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Dec032011

The weekend after Thanksgiving is terrible for Hollywood - Here's why

The movie industry is a strange thing. Studio executives like to think they can predict what people want to see at the movies. Sometimes they can, but more often than not, they fail. The art of releasing movies seems to be as much of an emotional game as it is strictly about numbers, which is why I found it very strange when I realized that there were no new films coming out this weekend. Sometimes there four or five major movie releases in a week and once in a while there’s only one, but I cannot remember the last time there were no new wide releases in a weekend. Following a big Thanksgiving weekend filled with three family films—The Muppets, Arthur Christmas, and Hugo—none of the major studios have a film lined up for this weekend. What’s the deal?

The weekend after Thanksgiving is usually bad for films, from what I have read, but is it so bad that studios should give up? I mean, it’s guaranteed to be a bad weekend if absolutely no one is willing to risk releasing a movie. As it stands, The Muppets and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 will battle it out for the top spot.

Being the analytical guy that I am, I’ve gathered and attempted to analyze release and ticket sales data from the last 16 years of post-Thanksgiving box office weekends and see if there are any patterns. As it turns out, fear of the post-Thanksgiving weekend is not a new phenomenon in Hollywood.

 Post-Thanksgiving weekend new movie releases:

A dumping ground for crappy movies

The chart above shows the new movies that came out in the weekend after Thanksgiving every year for the last 16. There are a lot of trends here, but few of them are good. I’ve linked to the Rotten Tomatoes scores of these movies and almost all of them score quite low. Yep, Hollywood has been treating post-Thanksgiving as a dumping ground for leftover crappy movies for years. Even though these were new films, almost none of them were interesting enough to break into the top two films of the weekend. Some are just terrible, while others are obviously niche releases. 

New releases only topped the charts one time, and that was in 2003 when The Last Samurai and Honey came out, but even then, The Last Samurai opened with a mere $24 million, a lot less than the big-budget, $140 million dollar movie was hoping to bring in. Don’t feel too bad for Tom Cruise, however. Samurai drew almost $500 million in global box office before its run was over. This weekend did not kill it. Still, 2003 remains the only year Hollywood took a risk on the first weekend in December in recent memory. 

It’s also of note that in five of the 16 years I looked at, there were no major wide releases at all on the weekend after Thanksgiving. I count 1995 in this list because both Wild Bill and White Man’s Burden were released in less than 1000 theaters, far shy of the 1500-4000 that usually qualifies for a major release. 

Twilight, Harry Potter, Disney, and Bond

There are some sound reasons why Hollywood is too scared to release big movies this weekend. Almost every Thanksgiving weekend has been packed with an absolutely huge franchise film, and often these series seem to come out every year around Thanksgiving, training their armies of fans to eat popcorn before their turkey. Recently, the Twilight movies have dominated three Thanksgiving weekends and before that Harry Potter was a Turkey day tradition for millions. Go back a few years and there are a lot of Pixar movies like Toy Story and James Bond movies all released around Thanksgiving, occupying valuable mental real estate and crowding out the potential for new films to succeed. And if it isn’t a franchise, it’s a family film like Happy Feet, National Treasure, Flubber, 101 Dalmations (1996), The Grinch, or The Cat in the Hat. Thanksgiving is usually a lucrative time of year for Disney, if you hadn’t noticed. 

Post-Thanksgiving weekend #1 movies:

  • 2010 - Tangled
  • 2009 - The Blind Side (followed by New Moon)
  • 2008 - Four Christmases
  • 2007 - Enchanted
  • 2006 - Happy Feet
  • 2005 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • 2004 - National Treasure (followed by The Incredibles)
  • 2003 - The Last Samurai (displaced The Cat in the Hat)
  • 2002 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (dueling with Die Another Day)
  • 2001 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • 2000 - The Grinch (had a 4 week run on top)
  • 1999 - Toy Story 2 (followed by The World is Not Enough)
  • 1998 - A Bug’s Life
  • 1997 - Flubber
  • 1996 - 101 Dalmations
  • 1995 - Toy Story

Breaking down the numbers

The other bad part about the post-Thanksgiving weekend is that total box office revenue is almost always down 40-60 percent from Thanksgiving and often takes several weeks to bounce back. While I contend that this is partially because there are almost never any new good movies released this weekend, it’s possible that we Americans are a bit tired of spending money after the craziness that is Black Friday, and after seeing Harry Potter a dozen times the week before. But, hell, since I’m on a roll here, let’s take a look at box office revenue.

Post-Thanksgiving weekend box office revenue:

The chart below shows the box office revenue on Thanksgiving, the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the weekend after that for each year. The percentages represent how much the box office went up or down since the week before. 

  • 2010 - $181,242,458 (-06.8%) | $86,325,286 (-52.4%) | $91,871,496 (+6.4%)
  • 2009 - $186,348,522 (-27.9%) | $99,663,985 (-46.5%) | $97,058,602 (-2.6%)
  • 2008 - $162,603,106 (-1.3%) | $82,434,771 (-49.3%) | $91,696,655 (+11.2%)
  • 2007 - $161,857,768 (+55.1%) | $84,270,326 (-47.9%) | $82,623,236 (-2.0%)
  • 2006 - $162,088,742 (+11.0%) | $93,245,755 (-42.5%) | $97,042,714 (+4.1%)
  • 2005 - $165,520,418 (-08.6%) | $86,616,616 (-47.7%) | $123,570,227 (+42.7%)
  • 2004 - $162,080,504 (+06.4%) | $87,068,143 (-46.3%) | $106,916,642 (+22.8%)
  • 2003 - $161,634,343 (+19.0%) | $97,806,362 (-39.5%) | $89,729,590 (-8.3%)
  • 2002 - $150,779,761 (-02.8%) | $81,877,249 (-45.7%) | $103,432,236 (+26.3%)
  • 2001 - $152,037,811 (-05.4%) | $89,743,437 (-41.0%) | $87,375,326 (-2.6%)
  • 2000 - $176,551,210 (+14.1%) | $88,566,388 (-49.8%) | $87,458,310 (-1.3%)
  • 1999 - $159,709,240 (+35.5%) | $80,277,174 (-49.7%) | $77,310,235 (-3.7%)
  • 1998 - $125,578,859 (+29.7%) | $66,387,194 (-47.1%) | $68,129,603 (+2.6%) 
  • 1997 - $103,938,065 (+25.1%) | $44,531,634 (-57.2%) | $72,400,067 (+62.6%)
  • 1996 - $108,128,486 (+16.7%) | $55,039,211 (-49.1%) | $63,666,510 (+15.7%)
  • 1995 - $107,060,403 (+37.1%) | $61,341,785 (-42.7%) | $49,063,867 (-20.0%)

Since 1995, though the overall box office has risen, the weekend after Thanksgiving has resulted in a 40-60 percent drop in revenue. The best year was 2003. Thanks to The Last Samurai, it dipped only 39.5 percent. The second weekend in December seems to be more erratic, however. Some years, a studio will release a major film that weekend, boosting its numbers. It all depends on power franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight, which often open the weekend before Thanksgiving, meaning they have the potential to dominate the top spot for three weekends in a row. 

Hollywood cannot afford to skip a weekend this year

As a rabid moviegoer, a weekend without new releases is both a rare treat and a let down. I may be able to actually catch up and view some of the indie films that look great this weekend, but a little part of me feels like this is just poor planning on Hollywood’s part. Does Breaking Dawn really deserve a third weekend on top, especially when there are a bunch of huge releases still coming this year? 

Beginning on Dec. 21, six movies are hitting theaters: The Darkest Hour, The Adventures of Tintin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, War Horse, and We Bought a Zoo. Now I know Christmas week is good for films, but not even US moviegoers can support six movies in one weekend. We might be able to handle three or four if a couple of them aren’t expecting high returns, but six major releases means 3-4 big losers. Half of these movies are going to get burned in this hellishly large weekend. Even I won’t be able to see all of the films I’d like to and  I go to the movies a lot more than anybody should.

So, I guess I’m wondering, why weren’t a couple of these films scheduled for this curiously empty weekend? Though it’s a weak time for revenue, they have more potential to make an impact now than during the crowded Christmas holiday. I know Tom Cruise was burned with The Last Samurai, but if Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol came out this weekend, would nobody go out to see it? That doesn’t seem likely. A big movie can make a big weekend. 

If Hollywood wants to know why the weekend after Thanksgiving never brings in money, it needs to look at the patterns in how big films are scheduled around Thanksgiving. I don’t believe that the weekend after Thanksgiving will suddenly turn into a huge moneymaker, but if a really good film launched this weekend, it could do well. In the right circumstances, it may be better exposure to win a down week than be buried in the pile of Christmas releases. 

What do you think? Are you happy there are no new films this weekend? Would it be dumb to bet on the weekend after Thanksgiving?

 

(Thanks to Box Office Mojo for almost all of the hard numbers in this article.)

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