With ‘Playmobil’ the Only Wide Release, Welcome to the Box Office Dead Zone

For holdovers "Knives Out," "Queen & Slim," "Ford v Ferrari," and "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," this weekend still carries a lot of weight.
In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven journey far beyond the gates of Arendelle in search of answers. Featuring the voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters November 22.©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
"Frozen II"

Every year, distributors must navigate four dead-zone weekends: post-New Years, Super Bowl Sunday, Labor Day, and the first in December. Historically, these are the periods with the lowest theater attendance, although studios now have their strategies; some slots have become a good time for horror titles, for example. But early December still resists tactics, with a graveyard of films that braved the date.

Films that aren’t pre-sold blockbusters do best to wait until Christmas Day; the days that follow (anywhere from eight to 11, depending on the calendar) are the year’s most lucrative. Better to maximize chances for that play period than gain the dubious bragging right of a low-grossing #1 position.

Not to mention, “Frozen II” would wipe the floor with any contender. It will retain most dates through Christmas as it heads toward a possible $500 million domestic take, almost 25% better than the 2013 original. However, for at least four titles that found success over Thanksgiving weekend, this weekend and those that follow offer the promise of a happy holiday or the box-office equivalent of coal in their stockings.

Knives OutLionsgate / screencap

Best positioned is Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” which saw a $41 million five-day opening. It should repeat at #2. Adult-appeal titles often hold after Thanksgiving, so a $13 million-$15 million take is possible. For other holdovers, the path to survival is brutal. Most years see, at most, two late-November films maintain a strong position through December.

A real contender is “Queen & Slim,” which seems to be gaining momentum on strong word of mouth. When the actuals came in, it rose to #4 for the weekend, and on Sunday it topped “Ford v Ferrari” for #3. If it can maintain that spot with a possible $8 million total, the anything-but-cute first-date movie could hold at its  strongest theaters.

The third weekend of “Ford v Ferrari” saw it reach $81 million, while “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is at $34 million through its second. Both are awards contenders, and each faces a still-uncertain path to profit. (“Ford” cost nearly four times “Beautiful Day,” but foreign is much stronger for “Ford.”) Continued audience interest is vital if they are to hold through the holidays.

“Playmobil: The Movie” is the lone new entry, with about 2,300 runs. The animated film, meant to parallel the success of the Warner Bros. Lego movies, has a checkered history: Originally acquired by the now-defunct Open Road, it now lies with STX. That studio found major success with another 2019 orphan, “The Upside,” from the now-defunct The Weinstein Co.

STX originally slated “Playmobil” for August, another weaker time slot. It’s possible that this could serve as “Frozen II” counterprogramming, but industry estimates suggest it will take in no more than $5 million.

Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS
“The Aeronauts”Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite in “The Aeronauts” five years after another biopic, “The Theory of Everything;” this one is about a pioneering balloonist and a fictional female partner/benefactress. It saw strong festival positioning, but with only a modest critical response. The high-altitude aerial scenes are getting the most attention, and cited as the biggest reason to view it on a big screen — but Amazon chose to scratch plans for an IMAX release in favor of a two-week theatrical in about 100 theaters before its Prime premiere, much as it handled “The Report.”

The best-reviewed film of the week will be Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” for a one-week qualifying run. Passed over by France as an Oscar submission for “Les Miserables,” it positions the film for 10-best lists and consideration for Foreign Language film awards from critics’ groups (including its New York Film Critics Circle win for best cinematography).

Magnolia has Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s “Little Joe,” which won Best Actress in Cannes for Emily Beecham, with Ben Whishaw costarring in this drama with sci-fi themes and some horror elements. It opens in limited play in multiple larger cities.

Focus, taking advantage of the lack of new openings, is expanding Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” this Friday to around 2,000 theaters. It’s a smart move to maximize a film that has some general interest and a known actor (Mark Ruffalo) similar to how A24 maximized “The Lighthouse” with a quick expansion.

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