To open or not to open a film the the weekend after Thansgiving?

Don’t go there.

That’s Hollywood’s unofficial rule when it comes to opening a film on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Even with 150 films to launch into wide release each year, the studios — like most Americans in the post-Thanksgiving haze — opt for leftovers in the first weekend of December, sticking with the surviving titles that had been positioned to take advantage of the five-day Thanksgiving break.

“The reason why studios avoid opening on the first December weekend is there’s usually been such an avalanche of product opened just before Thanksgiving,” says ACNielsen EDI prexy Tom Borys. “After Thanksgiving vacation, people are going back to school, back to work and starting to panic over planning Christmas.”

Half, and half-not

The figures bear out those conclusions, with the first December weekend usually generating only half the box office of the previous Friday-Sunday. Last year’s drop was 50% even with the blockbuster business generated by “Toy Story 2;” previous declines were 45% in 1998, 54% in 1997 and 49% in 1996.

The drop may be especially pronounced this year, given the powerful Thanksgiving performance of Universal/Imagine’s “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas” and Buena Vista’s “Unbreakable.” The Nov. 24-26 B.O. was the second highest of the year at $176.8 million.

Universal distribution chief Nikki Rocco has braced her associates for a steep decline this weekend for “The Grinch.”

“Everyone in the business understands that a drop of 55% is normal this weekend for a hit film like ‘The Grinch,'” she adds. “People just have other things to do.”

Additionally, Borys points out, hardcore moviegoers who do show up at multiplexes will almost always choose the holdovers. “There’s no daylight for a new film,” he notes. “All the holes are already filled.”

Bucking trend

To be completely accurate, three new films actually did open this weekend — at a total of eight locations in New York and Los Angeles. “Poor White Trash” debuted at five theaters; a re-issued “A Hard Day’s Night” opened at two and “Moonshadow” was at one. Additionally, U’s “Erin Brockovich” has been re-released into two theaters.

Disney is also braced for a 45% drop this weekend for “Unbreakable,” which opened with a solid second last weekend. Mouse House distribution chief Chuck Viane says it’s common sense to avoid the first weekend in December.

“If your film is ready to go, why would you want to miss out on Thanksgiving?” he points out. “When you open, you want to be No. 1, but if you open this weekend, you’re probably already relegated to No. 2 or 3.”

Since 1997, just one movie — Universal’s remake of “Psycho” — has opened wide during the first weekend of December. The revamp debuted with a lukewarm $11.8 million at 2,477 engagements on its way to an unthrilling $21 million.

In 1996, U also opened “Daylight” to a modest $10 million at 2,175 playdates.

But business was disastrous in the two previous years with low-profile entries staying that way. “Wild Bill” shot up only $987,515 at 775 taverns and “White Man’s Burden” lifted a lightweight $1.7 million at 943 locations in 1995; “Trapped in Paradise” delivered a hellish $2.7 million at 1,285 engagements in 1994.

‘Trek’ breakthrough

Way back in 1991, Par’s “Star Trek VI” posted a decent opening on the post-Thanksigiving with $18.2 million, a record for the slot that is unlikely to be challenged any time soon.

“History proves that it’s a tough weekend because you’re almost betting against the success of Thanksgiving weekend,” says Sony distribution head Jeff Blake. “It would have probably been a bad idea this year.”

Studios have also taken a similar hands-off tactic for the weekend after Christmas, which has gone three straight years without a wide release.

“It’s just common sense,” Borys says. “Why would you hold off on opening a film wide until right after Christmas, when people are off for a solid week before Christmas?”

However, nothing is forever in the exhibition business. “Sooner or later, if enough people avoid a date for long enough, it will somehow become a good idea,” Blake predicts.

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