Thanksgiving has historically ranked among the most lucrative dates on Hollywood’s calendar, with studios releasing some of their biggest films as millions of American families gather for the long weekend.
But a number of factors have conspired to make the holiday less of a feast for theater owners. Hollywood isn’t making many mid-budget family comedies, like Three Men and a Baby, which ruled the weekend in 1987. Christmas-themed films, such as 2004’s top Thanksgiving release, Christmas with the Kranks, now go straight to streaming services.
Animated movies, a staple of the weekend with so many kids out of school, aren’t drawing the big crowds they used to. During the pandemic, families learned to wait a few weeks to watch them on streaming services such as Peacock or Disney .
“Thanksgiving in the post-pandemic era has gone from a $200 million — and as high as $300 million — overall domestic juggernaut to a much slower corridor,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore Inc.
Hollywood’s biggest Thanksgiving was in 2018. Films in theaters that weekend included Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, MGM’s Creed II, Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Universal Pictures’ The Grinch. They helped power a five-day, box-office haul of $315.6 million, according to Comscore.
Last year’s total was less than half that due to the weaker performance of films like Disney’s animated Strange World. It also didn’t help that the sequel to Knives Out, a surprise hit for Thanksgiving 2019, appeared in theaters for only one week before moving to Netflix the following month, a schedule that likely prompted many fans to wait.
Disney has released some of its biggest films on Thanksgiving weekend, among them Toy Story in 1995 and Frozen in 2013. The sequel Frozen II holds the record as the biggest Thanksgiving release, bringing in $125 million over five days in 2019.
This year’s entry, Wish, may not live up to those standards. The musical about a teenage girl who wishes upon a star is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Disney company. It has scored only 47% approval from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
“It’s high on complicated magical rules and low on genuine magic,” Daily Beast critic A.A. Dowd wrote in his review.
Early screenings for Wish on Tuesday grossed $2.3 million in the US and Canada, in line with Disney’s 2017 hit film Coco. Boxoffice Pro is projecting $49 million to $66 million in ticket sales over the extended, five-day holiday stretch.
The twin strikes by Hollywood writers and actors wreaked havoc on studios’ scheduling and marketing plans. The actors ended their walkout on 9 November, the very night of the Wish premiere in Los Angeles. Due to union restrictions, the stars weren’t able to appear and promote the film, although many attended a London premiere this week.
Other films opening this weekend include Napoleon, a biography of the emperor directed by Ridley Scott for Apple, and Saltburn, a thriller from MGM, now part of Amazon.