Thanksgiving is usually a $250 million box office haul. This weekend it will be hard to reach $20 million

Key Points
  • The Thanksgiving box office is set to see its worst haul in decades due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • In recent weeks the number of coronavirus cases has reached historic highs and the number of theaters open to the public has shrunk.
Clark Duke, Kailey Crawford and Cloris Leachman voice Thunk, Sandy and Gran in "The Croods: A New Age"

The week of Thanksgiving is typically a robust time at the box office, but this year the coronavirus pandemic has crippled the film industry, leaving little doubt that the November holiday will suffer the same fate.

Even with new content arriving the theaters, the Thanksgiving box office is set to see its worst haul in decades, according to Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

"The pandemic has negatively impacted every traditionally important box office holiday from Memorial weekend to Fourth of July, and even sidelined the almighty summer movie season, so it's no surprise that Thanksgiving would be impacted as well," Dergarabedian said.

In the last decade, 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. The only two years that didn't hit this threshold were 2011 and 2014, but the box office tally still surpassed $230 million in each case.

"Usually, it's a time frame when family and friends get together and historically it's been a big weekend," Dergarabedian said. "This year it's literally going to be a turkey."

Typically, Thanksgiving is host to a handful of major film releases as well as titles that had only been released a few weeks prior. Families with small children would flock to cinemas for the animated features and others would seek out blockbuster films that can be enjoyed by all ages.

A 77% drop at the box office

Last year, "Frozen 2," "Knives Out" and "Ford Vs. Ferrari" were top box office titles, leading to a five-day haul of $263.4 million. Just looking at Friday, Saturday and Sunday of that weekend to remove the extra days associated with the holiday, the tally was $181.4 million.

This year the only major title arriving in theaters is Dreamwork's "The Croods: A New Age." Expectations are that the film will draw some audiences because it is a new title, but that it won't have a large financial impact on the 2020 box office. The reviews have not been glowing enough to offset health concerns some consumers might have about going to the theater.

Already, the yearly box office is a fraction of what it was last year, dropping more than 77% to $2.18 billion. Since August, when major theater chains reopened, through Nov. 22, the box office has only collected $279 million. During the same period last year, the box office brought in $2.86 billion.

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Watch CNBC's full interview with Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi

In recent weeks, the number of coronavirus cases has reached historic highs and the number of theaters open to the public has shrunk. The national seven-day average of daily new cases stands at 174,225 as of Tuesday, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. With cases on the rise, the fear is that people will shy away from public forms of entertainment, despite investments from cinema owners to increase safety measures in auditoriums.

Two weeks ago, there were 2,800 theaters open in the U.S. This most recent weekend, around 2,100 theaters open. It's unclear how many theaters will be open for Thanksgiving weekend, but if that number shrinks again, so too does the potential box office haul.

The path to $10 million

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.

It's unclear how accurate that figure is considering that the market place is so different this year. Traditional prediction methods for attendance and ticket sales don't apply.

"Tenet" only garnered $9.3 million in its debut over Labor Day Weekend, not including Monday ticket sales, and had more theaters open to public. This was the highest opening weekend for a new film in the U.S. since the pandemic began.

"It would have to do more business than 'Tenet' in fewer theaters," Dergarabedian said.

It's not an impossible feat, but since theaters reopened in August, the highest box office tally occurred between Sept. 4 and Sept. 6 when "Tenet" was released and sales hit $16.2 million. Last weekend, the domestic box office sold just $5.4 million in tickets. Even with two extra days of ticket sales in the Thanksgiving weekend and the debut of "The Croods" sequel, it's unclear if the box office will come close to reaching that top-grossing weekend in September.

Regardless, this Thanksgiving box office won't surpass the $46.8 million that was rung up during the five-day holiday period in 1984, which is as far back as Comscore's data goes. That would make it the worst Thanksgiving box office in decades.

The expectation is that once a vaccine is widely distributed and blockbuster movies are more regularly released to the public, that these trends will reverse.

"I do think in the future, Thanksgiving will indeed return to prominence as one of the most important holidays, both symbolically and financially for movie theaters," Dergarabedian said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Dreamworks Animation.