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Winter Woes at the Movies: A Look at Holiday Box Office Performance

December 23, 2023 by Mitch Metcalf

The end of the year is normally a very busy time at cinemas, although this holiday season is starting at an unusually sluggish pace. Where will we end up? Let’s look to history as a guide.

In peak years, the three-weeks from December 15-January 4 generate over $1 billion in box office in North America across the top 10 films in release. Setting aside 2020 as the lockdown closed almost all theaters, a soft three-week holiday period would still approach $700 million, with about half the business concentrated in the nine days between Christmas and the day after New Year’s.

Based on the initial December 15-21 period, 2023 is pacing well below any of the non-lockdown scenarios over the past two decades. The Top Tier years were launched in mid-December generally by a Star Wars release or Avatar, as Hollywood perfected the holiday schedule in the late 2010s. The Middle and Bottom Tier years started with a variety of mid-December centerpieces like the Lord of the Rings/ Hobbit movies, National Treasure or Mission: Impossible entries.

Middle Tier years relied on very strong December 25 releases to compensate for relatively soft mid-December starts, while Bottom Tier years tended to be more front-loaded, with the December 25 releases slightly under-performing other years.

In any case, Wonka is off to such a slow start it is hard to imagine Aquaman 2, The Color Purple, Ferrari, Migration, The Boys in the Boat, The Iron Claw and Anyone But You having enough energy to put 2023 anywhere near the pace of 2021 or 2022. That group of films definitely feels like they will cluster toward the bottom. But the wonderful thing is that the audience always has the final say and can pleasantly surprise.

Interested in more detail? Scroll down for individual years and see what separated a great holiday season from one that was just okay.

TOP TIER DETAIL. These years were ideal holiday box office years, with a Star Wars movie or the original Avatar opening the weekend before Christmas and strong family fare following on or about Christmas Day (everything from Alvin and the Chipmunks and Jumanji to Daddy’s Home). Throw in Sherlock Holmes or The Greatest Showman or Little Women and the holiday recipe is complete.

MIDDLE TIER DETAIL. These years tend to open with under $200 million the first week but then go on to close to $450 million in the middle peak holiday period, usually with a strong mix of comedy and drama, younger and older, family and more serious fare. 2008 is the best comparison to 2023 in terms of a soft preview period, but Marley & Me, Bedtime Stories and Curious Case of Benjamin Button had a memorable combined run that saved that year.

BOTTOM TIER DETAIL. These years are the flip side of the Middle Tier, with a peak holiday week period closer to $350 million. These aren’t necessarily bad movies – they just didn’t collectively click during this unique time of the year. Also note that 2021 had an extraordinary preview week from Dec 15-21, with that $363 million weekly gross driven by a single day ($128 million on Friday December 17). That was one of the biggest days ever for the top 10, as Spider-Man: No Way Home opened the season like a Top Tier Star Wars year but quickly came back down to Earth.

Finally, the top 3 films in the ill-fated 2020 year were Wonder Woman 1984, Croods: A New Age and News of the World.

Check back after the New Year to see where the final numbers for holiday season 2023 end up.


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