How Original Films Saved the Thanksgiving Box Office

'Frozen 2' may have dominated, but without a second tentpole opening, 'Knives Out' debuted to $42 million — double expectations — followed by strong numbers for adult-skewing pics 'Queen & Slim,' 'Ford v Ferrari' and 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.'

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman may have been absent from the Thanksgiving marquee at thousands of theaters across the country — it debuted on Netflix everywhere Nov. 27  —  but that didn't stop moviegoers from getting off their couches and going to feast on other original offerings at nearby cinemas.

For the first time that any box office analyst can remember, the top four holiday films after Walt Disney Animation's tentopole Frozen 2 were adult-skewing titles that weren't sequels or based on known IP — Knives Out, Ford v Ferrari, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Queen & Slim. All four overperformed.

Total revenue for the weekend clocked in at an estimated $264 million. While that's down 16 percent from last year's record $315 million — led by Disney Animation's Ralph Breaks the Internet ($84.8 million), Warner Bros./MGM's Creed II ($56 million) and Fantastic Beasts 2: Crimes of Grindelwald ($42.4 million) — it was the sixth-best showing in recent memory, despite boasting no live-action tentpole.

"Original films just came back in a big way. Hollywood needs to seize this momentum and keep dishing out midrange, adult content," says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "If they stop doing that, they will lose out on all the best talent that is already gravitating toward streaming."

For the better part of two decades, Hollywood has generally stuffed the Thanksgiving turkey with two tentpoles, whether they open the weekend or the Wednesday before the holiday. The recipe has often been a combination of an all-audience movie from Walt Disney Animation and installments from The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter and James Bond franchises. (Even the superhero pic Justice League opened the weekend before Turkey Day.)

This year was an anomaly, with Frozen 2 serving as the lone studio tentpole on the Thanksgiving buffet, fueling worries that an already terrible November would end on a low note.

Frozen 2 led the bounty with a record-shattering $123.7 million for the Wednesday to Sunday stretch, easily besting the $109.9 million grossed by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire during the same corridor in 2013. (Most rivals believe Frozen 2 will come at $126 million or higher when final numbers are tallied Monday.)

The return of Princess Anna and Queen Elsa were followed by a robust $41.7 million for Rian Johnson's Knives Out, the sort of midrange film that terrifies Hollywood studios in the age of Disney box office domination and competition from streaming.

The star-studded whodunit, which had been tracking to open at $20 million to $25 million, is among the most successful original Thanksgiving title in years. In 2009, The Blind Side posted a stellar five-day holiday gross of $57.5 million. Creed, tied to the Rocky franchise, earned $42.1 million in 2015.

Placing third after Knives Out was James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari with $19 million for the five-day frame, Marielle Heller's Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with $17.3 million and Melina Matsoukas' Queen & Slim with a $15.8 million debut.

"I can’t remember when original films were so prominent in the top five," says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. "Timing helps. Right now is a good point on the calendar to put out an original film as franchises are not widespread at the moment. Secondly, reviews for Knives Out, Queen & Slim, Ford v Ferrari and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood are all very good. And they had smart release dates."

It's impossible to guess as to what Netflix's high-profile mob pic The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, might have grossed had it opened on thousands of screens nationwide. Scorsese's adult-skewing The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, took in $34 million over its five-day Christmas debut in 2013, not adjusted for inflation. (The Irishman — which runs three and a half hours, Scorsese's longest feature — is playing in dozens of indie theaters, but Netflix doesn't report grosses.)

Nearly three-quarters of ticket buyers to Knives Out were 25 and older, including 46 percent 35 and older, according to PostTrak. The film was produced by Johnson and Ram Bergman's T-Street for MRC and Lionsgate. (MRC shares a parent company, Valence Media, with The Hollywood Reporter.)

Universal and Makeready's Queen & Slim, costing under $20 million to produce, skewed somewhat younger, with 57 percent of the audience between ages 18 and 34.

"It’s encouraging to see original titles at the top of the holiday box office," says Universal distribution chief Jim Orr. "We have to go back quite a ways to see this sort of result."

Heading into the holiday, domestic revenue for the year was trailing 2018 by a sobering 7 percent. Now, that deficit has been reduced to 5.6 percent, according to Comscore.

"There was a tremendous amount of pressure on this Thanksgiving frame to rally the troops and take an early November box office famine and turn it into a holiday feast, and that's exactly what happened," says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. "This is exactly what the industry needs heading into the home stretch of the box office year. Hopefully this will be a December to remember at the multiplex."