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This year’s Thanksgiving box office was both feast and famine for Walt Disney.
While “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” added $64 million to its domestic tally during the five-day time frame, Disney’s latest animated feature “Strange World” failed to lure in moviegoers, generating just $18.6 million between Wednesday and Sunday and a dismal $11.9 million for the traditional three-day opening.
That is the worst three-day opening for a Disney animated feature since 2000’s “The Emperor’s New Groove,” which brought in just under $10 million during its debut, according to data from Comscore.
The dichotomous weekend comes as CEO Bob Iger returns to the helm of the company, promising to restructure Disney in a way that puts creativity at the forefront. Iger is expected to expand on these plans during a company town hall on Monday.
The week of Thanksgiving is typically a robust time at the box office. In the last decade, not counting 2020 and 2021, the five-day Thanksgiving spread — consisting of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving through Sunday — has resulted in more than $250 million in ticket sales each year.
This year, the domestic Thanksgiving box office tallied around $121 million. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” led the pack, with “Strange World” taking second place. All other films, including Sony’s “Devotion,” Disney and Searchlight’s “The Menu,” Warner Bros.‘ “Black Adam” and Universal’s “The Fabelmans” tallied less than $10 million each.
Not in the mix is Netflix’s “Glass Onion.” The streamer declined to share box office receipts for the latest Rian Johnson film, although it is believed to have tallied between $13 million and $15 million during the five-day stretch.
While “Strange World” outperformed a number of other films this weekend, its muted opening raises concerns about Disney’s animation strategy and if Iger can right the ship.
Disney’s previous CEO Bob Chapek, who took over for Iger just as the pandemic was starting in early 2020, made a series of decisions that alienated the company’s creative leaders in the wake of movie theater closures.
To start, he reorganized the company to funnel creative decisions through a single executive, rather than with each studio, taking power away from the people who were responsible for Disney’s biggest blockbusters.
Chapek then opted to have a number of Pixar and Disney Animation films released directly on the company’s streaming service instead of in theaters. This was in part because, at the time, children weren’t vaccinated and families were avoiding theaters, but also to try and bolster Disney+’s library with new content.
These decisions have led to a lot of confusion for audiences when animated Disney films have been released theatrically. Either these moviegoers are unaware the film is being put into the market or they think it is coming to Disney’s streaming platform.
This happened when Disney released “Lightyear” in cinemas in June. While the two previous Toy Story franchise films each opened to more than $100 million domestically, “Lightyear” snared just $50 million in ticket sales during its debut.
Disney Animation’s “Strange World” follows the Clades, a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest — and by far — most crucial mission.
Compounding this strategic decision is the fact that family films have been sparse at the box office in the wake of the pandemic. This means there are fewer opportunities for studios to market film trailers to their designated audience in cinemas and must rely more heavily on television and digital ads.
“No question a slow overall marketplace and a lack of awareness building horsepower for ‘Strange World’ hurt its potential to follow in the tradition of the long line of Disney animated hits over this very important holiday weekend in theaters,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
The Thanksgiving box office crown has long been held by Disney and its animated features, with films like “Frozen II,” “Coco,” “Moana,” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” leading the pack in the last decade.
Even “Encanto,” which was released during the Thanksgiving frame last year, managed to generate more than $27 million during its three-day opening and more than $40 million across the full five-day holiday weekend.
Perhaps, “Strange World” will follow a similar path as “Encanto” and gain more attention from families once it is added to Disney+.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed “The Fabelmans.”