While we're still seven weeks away from Christmas, what's traditionally known as the "holiday" box office season officially kicked off on the first weekend of November. This also mean it's time for Box Office Mojo's annual holiday movie forecast, which predicts the domestic box office for some of the biggest titles of the season.
Listed below are the movies we think will be the Top 12, with analysis and a specific domestic forecast. On the next page, the rest of the nationwide titles (sans forecast) will be discussed.
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Nov. 22): In March 2012, The Hunger Games shocked the world when it opened to an incredible $152.5 million, which remains an unprecedented start for a non-sequel. The movie held well, and ultimately closed with an incredible $408 million (back then, it ranked 11th all-time). In the year-and-a-half since then, the fanbase has only grown in size—many who enjoyed the movie checked out the book series, while those who missed the movie in theaters caught it at home.
All of this begs the question: can Catching Fire match or exceed its predecessor? With a bigger fanbase, more aggressive marketing and a prime holiday release date, the gut reaction is "absolutely." If it did wind up higher, though, it would be defying historical trends. At the domestic box office, only 22 movies have earned over $350 million in their initial run. Of those 22, eight have direct sequels, and all eight of those sequels earned less than their predecessor. The point here is that, when a movie's initial audience is at this incredible level, it's extremely difficult to expand on that with the sequel.
Regardless, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be the highest-grossing movie of the season with at least $335 million, which will make this another major success for distributor Lionsgate. Forecast: $400 million
2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec. 13): The first Hobbit earned a very strong $303 million last year, though anecdotal evidence suggests that many Lord of the Rings fans weren't thrilled with the movie. Historically, when an anticipated movie receives lukewarm audience reactions, its sequel suffers at the box office. Warner Bros. is working overtime to try to keep too many fans from bailing: the marketing material emphasizes Lord of the Rings favorites Gandalf and Legolas, and the prospect of finally seeing the dragon Smaug should also help. Forecast: $230 million
3. Thor: The Dark World (Nov. 8): A lot is riding on Thor: The Dark World; it's the second entry in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the first one outside of the all-star Iron Man franchise. Thanks to goodwill from The Avengers, Iron Man 3 increased 31 percent over Iron Man 2—if Thor 2 has a similar bump over the first Thor ($181 million), it will earn $237 million. Unfortunately, Thor 2 doesn't add 3D (the first one was in 3D as well) and the marketing hasn't been quite as strong as the material for Iron Man 3. Still, a total north of $200 million is likely, and big foreign grosses (over $400 million) should be expected as well. Forecast: $220 million
4. Frozen (Nov. 27): Disney Animation is back on Thanksgiving weekend for the first time since 2010, when Tangled opened strong on its way to just over $200 million. Frozen's story isn't as immediately interesting, and marketing has yet to sell this to boys the way Tangled did. Still, this is the latest holiday season in which the studios have neglected to schedule compelling content for families in December. As a result, Frozen should play well all the way through Christmas, and could end up matching Wreck-It Ralph ($189.4 million). Forecast: $185 million
5. Anchorman: The Legend Continues (Dec. 20): In 2004, the original Anchorman earned a solid $85.3 million in theaters. In the years since, though, it's become a massive hit on video and TV, and Paramount and the filmmakers are finally releasing a sequel over nine years later. The opportunity to spend more time with Ron Burgundy and company is an enticing one, and the marketing material has does a nice job of moving the story forward and setting up some new gags. While Anchorman 2 probably won't get the "Austin Powers bump," it's hard to imagine it earns less than $150 million. Forecast: $165 million
6. Saving Mr. Banks (Dec. 13 limited, Dec. 20 nationwide): On the surface, the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convinced E.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to make the movie Mary Poppins sounds like the kind of inside baseball fare that audiences aren't going to show much interest in. Trailers make Saving Mr. Banks seem accessible, though, and early word is that it's a crowd-pleaser. The movie appears to have something for people of any age, which could make it the de facto choice for family audiences this season. Forecast: $130 million
7. The Wolf of Wall Street (Dec. 25): Originally scheduled for Nov. 15, The Wolf of Wall Street recently moved back to Christmas Day to give director Martin Scorsese more time to edit the movie. All of the marketing has been strong so far, and the material is right in the wheelhouses of Scorsese (Goodfellas) and star Leonardo DiCaprio. Wolf does appear to have a mean, satirical edge to it, which can be a turn-off for holiday audiences; still, it has enough obvious advantages that it should be a safe bet to earn over $100 million. Forecast: $125 million
8. American Hustle (Dec. 13 limited, Dec. 18 nationwide): Director David O. Russell has had a critical and commercial resurgence in the past few years with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, which earned $93.6 million and $132.1 million, respectively, and won three acting Oscars. For American Hustle, Russell has brought a dream team together from those two casts (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence), and put all of them in some insane 70s costumes and hairdos. While previews are light on story, they do give off a fun/cool vibe that aligns nicely with Russell's brand. If the movie turns out to actually be good—and there are rumblings that it is—this could turn out to be a huge hit with adult audiences. Forecast: $120 million
9. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dec. 25): Blending fantasy and reality in one man's journey of self-discovery, Walter Mitty's previews have stood out from the pack in recent months. It also helps that star Ben Stiller has found a lot of success around the holidays, and that this is Kristen Wiig's first major studio role since Bridesmaids. Word from initial screenings is only so-so, though, and it's unclear if this is for families (it's rated "PG") or for adults (it appears to have some heavy elements). Forecast: $95 million
10. Grudge Match (Dec. 25): Stars Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone have struggled a bit at the box office this year, though there are reasons to expect Grudge Match to reverse this. The opportunity to see the actors behind Jake LaMotta and Rocky Balboa square off in the boxing ring is an appealing one, and the comedic elements will make this an easy choice. It doesn't hurt that these two are getting support from Kevin Hart, who has amassed a devoted fan base in recent years. Forecast: $80 million
11. Ender's Game (Nov. 1): This is cheating, of course, since Ender's Game already opened to $27 million this weekend. With tough competition from Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it's likely that the adaptation burns out quickly and ends up in the same range as similar titles Eragon ($75 million) and The Golden Compass ($70.1 million). Forecast: $75 million
12. Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas (Dec. 13): Setting a Madea movie at Christmas is a stroke of genius—not only does it give Madea a chance to dress up as Santa, but it also allows themes of family and community to be more seemlessly integrated with the story. Prolific writer/director/actor Tyler Perry's three highest-grossing movies all feature the wise-cracking Madea, and it's likely that A Madea Christmas follows suit. Forecast: $70 million