The good news for studios was that, overall, people liked what they saw in theaters over the long Thanksgiving holiday. The bad news was that there were a lot fewer of them than in years past.
In fact, despite some highly regarded new movies, it was the slowest Thanksgiving moviegoing weekend in the last four years. Ticket sales were down roughly 11% compared with the same period last year. So far this year, attendance is off about 5%, and box office receipts are down about 4%.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" was easily the No. 1 film, taking in $62.3 million Wednesday to Sunday, according to an estimate from distributor Summit Entertainment. Since the film's release the previous weekend, the fourth installment in the vampire romance franchise has collected $221.3 million.
Meanwhile, three well-reviewed PG-rated films fought for young moviegoers at the multiplex with varying degrees of success. "The Muppets," the latest film incarnation of Jim Henson's popular felt puppets, came out on top with a respectable $42 million over the five-day period. "Arthur Christmas," an animated 3-D holiday tale, took in a lackluster $17 million. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," a lavish 3-D family story about the early days of filmmaking, grossed $15.4 million — almost as much as "Arthur" despite playing on about 2,000 fewer screens.
"The Muppets," which stars and was co-written by Jason Segel, performed far better than previous feature films featuring Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. In 1999, "Muppets From Space" mustered only $22 million by the end of its run.
Those who saw "The Muppets" over the weekend loved it, giving it an average grade of A, according to market-research firm CinemaScore. The movie, which cost Walt Disney Studios about $45 million to produce, appealed not only to kids but also to adults nostalgic for the 1970s television program "The Muppet Show." About 54% of the audience was younger than 25.
"We played like a family film during the day, and as the evening business came on, we continued to add dollars to the per-screen average with adults," said Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president of distribution. "It was reminiscent of the re-release of 'The Lion King,' where we saw the nostalgia of something really generating interest across the board."
"Arthur Christmas" marks the first collaboration between Sony Pictures Animation and the British animation house Aardman Animations, the company known for creating the popular Wallace and Gromit characters, and so far the results are not promising, at least in the U.S.
This weekend, the film resonated most with a surprisingly older audience: Roughly 69% of the audience was older. Those who saw the picture about Santa's son on a mission to deliver Christmas presents enjoyed it, assigning it an average grade of A-.
Sony hopes strong word of mouth will propel the film to success in the coming weeks, as new family films — including "The Adventures of Tintin" and the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks adventure — open around Christmas. Despite the increasing competition, Sony's distribution president, Rory Bruer, said he was confident the picture would "hold in like a rock" through Christmas.
". "We'll definitely have a marketing campaign throughout the holiday season," Bruer said.
"Arthur Christmas," which cost Sony about $100 million to produce, has sold more tickets overseas than it has domestically. The film played in 24 foreign markets this weekend and raked in $11.9 million, bringing its international total to $39.3 million.
"Hugo," an adaptation of the bestselling children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," had an even larger budget than "Arthur Christmas." Financier Graham King said the movie cost less than $150 million to make, but another person familiar with the film's budget — who did not want to be identified so as not to damage business relationships — said it cost about $170 million. Paramount is releasing the picture for a fee and paying for the film's prints and advertising.
Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore acknowledged that the way "Hugo" was being released was unusual for a big-budget movie but said he felt confident the strategy would pay off.
"Most expensive movies take the approach of spending as much as possible on opening weekend — people aren't willing to let the movie be their biggest sales pitch," Moore said. "We had exceptional reviews, so we reallocated marketing dollars and looked at Thanksgiving as the start of our release and spent a fraction of what we would normally spend on advertising."
There was promising news for another critical favorite over Thanksgiving: "The Descendants." The Alexander Payne drama, which stars George Clooney, took in $9.2 million over the five-day period, averaging an impressive $16,000-plus per screen as it expanded to more than 400 theaters. The film, a likely Oscar contender, will get a push all through award season.