage of a big name cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Chris Tucker, compared to Life of Pi, which literally features an unknown Indian actor although that one's based on a hugely popular bestselling book. We're not sure how wide the Weinstein Company plan on opening their movie because it is a comedy that's likely to do better business based on word-of-mouth, but it's not being marketed like a mainstream comedy and we think that will have it open slightly more moderately, probably with $14 to 15 million in its first five days - more if the Weinstein Company focuses its marketing on the Christmas portion of the movie.

Despite its lack of starpower, we do give Life of Pi a slight advantage because we think Fox will give it a fairly wide release, knowing how many people loved the book and the marketing has done a good job showcasing the film's stunning 3D visuals in a similar way as Martin Scorsese's Hugo. That opened last Thanksgiving to just $15.4 million although that was in a moderate release of 1,200 theaters, and we think Fox won't take that approach even though it will likely top out at $18 to 20 million over the five days similar to Baz Luhrmann's Australia, which did $20 million in its first five days with lukewarm reviews. We do think that the source material, the marketing and the crowdpleasing nature of the film will prevent Life of Pi from falling into the Thanksgiving arthouse rut of Steven Soderbergh's Solaris ($9.4 million five-day) or Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain ($5.5 million).

Then there's the Red Dawn remake (FilmDistrict), which is being released over three years after it was filmed, having got caught up in the red tape of MGM's bankruptcy that also delayed Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods. At least that one had a generally original concept while just the idea of remaking the 1984 cult action-thriller may keep older moviegoers away on principle alone. It stars Chris Hemsworth from before he became Thor and Josh Hutcherson before he became The Hunger Games' Peeta, as well as Adrianne Palicki, Josh Peck, Isabel Lucas and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but it's likely Hemsworth and Hutcherson will probably be too busy with their respective sequels to do any promotion.

Opening an action movie over the Thanksgiving weekend is rarely a good idea as seen by Paramount's Timeline, which made just $12.4 million over the five days, although the late Tony Scott had two relatively decent hits with Spy Game, starring Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and Déjà vu with Denzel Washington, both which opened over the Thanksgiving week and brought in between $28 and 30 million. Other exceptions include Arnold Schwarzenegger's End of Days and Sly Stallone's Rocky IV, both which did in the $31 million range, but none of the cast of the Red Dawn remake have the fanbase of those two action icons. Instead, Red Dawn will probably bring in a rather odd mix of young males and slightly nostalgic older males not interested in the other three movies. The movie probably will top out at $12 million over the five-day weekend, doing most of its business on Wednesday and Thursday.

All four new movies discussed above will be taking on the second weekend of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, which could take the lead over the five-day Thanksgiving going by the $61 to 66 million grossed by "New Moon" and "Breaking Dawn – Part 1" and Red Dawn will have to take business away from the James Bond movie Skyfall, which is likely to be bringing in repeat business and those who haven't been to the movie in a while.

We think "Breaking Dawn" will win the five-day weekend, followed by Rise of the Guardians in second place with around $45 to 50 million. Skyfall will probably do $35 to 40 million for third place and then Life of Pi will probably do best of the other three new movies. So that's how we see Thanksgiving playing out this year, although things might change by the time we get around to writing that week's preview and we have more information like theater counts, etc.

Next week, or rather "next time," we're going to look at the box office potential for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which hopes to prove that not all prequels to successful and popular trilogies have to suck as bad as the "Star Wars" prequels.




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