Thanksgiving used to be a movie feast. This year? Slim pickings

New York
CNN Business

Thanksgiving weekend has historically offered a cornucopia of films, letting moviegoers get out of the house and kick back after eating copious amounts of turkey, mashed potatoes and pie.

But this year the movie menu is pretty sparse. The North American box office has few new films this weekend that are likely to draw tons of moviegoers.

“Strange World,” Disney’s new animated film about a family of explorers starring the voice work of Jake Gyllenhaal, is projected to bring in only about $30 million domestically over the five-day holiday weekend — a fine, albeit muted, opening. But early box office results from Wednesday and Thursday indicate that “Strange World” is likely to come in under even those initial expectations.

Another Disney film, Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” is now in its second week and is set to win the holiday weekend with around $40 million domestically. It’s made $552 million so far.

The slate is a far cry from Thanksgiving weekends of yore. Thanksgiving is usually one of the busiest times of the year for movie theaters, as in many ways it kicks off the profitable holiday box office season — similar to how Memorial Day weekend ushers in the summer. For example, films like “Creed,” “Moana,” and “Knives Out” opened on Thanksgiving weekends and did well.

So what happened to Thanksgiving this year? Once again, blame Covid.

“The impact of the pandemic, both in terms of production disruption and release-calendar shuffling, has left the table fairly light on cinematic entrees,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore

, told CNN Business.

Supply chain issues in Hollywood have been hampering movie productions all year long. Summer ticket sales during the summer were strong thanks to hits like “Top Gun: Maverick,” but big new releases have been hard to find in recent months. “Wakanda Forever” is another notable exception, having notched a record $180 million earlier this month, but otherwise it’s been pretty quiet at the cineplex.

The dearth of big new releases helps explain why the domestic box office is down 32% so far this year compared to 2019 before the pandemic. The number of releases on 2,000 screens or more is down by 36%.

Holidays like Thanksgiving are important for theaters because “they act as a calendar-based touchstone,” which audiences have come to associate as a “prime time of sorts,” Dergarabedian added.

“This is when the biggest and brightest movies are in the marketplace, and Thanksgiving is certainly one of those timeframes that has developed that type of identity over the years,” he said. “It would be a shame for Thanksgiving to wind up as another marginalized holiday period, like Labor Day weekend.”

But the 2022 holidays aren’t over yet, and there’s hope on the horizon thanks to James Cameron and his sequel to “Avatar” — the biggest blockbuster in cinema history.

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” which opens on December 16, could unleash a wave of moviegoing to help the industry end the year on a high note. The film Cameron’s first since the 2009 original, and there are some questions about whether this very expensive film can find attract the same type of audience. Others argue: One bets against the director of “Titanic,” “The Terminator” and “Aliens” at their own peril.

As for Thanksgiving, Dergarabedian hopes that as the theater industry normalizes, the holiday will make a comeback.

“This is likely a temporary shift and a result of the challenging marketplace dynamics over the past two and a half years,” he said. “Thanksgiving will rise again as one of the most important moviegoing weeks of the year.”