For theater owners and studio execs alike, the 2021 box office has been a true test of the film industry’s near-immovable optimism, and Thanksgiving weekend offered a mix of encouraging and sobering returns.
Disney’s animated family film “Encanto” and MGM’s biographical crime drama “House of Gucci” both set new post-shutdown standards for their respective genres, while Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is continuing the hot streak the studio has been on this fall. Despite those successes, there’s still a long way back to normal for the box office as overall numbers are over $100 million short of what was seen on Thanksgiving weekend in the 2010s.
Here are the five big takeaways from 2021’s Thanksgiving filled with hope and dread for Hollywood.
1. Overall Thanksgiving numbers are still down 46%
On the one hand, the estimated $142 million grossed over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend is a world away from the mere $21.3 million grossed last year, when the overwhelming majority of theaters were closed and the world was bracing for a winter in which COVID-19 infection rates would spike through the roof.
On the other hand, that $142 million total is 46% down from what was grossed in Thanksgiving 2019, when “Frozen II” pushed overall grosses to $262 million. The total is even down 37% from the $226 million grossed in 2014, one of the lowest-grossing Thanksgivings of the past decade.
Perhaps this weekend could have gotten closer to pre-pandemic levels if Paramount had not moved “Top Gun: Maverick” from a Nov. 19 release date to Memorial Day weekend next year. But as Laemmle Theaters president Greg Laemmle noted last week, a mix of COVID-19 concerns and families prioritizing in-person visits has knocked trips to the cinema down the list of things to do. And while that doesn’t put a dent in Hollywood’s hope that 2022 will see a return to normal, many are reassessing just how strong this holiday season’s box office will be.
2. “Encanto” and “Ghostbusters” bring back some families
Exhibit B for box office’s glass half full: “Encanto” opened to roughly half of what past Disney Thanksgiving releases posted. While “Moana” earned an $82 million five-day launch in 2016, “Encanto” is settling for $40.3 million this weekend, with an additional $29.3 million from overseas.
But those are numbers that not only Disney but all the major studios will welcome considering that “Encanto,” unlike other animated films this year, was not released simultaneously on streaming. Disney released the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” day-and-date as a premium streaming title this past spring and moved Pixar’s “Luca” out of theaters entirely to Disney+ this past summer.
It’s also worth noting that “Encanto” split both general and family audiences with “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which held well after its $44 million opening last weekend and added $35 million over the holiday. Usually, a Disney Thanksgiving release targeting families dominates against a newcomer that aims more for general audiences, like “Frozen II” vs. “Knives Out” in 2019 or “Ralph Breaks the Internet” vs. “Creed II” in 2018. But “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a four-quadrant film that is aiming for both sides of this divide.
“Encanto” may also be underperforming because many parents simply aren’t ready to take their kids back to theaters yet. Execs at Disney say they are taking that into account as they appraise the film’s performance over the next month before it hits Disney+ on Christmas.
3. “Gucci” gets a Gaga boost
As the soft opening of Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” demonstrated last weekend, adult dramas have struggled at the box office this year; but MGM’s “House of Gucci” set a new post-shutdown high for the genre with a $21 million five-day start despite mixed reviews — including a 61% Rotten Tomatoes score. The difference was likely the film’s loaded cast, led by Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani.
With Gaga in the lead role, Adam Driver as the leading man and veterans like Al Pacino and Salma Hayek in supporting roles to draw in older audiences, “Gucci” drew a good balance of both with 45% of audiences coming from the 18-35 demo while 34% were over 45. At a time when many adult dramas are relying on older audiences who are more concerned about COVID-19, “Gucci” was able to get the turnout from that core demo while overperforming with younger crowds.
The question now is whether Ridley Scott’s film can build the word of mouth to leg out over the next few weeks or if it will be a more frontloaded run once Gaga’s hardcore fans see the film. Audience reception was solid with a B+ on CinemaScore and an 85% verified audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. With no wide releases coming out next weekend, “Gucci” will have no competition for moviegoers looking for mature fare but will then face “West Side Story” on Dec. 10.
4. “Licorice Pizza” dazzles New York and Los Angeles
This is usually the time of year when a major Oscar contender opens in New York and Los Angeles and posts a strong per-theater average north of $75,000, but it wasn’t clear whether this pandemic-era market could support such a launch. MGM/Focus Features’ “Licorice Pizza” proved that it can.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age film set in the ’70s was released on 70mm at the single-screen Westwood Regency Theatre in Los Angeles along with three screens in New York and earned an average of nearly $84,000, more than triple the previous best average for the year. Similar to “The French Dispatch,” “Licorice Pizza” was able to bring in strong turnout from younger moviegoers with 72% of tickets bought coming from the 18-35 audience.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that other distributors will go for the platform release with their own December Oscar contenders. No two specialty films are the same, and not all of them have as strong a chance to draw younger crowds as “Licorice” did. Nor will this lead to a steady rollout as would happen in pre-pandemic times. (MGM is only adding sneak previews in Austin, Chicago and San Francisco next week before going wide on Christmas.) But this opening may at least put the platform release back on the table for any distributor who thinks their film has the goods.
5. Is Omicron on the horizon?
This entire box office test unfolded amid international headlines of the rise of a new COVID-19 variant that has been detected in southern Africa. While health experts like NIH director Dr. Francis Collins have stressed that it is too early to determine how vaccines protect against the Omicron variant, stocks dropped on Friday in response to the news, with investors fearing a new wave of lockdowns.
Distributors told TheWrap that it’s way too early to determine how much damage Omicron will do to the box office recovery, though closures of theaters in North America are still improbable at this point. Overseas distribution execs will likely have a tougher time, though. Some European countries like Austria and the Netherlands have recently imposed lockdowns amid recent infection surges, not to mention China’s very strict regional lockdown policies whenever an outbreak is detected.
For films like “Gucci” and “Ghostbusters,” this won’t be so much of a problem as they are more focused on domestic audiences. But this could damage the hopes of December blockbusters like Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Resurrections,” which rely on a healthy global theatrical market to make their millions.