What’s in store for Australian cinema after worst Thanksgiving weekend in box-office history

Don't worry. There is still hope Australians will go to the movies over summer despite the US disaster.

Don't worry. There is still hope Australians will go to the movies over summer despite the US disaster.

American cinemagoers have always had a love affair with the Thanksgiving long weekend for its holiday break, turkey dinner, pumpkin pie … and a wide choice of stunning Hollywood films.

In the past five years alone – not counting the COVID-era of 2020 and 2021 – the three-day weekend from Friday through to Sunday resulted in an average of more than $US200 million ($298m) in ticket sales.

Not so this year. It bombed.

From November 25 to 27, the Thanksgiving box-office weekend came to $US95 million ($141m), compared to $US181 ($270m) in 2019 and $US216m ($322m) in 2018.

According to IndieWire, “the last time a Thanksgiving weekend grossed under $US100 million was … never? Nearly 30 years ago, Thanksgiving 1994 saw a three-day weekend of $US94.5 million… when ticket prices averaged $US4.08”.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever held its own over the three days, while the anticipated, animated Strange World, voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal, captured the imagination of very few.

Film expert Dr Sean Maher tells The New Daily it’s not surprising.

“Given what the industry refers to as ‘tent-pole’ films, [they] can no longer be relied upon to drive audiences back into cinemas.

“We are also at the end of a cycle of what have been reliable franchises, compounded by the hiatus in production during COVID shutdowns,” he said.

Is Australia set for a similar slump?

Queensland University of Technology’s film, screen and animation lecturer, Dr Ruari Elkington, said “nope”.

“If the Australian box office falters over summer, it won’t be on the strength of the films”.

He said we have an “embarrassment of riches” to choose from.

“There’s a very strong slate coming through and plenty of pent-up demand for big event films, including the James Cameron masterpiece Avatar: The Way of Water.

“We’ll all be hearing a lot about Avatar. I really think lighting can strike twice for Cameron and his singular use of 3D to build worlds and heighten emotion,” he said.

There’s also the “off-the-wall” Christmas movie, Violent Night, starring Stranger Things‘ David Harbour: “That could be a strong sleeper hit through till Christmas and beyond”

Dr Elkington said there is “strong audience awareness” for Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of Matilda The Musical, with Netflix prepared to give it a longer run in cinemas before it heads to the streamer.

Our Boxing Day is like Thanksgiving in terms of big heavy dinner and get-me-out-of-the-house vibes.

Dr Elkington forecasts Whitney Houston’s biopic I Want to Dance With Somebody, followed by family movies including Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and Puss In Boots, and “Oscar-bait” titles The Lost King and Triangle of Sadness will see us through.

There’s also Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt’s “debauchery” in Babylon [January 20], The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim
and the Elizabeth Banks-directed Cocaine Bear, starring the late Ray Liotta.

Couple that with the December re-release of Top Gun: Maverick –  the third highest-grossing film of all time in Australia – and you’re looking at the prospect of a healthy festive season for cinema.

However, Dr Maher cautioned the Australian sector “can expect a downturn in attendances over the summer in the wake of disappointing US openings”.

“Promotion and marketing is down for feature films which means audiences may be unclear about what is actually set to be a theatrical release in cinemas and what is going straight to streaming services,” he said.

He cited the Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrel Christmas film, Spirited: “It resembles the kind of promotion that was reserved for a big cinema release, but instead it is an Apple TV+ exclusive.

“These shifts translate into audience expectations and behaviours.”

COVID’s domino effect

Senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR), Paul Dergarabedian, told CNN Business the impact of the pandemic – both in terms of production disruption and release-calendar shuffling – “has left the table fairly light on cinematic entrees”.

“This is likely a temporary shift and a result of the challenging marketplace dynamics over the past two and a half years,” he said.

“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.

Dr Maher said “the real issue is that there are no clear trends at the moment in the wake of COVID as structural issues across production, distribution and exhibition sectors continues to reshape how movies are made and released”.

One example is Russell Crowe’s Poker Face, which is still on select cinema release in the US, but had a red-carpet launch at Hoyts cinema on November 15 and was then available to stream on Stan from November 22.

“While we are moving out of a general period of disruption brought on by streaming services, we are still some way from a predictable environment where audience behaviours can be predicted and matched to consumption patterns of films that span independent productions to blockbusters.”

So what’s the answer?

A QUT survey by the university’s Digital Media Research Centre, in conjunction with independent chain Palace Cinemas, has come up with some important initial insights which were shared with TND.

In the largest national audience survey since the pandemic began, chief investigators Dr Elkington and his colleague Dr Tess Van Hemert received more than 10,000 individual responses from moviegoers.

Overwhelmingly, all appreciated the cinema experience as opposed to home movie viewing and the disruptions of things like the mobile phone.

From the size of the screen and noise levels to seat allocation and healthy options from the candy bars, “the cinema is still popular, with the focus on new-release films important”.

“Cinema is increasingly appreciated as a site of focused attention where audiences can give themselves over to sustained, immersive storytelling.

“Respondents remain very optimistic about the ongoing popularity of cinema, with the focus on new release films important.

“We know research like this is sorely needed right now as cinemas and audiences hopefully emerge from the pandemic with a newfound hunger for the kind of immersive engagement with stories on screen only cinema can provide.

The centre’s findings will be published next year.

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