Can Anyone Beat Star Wars at the Holiday Box Office?

We take a look at the numbers to preview how much holiday cash the biggest movies of the season are expected to bring in.

by | November 13, 2019 | Comments

The holiday movie season typically kicks off in earnest during the first full weekend of November — Thor: Ragnarok, The Incredibles, and SPECTRE are just are a few of the blockbuster titles that have drawn audience interest and given the industry a late-year boost. This year’s season so far has hardly lived up to even the lowest expectations, with Terminator: Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep suffering lackluster openings. The good news is that there are still many days left in the season, with both mini- and extended vacations coming for kids and their families. So let’s look at 10 films that will hopefully rise towards or even exceed what everyone expects from them this season.

10. Richard Jewell (2019) 77%

Release Date: December 13
Estimated Gross: $65-75 million

Clint Eastwood managed to complete Richard Jewell – his 12th film as director being released in December – quickly for Warner Bros., getting another one in the can just in time for awards season. That strategy didn’t quite work out for him last year with The Mule, which nevertheless grossed over $103 million, an impressive 5.92 multiple over just a $17.5 million opening weekend. Similarly, Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino opened in limited release but went on to gross $100.4 and $148 million, respectively. Even the return of Dirty Harry in Sudden Impact back in 1983 grossed about $174 million in today’s dollars. The commonality among all of those films is that Eastwood also starred in them. With the exception of American Sniper (his highest-grossing film to date), Eastwood in front of the camera is a bigger box office draw than when he’s only behind it (Invictus grossed just $37.4 million), but the story of Richard Jewell (played by the great Paul Walter Hauser of I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman) is a fascinating American tale that could resonate with domestic audiences. The trailer has raised some eyebrows about how far this film will lean into a poor white man being destroyed by actual fake news and, like Bombshell, the film could be hampered by audiences who prefer to keep their evenings free of politics. But critics have not been Rotten on Eastwood’s December oeuvre since 1990’s The Rookie, and that could translate into big box office dollars.

9. Spies in Disguise (2019) 76%

Release Date: December 25
Estimated Gross: $75-85 million

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse grossed over $190 million in 2018, and two years earlier, Illumination’s Sing made over $270 million, but those are the only two animated films since The Prince of Egypt in 1998 to gross over $100 million after opening in December. (That does not include hybrids like Alvin and the ChipmunksStuart Little, and Yogi Bear.) Spies in Disguise, with voice work by Will Smith and Tom Holland, has already been delayed three times this year from January to April, then to September, and now to Christmas Day. But even Fox’s animated talking bull, Ferdinand, managed to gross $84 million back in 2017, despite opening on the same day as The Last Jedi and less than a week before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Likewise, this release appears headed in a familiar direction.

8. Ford v Ferrari (2019) 92%

Release Date: November 15
Estimated Gross: $95-105 million

Many critics have been referring to this as “your dad’s new favorite movie,” which feels apropos, even with Sam Mendes’ war epic, 1917, hoping to make a technical splash later this season. While that film is likely to earn some accolades, it will also probably get lost in a host of awards hopefuls – not to mention late-season blockbusters – so Ford v Ferrari is poised to make the most of its pole position. James Mangold’s two-and-a-half-hour racing film with Christian Bale and Matt Damon should get off to a strong start nearly two full weeks before Thanksgiving and cruise into mid-December as a staple of the top five at the box office until the big blockbusters take over.

7. Little Women (2019) 95%

Release Date: December 25
Estimated Gross: $100-110 million

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, is the highest-grossing film in independent production company A24’s history, making over $48 million in 2017 and thriving into the heart of awards season that year. For her follow-up, Gerwig is taking on a literary classic with a major cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, and Florence Pugh. Strong reactions have come out of early screenings, suggesting Gerwig is offering a fresh perspective on the material, which has already seen seven other big screen adaptations. If A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the film for adults that takes us from Thanksgiving to Christmas, then this film is likely to take the baton in a sprint to the Academy Awards.

6. Cats (2019) 20%

Release Date: December 20
Estimated Gross: $110-120 million

Since 2002, there have been seven musicals that have opened in December and grossed over $100 million. The genre is on a three-year streak with La La Land (2016, $151.1 million), The Greatest Showman (2017, $174.3 million), and Mary Poppins Returns (2018, $171.9 million). On the other hand, if your name is Andrew Lloyd Webber, the big screen adaptations of your musicals have not been nearly as successful. Evita didn’t do too bad in 1996, despite never making it into more than 1,045 theaters ($50 million), but Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera was a big financial and awards disappointment for Warner Bros. in 2004 ($51.2 million). Can Cats overcome the social media sneers of its trailers to be another winner for Tom Hooper, whose Les Miserables grossed over $148 million in December 2012?

5. Knives Out (2019) 97%

Release Date: November 27
Estimated Gross: $115-125 million

Rian Johnson’s affinity for old-school whodunits and twisty narratives (see: Brick and The Brothers Bloom) is finally going to get the audience attention it deserves. Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express built steady success to the tune of over $102 million, so why not give those same mystery-lovers another big cast in a funnier and more lively tale? Among all the films getting released wide this season that made their way through the fall festival circuit, Knives Out currently maintains the highest Tomatometer score, Certified Fresh at 98%. (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes in second at 97%.) Word of mouth should be strong and brisk for the PG-13 film, and it should become another solid hit for Johnson and Lionsgate.

4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) 95%

Release Date: November 22
Estimated Gross: $125-135 million

There are a number of options for families this season, but there is one film that is going to strike a chord with multiple generations. Take a childhood television icon, then cast him with the most beloved actor in Hollywood, and you have the recipe for a genuine success. Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers is the perfect anecdote to the anxiety and division that seems to be at the forefront of daily life now. Last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? grossed $22.8 million, making it the ninth highest grossing documentary ever (and four of the films ahead of it are bubblegum pop behind-the-scenes concert movies) and renewing interest in the American television hero. As Hanks heads toward possibly taking the lead in the Best Supporting Actor race, Marielle Heller’s film is likely to be the one adults will recommend at Thanksgiving and for weeks to come.

3. Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) 72%

Release Date: December 13
Estimated Gross:
 $325-350 million

Speaking of long waits, it took 22 years for a Jumanji sequel to hit theaters. (No offense to Jon Favreau’s Zathura.) The original with Robin Williams just crossed the $100 million mark and was the tenth highest-grossing film of 1995. The sequel with Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan opened five days after The Last Jedi and became the fourth film on a list of $400 million grossers with a five-time multiple over their opening (in fact, it’s the second-highest behind Titanic). Sony is going to get the jump on Star Wars this time by opening The Next Level a week before The Rise of Skywalker, just as the holiday hiatus begins for most schools. There will be a number of options going forward, and this looks like it may follow a more traditional sequel pattern: it won’t reach the heights of the original but should still reveal a healthy anticipation for another adventure.

2. Frozen II (2019) 77%

Release Date: November 22
Estimated Gross: $500+ million

That sound you hear is every child in the world asking their parents to take them to see Anna and Elsa’s next adventure. 2013’s Frozen was a legitimate phenomenon, even by Disney standards: to date, it is just one of five films to gross over $400 million that achieved that mark by grossing more than five times their opening weekends. It’s a list that includes AvatarTitanicThe Phantom Menace, and, as previously mentioned, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Think of the films that succeeded because of word-of-mouth while they were in theaters, and then only grew from there to the point that audiences were ready to jump into the next chapter — event films like Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight, as well as comedies like Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Pitch Perfect 2. The Toy Story films and last year’s 14-years-in-the-making Incredibles 2 are likely to be comparable to what is in store for Frozen II.

1. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) 51%

Release Date: December 20
Estimated Gross: $750-800 million

There are definitely a couple of event films closing out 2019, and J.J. Abrams’ conclusion of the Star Wars saga that began back in 1977 is, without argument, the biggest. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, despite a push from Avengers: Endgame this summer, remains the highest-grossing domestic film of all time. Will The Rise of Skywalker give Endgame a run for its money? We think it’s likely to come up a little short to match the latter’s record-breaking $357 million opening, though you should also ignore the trolls suggesting it will gross less than The Last Jedi (a.k.a. the eighth highest-grossing domestic film ever). Each Star Wars trilogy has adapted to a pattern: a big first movie, then a second film that grosses less, and then a strong finish, with the third film out-grossing the second but not quite the first. Expect The Rise of Skywalker to fall into that trend.

Erik Childress can be heard each week evaluating box office on WGN Radio with Nick Digilio as well as on Business First AM with Angela Miles and his Movie Madness Podcast.

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