The Muppets appears to have a pretty clear edge over Arthur Christmas and Hugo thanks to an impressive marketing effort by Disney that appears to have revived the dormant brand and made the band of puppets relevant again. While The Muppets were incredibly popular in the 70s and in to the 80s, the franchise stalled in the 90s with disappointing results from The Muppet Christmas Carol ($27.3 million), Muppet Treasure Island ($34.3 million) and 1999's Muppets from Space ($16.6 million), which was the last big-screen appearance by the characters. Disney has made a concerted effort to reintroduce the characters through the normal marketing pipelines, and all of the work has an infectious energy and enthusiasm. Parody trailers in particular have been very popular among the online community, though it's important to recognize that that doesn't necessarily translate to strong box office numbers.
Another thing working in The Muppets favor is Disney's experience opening movies over Thanksgiving weekend. While Old Dogs didn't make much noise in 2009, Enchanted and Tangled were huge with $49 million and $68.7 million, respectively, for the five-day period. With so much competition for family audiences, The Muppets probably won't reach Enchanted levels, but all signs still point to a strong start. Disney is currently anticipating $29-30 million for the three-day weekend and $40 million for the five-day frame.
Arthur Christmas is the latest movie from Aardman Animation, which impressed in 2000 with Chicken Run ($106.8 million) but failed to break out with Flushed Away ($64.7 million) or Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit ($56.1 million). All three of these movies debuted between $16 and $19 million, and the insane amount of competition should keep Arthur Christmas from exceeding that range. However, the movie will play incredibly well throughout December: set on the night before Christmas and focusing on Santa Claus's dysfunctional family, Arthur Christmas is the 2011 release most directly connected with the upcoming holidays. Sony is anticipating grosses in the mid-to-high teen millions for the five-day period.
With its story of a boy living in the walls of a Parisian train station, Hugo is easily the least mainstream of the weekend's three wide releases. Paramount's decision to release the movie in just 1,277 theaters is a de facto acknowledgement of this challenge, and the hope is that the audience that does turn out will spread strong word-of-mouth and allow for expansion in coming weeks. That strategy could work, as the movie has received impressive reviews (currently 96 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and has the kind of pedigree (Martin Scorsese) and message (the importance of film preservation) that will translate in to sustained awards buzz throughout the remainder of the season. Paramount is estimating between $10 and $12 million for the five-day frame.
Also a major awards contender, The Descendants expands to another 50 markets after earning $1.19 million from just 29 theaters this past weekend. Considering it's the only new movie in these areas aimed directly at adults, it should do great business, though it probably won't come close to the Top Five.
Weekend Forecast (Nov. 23-27) 1. Breaking Dawn Part 1 - $39 million (3-day), $61 million (5-day) 2. The Muppets - $28 million (3-day), $41 million (5-day) 3. Happy Feet Two - $18 million (3-day), $24 million (5-day) 4. Arthur Christmas - $15 million (3-day), $21 million (5-day) 5. Puss in Boots - $8 million (3-day), $11 million (5-day) -. Hugo - $7 million (3-day), $10 million (5-day)
Bar for Success With Disney's all-out marketing effort, The Muppets needs $30 million for the five-day weekend to get a pass. While it's going to play well for a while, Arthur Christmas needs to start off with around $20 million. With its smaller release, Hugo should be in good shape anywhere over $10 million.