BOX OFFICE: Muppets, Santa Stand-ins and Automatons Abound

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It’s Thanksgiving weekend, historically one of the busiest moviegoing weekends of the year as everyone takes off on Thursday and Friday (and sometimes part of Wednesday) for a five-day vacation that gives many people the free time to catch up on movies they may have missed or skipped earlier in the season. Thanksgiving is all about family, which means it’s also about movies that families can see as a whole and really, there’s no one better at that “genre” than Disney, which is why they currently have eight of the Top 10 movies that opened over Thanksgiving weekend.

This year, they’ve got The Muppets (Walt Disney Pictures), the long-awaited return of characters created by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, masterminded by the Forgetting Sarah Marshall duo of Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, all of them joined by actress Amy Adams, who starred in Disney’s megahit Enchanted, the third-biggest Thanksgiving opener ever. Although it’s been many years since the Muppets have had a regular television show or had a hit movie, the much-loved puppets offer a nostalgia factor for adults over a certain age, while also remaining fairly relevant with recent sketches done for YouTube and appearing on “Saturday Night Live” with Segel over the weekend, something that will help bring in the teen and 20-something audience. The fact that families with both younger and older kids will be able to see this as a group this weekend makes it an easy bet to join Disney’s other hit Thanksgiving openers, but just to hedge their bets, Disney and Pixar Animation offer a brand-new “Toy Story” short playing in front of the movie which surprisingly isn’t being advertised that heavily, but that should also prove to be a draw for Thanksgiving audiences. (Toy Story 2 still holds the record for Thanksgiving openings incidentally.) We think that an opening weekend somewhere in the mid-30s is guaranteed with close to $50 million for its first five days.

The popularity of the Muppets and the amount of marketing that’s been heaped on the movie may put a damper on Sony Pictures Animation’s new movie Arthur Christmas, done in collaboration with Aardman Animations, who have had moderate success in the States with movies like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. With a voice cast that includes prominent Brits James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton, the film does have to face the fact that Americans celebrating Thanksgiving i.e. our freedom from the oppressive Brits may not necessarily be up for a comedy filled with British accents and sensibilities. (Ironically, Disney already had a hit with Gnomeo & Juliet earlier this year, which was just as British.) Even so, Arthur Christmas shouldn’t tank too badly due to its holiday themes and having “Christmas” in the title never hurts, since it will make it an easy choice for the holiday-conscious shoppers on the weekend, even if business will be skewed more towards Saturday and Sunday because it’s not a movie anyone’s rushing out to see.

Arthur Christmas Review

Normally, we’d be scratching our heads at Martin Scorsese doing a family film like Hugo (Paramount) and it being released against such heavy competition, but this one is based on a popular book for kids that’s been regular reading in schools for the last few years. It stars little-known Asa Butterfield from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas along with ChloĆ« Moretz (Kick-Ass), Sir Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Emily Mortimer, but it feels like it’s a movie in a similar boat as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, even though that had the benefit of an A-list star like Johnny Depp. Hugo may be a tougher sell than the other two movies and the fact it’s being released in roughly 1,200 theaters (over 2,000 less than the competition) will certainly limit how much business it can bring in its opening weekend, but we expect most of those will be 3D showings with higher ticket prices, so it should end up with roughly $12 to 14 million over the five-day weekend with a chance of legs as positive word gets around.

(Look for our interviews and review of the movie in the next day or so.)

Unfortunately, all three of the above will be facing the second week of Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet Two, which opened lower than expected due to its “Twilight” competition, as well as DreamWorks Animation’s Puss In Boots, which may still get a bump from the casual moviegoers that the holiday brings into theaters. Even so, that’s five family movie choices for all the people going to the movies this weekend and theoretically, that can dilute all of their potential business allowing The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 to coast to a second week victory.

After a successful limited release that got it into the Top 10 playing in just 28 theaters, Alexander Payne’s dramedy The Descendants, starring George Clooney, will open wider this weekend, though probably more in the 400 to 500 theaters range, which may not be enough to get it into the Top 10 again, since business will be more spread out but we do think it should end up with roughly $3 to 4 million over the weekend since there isn’t much competition for adults, except for the fact that…

There’s some great movies in limited release this weekend including the long-awaited release of Michel Hazanavicius’ black and white silent film The Artist (The Weinstein Company), starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, both from his “OSS 117” movies, as two actors, one on the rise, the other on the decline as Hollywood transitions from the silent film era to “talking movies.” The movie has been a huge hit on the festival circuit going back to Cannes, and though it’s only opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, we expect this one to be everywhere by January when it’s likely to receive numerous Oscar nominations.

Interview with Michel Hazanavicius (Look for our review and more interviews soon.)

Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Dame Judi Dench and many other British luminaries star in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn (The Weinstein Company), a look at Marilyn Monroe’s time in England shooting The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier, as seen through the eyes of the film’s runner Colin Clark. It opens in select cities on Wednesday and more places on Friday. Check out our review here and our interview with Michelle Williams and Eddie Redmayne here. Look for interviews with director Simon Curtis and Kenneth Branagh soon.

David Cronenberg returns with A Dangerous Method (Sony Pictures Classics), a look at the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Dr. Carl Jung, played by Viggo Mortensen and Mike Fassbender, and how it’s affected by the introduction of a troubled woman named Sabina, played by Keira Knightley. It opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday. You can read our interview with Cronenberg here and our Toronto review here.

One of the most striking films we saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was Oren (The Messengers) Moverman’s police drama Rampart (Millenium Entertainment), starring Woody Harrelson as a bad officer caught up in a number of corrupt schemes. Co-written by prominent L.A. crime writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia) and co-starring Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty and Ice Cube, Moverman’s film is getting a one-week Oscar consideration run in New York and L.A., then will open for real on January 27.

You can read our Toronto Film Festival review here.

Last Thanksgiving, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 won a second weekend with $50.3 million (down 61%) and a five-day take of $75.5 million bringing its total to $219.6 million. Coming in a close second was Disney’s animated musical Tangled (Walt Disney) with $48.7 million weekend, having already made roughly $20 million on Wednesday and Thanksgiving Day, making it the second-biggest opener for the Thanksgiving weekend after Pixar’s Toy Story 2. Opening in fourth place was the musical drama Burlesque (Sony/Screen Gems), starring Cristina Aguilera and Cher, which brought in nearly $12 million on the weekend and $17 million over the five days, while a mostly unclothed Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal helped the romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs (20th Century Fox), fall just short of $10 million on the weekend with $14 million in its first five days for sixth place. The Rock returned to action for Faster (CBS Films) which ended up in 7th place with $8.5 million over the weekend and $12.2 million for the five days. The Top 10 grossed $244 million over the five days, but since we think “Twilight” will have a bigger drop and the family business will be spread out, this Thanksgiving will only be slightly slower.

This Week’s Predictions

1. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Summit) – $43 million -69% ($64 million five-day)

2. The Muppets (Walt Disney) – $33.5 million N/A ($48 million five-day)

3. Happy Feet Two (Warner Bros.) – $19.5 million -8% ($28 million five-day)

4. Arthur Christmas (Sony) – $18 million N/A ($24.5 million five-day)

5. Hugo (Paramount) – $8.5 million N/A ($12.5 million five-day)

6. Puss In Boots (DreamWorks Animation/Paramount) – $8.2 million -26% ($11.2 million five-day)

7. Jack and Jill (Sony) – $7 million -40% ($10.2 million five-day)

8. Immortals (Relativity) – $6.5 million -47% ($10 million five-day)

9. Tower Heist (Universal) – $4.7 million -35% ($6.8 million five-day)

10. J. Edgar (Warner Bros.) – $4.0 million -33% ($5.8 million five-day)

The Descendants (Fox Searchlight) – $3.3 million +252% ($5 million five-day)

Next week, there’s no new movies in wide release so we probably won’t have a preview column–we’ll have other stuff–but the second weekend in December offers a couple of new movies including Gary Marshall’s star-studded romantic comedy New Year’s Eve (New Line/WB) and Jonah Hill’s R-rated comedy The Sitter (20th Century Fox).

You can read stuff like this and regular box office, awards and festival coverage on the new Weekend Warrior Blog and to keep up with the latest articles and posts, you can follow us on Twitter.

Copyright 2011 Edward Douglas