Box Office Tight Over Turkey Weekend

John Hamann's Weekend Wrap-Up

December 2, 2003

Creepier than Austin Powers, Fat Bastard and Dr. Evil combined.

A wacky Thanksgiving weekend at the box office got wackier Sunday afternoon, when Universal revised its estimate for Cat in the Hat, pulling it ahead of The Haunted Mansion for the number one spot at the box office. Universal said a junior publicist had erred, giving the lower estimate for Cat. The question is, did Universal make an error, or were they underhandedly trying to put their film into the top spot for the second consecutive weekend, giving their awful film headlines (and valuable free publicity) two weekends in a row? My guess is B, but instead of getting into all that, let's just move on to the actuals that were released today, which takes the power away from the studios.

With The Haunted Mansion, Elf and The Cat in the Hat all vying for top spot in a close race, waiting for actuals is actually quite interesting this week. The new number one film at the box office is The Cat in the Hat, which, after a revised estimate of $25.5 million was reduced to $24.5 million (there's a surprise), but it was still enough to take top spot. Considering the production budget and the 36% decline over the long weekend, The Cat is a dog no matter how you slice it. Even without any new kid competition next weekend (or through most of December) look for Cat to start to tumble large in the next frame.

The number two film is The Haunted Mansion, with the estimate revised from $25.3 million to $24.3 million, just a couple of hundred thousand away from top spot.

Number three goes to Elf, who is the real slim shady at the box office. New Line revised their estimate from $22.2 million to $21.7 million, so you can see that all of the studio estimates were high for the top three films. Elf now has a total of $129 million, and I think both Universal and Disney will be quite envious of Elf's closing total. The other poorly estimated holdover was Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, as Fox lowered the estimate from $12.7 million to $12.1 million.

As for the remaining openers, Bad Santa's $12.5 estimate was downgraded to $12.3 million. Sony's The Missing was downgraded from $11.7 to a nasty $10.9 million, and Paramount's Timeline was pretty close to the estimate (but still extremely bad) dropping from an estimate of $8.5 million to $8.2 million.

Please check out the column below, all estimates have been updated with actuals, and the resulting order has been straightened out.

The Thanksgiving weekend at the box office has been soft for openers over the last few years, and little of that changed this season. Four new films debuted over the turkey weekend: Disney's The Haunted Mansion, Dimension's Bad Santa, Paramount's Timeline and Sony's The Missing. Production budgets alone stood at $253 million, so there was a lot of money riding on the last holiday weekend before Christmas.

To say that Thanksgiving box office numbers have been soft for openers over the last few years is an understatement -- the top five films opening on Thanksgiving weekends all come from the mid to late 1990s, with one exception. They include Toy Story 2 ($57.4 million in 1999), 101 Dalmatians ($35 million in 1996), A Bug's Life ($32.8 million in 1998), Unbreakable ($30.3 million in 2000), and Toy Story ($29.1 million in 1995). Last year, Thanksgiving was celebrated with five box office turkeys that included well-remembered films such as Wes Craven Presents: They and Extreme Ops. This year, four films debuted and as far as box office turkeys go, none of the openers made the grade, but the real success story is two movies that are opposites: New Line's Elf and Dimension's thrifty Bad Santa.

Depending on which box office reporting source you believe, the dead heat between the top two could go either way, with one calling Cat in the Hat the winner and the other giving the edge to The Haunted Mansion. Exhibitor Relations, Co. has the number one film of Thanksgiving weekend as Disney's The Haunted Mansion, which has fallen in between the theme park flop and success of The Country Bears and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The Eddie Murphy effects-laden family comedy grossed $25.3 million over the three-day portion of the weekend and $35 million over the five-day portion. THM was an expensive movie to make, as the mouse house gave director Rob Minkoff $90 million to work with. Reviews were tepid at best and could mean Elf will give it the brush off in the weekends to come. RottenTomatoes gathered 86 reviews, and only 14 were positive, leading to a very rotten score of 16%. Like Cat in the Hat, Haunted Mansion proves it's all about marketing and timing, not the quality of the final product.

Second spot belongs to the Universal/DreamWorks/Imagine co-production of The Cat in the Hat. Despite abysmal reviews and damaging word-of-mouth, The Cat in the Hat grossed $24.7 million over the three-day portion of the long weekend. The holiday gross was down a troubling 33% from the previous frame, as the similarly patterned Grinch lost only 7% of its pre-Thanksgiving weekend audience. The news won't be bad for the companies behind The Cat. The film cost $109 million to make and is already at $77 million. Even with a quick fall off, it should easily earn $125 million domestically, with a whole lot more coming overseas before hitting the windfall on home video and DVD.

After a very close race for first and second, third spot goes to the real star of the box office show, New Line's leggy Elf. This film is going to turn Will Ferrell into a box office heavyweight as it has cruised through November, doing the unthinkable by being just a few million dollars away from outgrossing The Matrix Revolutions. Over the three-day portion of the weekend, Elf grossed $22.2 million -- despite losing 179 screens compared to last weekend. This column has pushed the similarity Elf has to the Santa Clause 2 gross pattern, and the trend continues. Over the Thanksgiving 2002 weekend, SC2 improved on the previous weekend by 19%; Elf gained the exact same 19% over last weekend's gross of $18.7 million. Elf now has an amazing four weekend gross of $130.1 million, and because of the holidays, now has an extremely legitimate shot at $200 million. It also has a chance at becoming New Line's biggest non-LOTR film ever, as it currently sits behind only Rush Hour 1 and 2 at $141.2 million and $226.1 million, and Austin Powers 2 and 3 with $206 million and $213.1 million respectively.

Gothika lands in fourth this weekend, dropping two spots from its second place finish last weekend. The Halle Berry starrer grossed $12.7 million over the three-day portion of the weekend. It dropped an alarming 34% from its gross last weekend, and now has a total of $41.1 million. The good news for distributor Warner Bros. is that the Dark Castle film cost only $40 million to make, so it should be profitable after worldwide receipts are counted.

Fifth over the Thanksgiving weekend was Russell Crowe's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The Fox epic grossed $12.7 million over the three-day portion of the weekend and was only 17% lower than last weekend's gross. The sea-faring flick now has a cumulative take of $67.5 million, but the bad news for Fox is that the film still has a very long way to go to recoup the production budget. The epic was made for an out-of-this-world cost of $150 million before marketing.

Sixth goes to Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton's anti-Christmas movie. Bad Santa grossed a not-bad $12.5 million over the Friday to Sunday portion of the weekend, and $16.8 million over the five-day. Dimension Films secured only 2,005 venues for Bad Santa, and the black comedy made the most out of them, as it had a three-day venue average of $6,227. The studio should thank Bad Santa's critics for its success, as the early complaints about the subject matter of the film raised its profile from a single digit opener to a double-digit success. Oddly enough it was the only opener of the weekend to receive a fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes; the site found 100 reviews and 77 were fresh, leading to a positive score of 77%.

When comparing production budget to opening weekend gross, Bad Santa is the winner amongst the openers for the weekend. The film cost Dimension Films, a subsidiary of Miramax, only $18 million to make, a figure it should easily see by next weekend. Its been a great year for Dimension despite only opening three films that included the Spy Kids revival in 3-D which grossed $111.1 million, the miss My Boss's Daughter ($15.5 million) and Scary Movie 3, which currently sits at about $108.5 million. Production costs for the three equaled $97 million, and combined domestic grosses came in at $234.6 million. I think the Dimension/Miramax marketing department deserves a big Christmas bonus this year.

Seventh goes to Sony's The Missing, a film I thought would have finished higher up in the chart this weekend. The Ron Howard directed flick grossed $11.7 million over the three-day portion of the weekend and $16.5 million since Wednesday. Released at 2,756 venues, the John Ford wannabe had a disappointing site average of $4,245. The Missing is another film that didn't review as well as expected, and had little to no buzz heading into the weekend after the film's Wednesday open. It's been a tough year for the film's stars Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, as box office seems to be Missing from their 2003 films. Jones' other movie in 2003 was The Hunted, it grossed $34.2 million against a budget of $55 million. For Blanchett, her other movie was Veronica Guerin, which carried a budget of $17 million and grossed only $1.5 million; however, Blanchett is guaranteed a hit when Lord of the Rings: Return of the King opens in December.

Pulling up lame in eighth is the latest expensive Paramount disaster, Timeline. The Michael Crichton adaptation grossed a not so great $8.5 million over the three-day portion of the weekend, and $12.6 million since its open on Wednesday. If you've seen any of the marketing, it looks like Paramount failed to get behind the idea of Timeline, as the ads were scattered and had trouble communicating the plot of the film to the viewer. It will be another expensive miss for Paramount, as the film cost $80 million to make, and will be extremely luck to get half of that back domestically. The film joins Beyond Borders, The Hunted and The Core as costly misses in 2003 for Paramount. The studio's last chance in 2003 belongs to Ben Affleck's Paycheck, which opens on Christmas Day -- making it no wonder that John Goldwyn, President of Paramount, stepped down last week.

Love Actually lands in ninth this weekend as Universal made the odd move of only expanding the film's venue count by 17 screens for the Thanksgiving weekend. The romantic comedy grossed $8.2 million this weekend, up a scant 5% from last weekend. Love Actually has now grossed $43.7 million since opening four weekends ago.

Tenth goes to Disney holdover Brother Bear, which has quietly turned itself into a hit for the Mouse House. Brother Bear grossed $4.9 million this weekend, up 8% from last week. This kind of Thanksgiving performance should give Disney a shot at another $100 million hit with Brother Bear, as it has a current total of $77 million.

Overall this weekend, totals at the box office were quite good, despite the lack of a breakout performer. Last year's Thanksgiving top ten was similar, as the five new releases failed to have much of an impact; the top ten came in at $129.3 million. This year, more dollars were spread further as the top ten came in at $144.2 million, 10% ahead of last year.

Top Ten for Weekend of November 28-30, 2003
Number of Sites
Change in Sites from Last
Estimated Gross ($)
Cumulative Gross ($)
Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat
The Haunted Mansion
No change
Bad Santa
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
The Missing
Love Actually
Brother Bear
The Matrix Revolutions
Looney Tunes: Back in Action



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