"The Croods: A New Age," arriving in movie theaters on Thanksgiving, is a rare bright spot for operators who have been forced to show older films at discounted prices for the last few months.
While some smaller budget films have debuted this fall, these titles aren't drawing the crowds that movie theaters need to survive. The animated tale of a prehistoric family will be one of the first releases with a budget greater than $50 million since "Tenet" debuted domestically in September.
Cinema owners are hopeful that the Dreamworks movie will lure parents and kids back to the theater despite continued surges in coronavirus cases and the threat of more closures. But industry analysts aren't as optimistic the family-friendly title will be a box office savior.
"The spike in cases suggests to me that only the foolhardy will head to the theater with their kids," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush.
The film follows the Croods, a family voiced by Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener and Ryan Reynolds, as they search for a safe place to call home. The family discovers a walled-in paradise that is already inhabited by another family, called the Bettermans.
Tensions escalate between the families, but those differences will have to be cast aside when a new threat forces them to leave the safety of their new home. Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann and Kelly Marie Tran round out the voice cast as the Bettermans.
"The first movie was cute, but was 7 years ago, and doesn't have the kind of following you need for a sequel to get people to risk their lives," Pachter said. "I think it will be a non-event in theaters."
In 2013, "The Croods" garnered $43.6 million during its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, a figure that the sequel will not come close to touching over its first weekend.
At best, "The Croods: A New Age" could reach between $10 million and $15 million during its first five days, Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst, said, citing talks with other industry analysts.
However, that figure could be overly optimistic. Universal, which owns Dreamworks Animation, has inked deals with multiple cinema chains that would allow it to place films on premium video on-demand as soon as 17 days after a theatrical release.
Stone said families may be reluctant to visit theaters and opt to hold out until the film is available digitally.
The U.S. continues to notch record coronavirus infections, with the national seven-day average of daily new cases hitting 170,855 on Sunday, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
"I think 'Croods' is the last theatrical release we will see this year," Pachter said. "It is going to be so bad in two weeks that governors are going to have to step in."
Two weeks ago, there were 2,800 theaters open in the U.S., representing around 51% of the open theaters during the same time last year, according to data from Comscore. This most recent weekend, around 2,100 theaters open — less than 40% of what was open last year.
"I think right now the biggest issue impacting the box office is many municipalities forcing theaters to close due to the rising number of Covid cases," Eric Handler, managing director of media and entertainment equity research for MKM Partners, said.
"With theater occupancies limited, show times scaled down and moviegoers a bit confused about whether or not theaters are even open, it's going to be tough for any film to succeed at this moment," he said. "I imagine 'Croods 2' does a bit better than some other recent releases but that's not really saying very much."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.