For the first time in a long while, audiences were enticed to leave the couch for new movies that didn’t involve superheroes or speedy cars.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Disney’s animated musical fable “Encanto” collected a leading $40.3 million between Wednesday and Sunday and MGM’s star-studded crime drama “House of Gucci” brought in $20 million in the same period, a solid haul for pandemic times. It’s an encouraging sign that family films and movies aimed at adult audiences can manage to be viable box office draws, especially when they are playing exclusively in theaters and are not available simultaneously on streaming services. Having a world-famous pop icon as your leading lady helps too.
But Thanksgiving is historically one of the most popular times to take the family to the cinema, and 2021 didn’t come close to reaching the box office bounty of years past. During the extended five-day weekend (most movies around big holidays open on Wednesday rather than Friday), the domestic box office collectively racked up $142 million in ticket sales, according to data from Comscore. It’s a major improvement from 2020 (which isn’t saying much considering only Universal’s animated sequel “The Croods: A New Age” managed to open nationwide and widely accessible COVID-19 vaccinations remained months away), but it’s more than 50% behind pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, Disney’s “Frozen II” generated $123 million alone while the overall box office amassed $263 million in receipts, according to Comscore. In 2018, the holiday weekend grossed a record-setting $315 million, boosted by Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” Needless to say, the domestic box office recovery remains far off — even with Lady Gaga giving the camera all she’s got in “Gucci” or Lin-Manuel Miranda writing new music for “Encanto.”
There are still reasons to be optimistic (and several to be pessimistic) about the future of the movie theater business. On the occasion of “Encanto” and “House of Gucci” hitting theaters, Variety is digesting the good and the bad at the Thanksgiving box office.
Case for optimism: Movies that didn’t involve superheroes did reasonably well at the box office
While the box office struggles to recover from COVID-19, ticket sales have been mostly fueled by younger male moviegoers, propelling superheroes and science-fiction spectacles to the top of box office charts.
“As with families, older moviegoers have been reluctant to return to the movies, watching more entertainment at home,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research.
Family crowds and older ticket buyers will return to cinemas… for the right movie. That much is clear after “Encanto” and House of Gucci” performed in line with expectations at a time when many films catering to those audiences have been falling flat at the box office. For “Encanto,” stellar reviews and new music from “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda proved to be enough to encourage parents to take their young kids to the movies. In the case of “House of Gucci,” the promise of Lady Gaga styled in ski togs and sporting a thick Italian accent was too tantalizing to refuse.
In order for the movie theater industry to fully bounce back, Hollywood needs to sustain the momentum for genres that aren’t comic book related.
Case for pessimism: “Encanto” and “House of Gucci” will struggle to turn a profit
It’s the great contradiction of plague times: Just because a movie does reasonably well in theaters doesn’t mean it’ll make enough money to get out of the red. (That was true before the pandemic but COVID-19 has only made it much more difficult for studios to recoup their investments on big-budget movies.) “House of Gucci” cost $75 million to produce, not including the studio’s substantial marketing spend, while “Encanto” carries a price tag closer to $150 million. Both titles can be seen only in theaters, which should help ticket sales in the long run, but they will need to appeal to overseas audiences to justify their budgets. However, the omicron variant of COVID-19 could imperil confidence at the international box office.
Case for optimism: Children can newly get vaccinated
The reason that family films, mostly of the animated variety, have struggled to match pre-pandemic ticket sales is because until recently, children weren’t able to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Many parents with young kids deemed it too risky to visit their local multiplex, which is why Hollywood studios opted to make cartoon offerings, like Paramount’s “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” the Warner Bros. live-action/ CGI hybrid “Tom and Jerry” and Universal’s sequel “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” available on digital platforms on the same day as their theatrical debuts. Since “Encanto” wasn’t available simultaneously on-demand, the musical movie established a pandemic-era opening weekend record for animated films. With inoculation rates on the rise and approval for kids as young as 5 to receive the vaccine, Hollywood is hoping that families will reacquaint themselves with the silver screen.
Case for pessimism: Concerns over new variants of COVID-19 could upend the film industry’s progress
So far, there’s little known about Omicron, the new strain of COVID-19 that appears to be spreading in parts of the world. What is known, however, is that new coronavirus variants could threaten to upend the domestic box office’s recent gains. When the delta variant started to spread earlier this year, people were quick to give up trips to the cinema in favor of watching new movies at home. If history repeats itself, Hollywood could struggle to end 2021 at the box office with the sizzle needed to salvage a rocky year. Through the next month, theater owners are relying on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” (Dec. 10), Sony’s superhero mashup “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Guillermo del Toro’s starry crime thriller “Nightmare Alley” (Dec. 17), “The Matrix: Resurrections” (also on HBO Max) and Universal’s “Sing 2” (Dec. 22), to lure audiences young and old not just to buy tickets, but also to gorge on popcorn and soda.
Gross is optimistic that moviegoing is “showing resilience under adverse conditions.” And, he points out, it’s going to need to continue to be buoyant.
“COVID and its variants are going to be with us for the foreseeable future,” he says.