‘Encanto’ Reaches No. 1, but Moviegoers Are Tough to Lure Back

Hollywood has stopped running from the pandemic: For the first time since March 2020, movie theaters had a wide array of new films for exclusive screening over the holiday weekend. And studios did not hedge their bets by offering simultaneous streaming options. To see the gloriously reviewed “Encanto,” the campy crime drama “House of Gucci” or the latest installment in the “Resident Evil” science-fiction action franchise, you had to leave the sofa, just like in the old days.

But some moviegoers are proving very difficult to lure back.

“Encanto,” an original Disney animated musical about a gifted family in Colombia, took in $40.3 million at 3,980 theaters in North America between Wednesday and Sunday. That total, which was enough for No. 1, equated to about 3.7 million patrons, or about 35 percent of the available seats, according to Steve Buck, the chief strategy officer for EntTelligence, a research firm. Ticket buyers gave the film an A grade in CinemaScore exit polls.

In wide release outside the United States, with the notable exceptions of China and Australia, “Encanto” collected an additional $29.3 million. “It may take some time for people to discover ‘Encanto’ through word of mouth and reviews,” Disney said in a results email on Sunday, referring to audiences overseas, where the weekend was not a holiday. News of the Omicron variant may have dented European turnout, box office analysts said.

Disney, which spent roughly $175 million to make “Encanto,” not including tens of millions in marketing costs, had hoped that the family audience was finally ready to return to theaters on a vast scale. Children as young as five became eligible for coronavirus vaccinations in the United States on Nov. 2. For the first time this year, Disney did not send reporters a prerelease advisory about poor market conditions.

“This is a fair opening by pandemic standards, and a weak opening by Disney historical standards,” David A. Gross, who runs the film consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research, said in an email on Sunday.

“Encanto” features songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose music helped Disney’s animated “Moana” sell $82.1 million in tickets during the five-day Thanksgiving period in 2016. In part because studios have routed animated films away from theaters and toward streaming services — Pixar’s “Luca” played exclusively on Disney+ in the United States over the summer — the genre accounts for one of the bigger pieces of the box office that has been lost during the pandemic. In 2019, animated wide releases collected $4.6 billion worldwide. Mr. Gross estimated that animation will finish this year with about $1.65 billion in ticket sales, a decline of about 64 percent.

Domestic ticket sales for “Encanto” nonetheless set a pandemic-era record for an animated film. That glory is somewhat hollow, given that every other major animated film since March 2020 has been released simultaneously in theaters and on streaming services. (They have included “The Boss Baby: Family Business” from Universal and “Paw Patrol: The Movie” from Paramount.) “Encanto” is scheduled to arrive on Disney+ on Dec. 24.

The ultimate performance of “Encanto,” both in theaters and on Disney+, is likely to inform Disney’s release plans for animated films well into the coming year. “Most of the franchises that we’ve had at the Walt Disney Company have been built through the theatrical exhibition channel of distribution,” Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, told analysts on an earnings-related conference call on Nov. 10. “At the same time, we’re watching very, very carefully different types of movies to see how the different components of the demographics of that market come back.”

“We’re still unsure in terms of how the marketplace is going to react when family films come back with a theatrical-first window,” he added.

For the holiday weekend in North America, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” from Sony, was a strong second, collecting $35.3 million between Wednesday and Sunday, for a two-week domestic total of $87.8 million, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” released Nov. 19, siphoned some family business away from “Encanto,” box office analysts said.

“House of Gucci,” with Lady Gaga leading an ensemble cast, was a healthy third. It sold about $21.8 million in tickets over the five-day period. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which spent roughly $70 million to make the R-rated crime drama, not including robust marketing expenses, noted on Sunday that only 34 percent of ticket buyers were 45 or older.

“As with families, older moviegoers have been reluctant to return to the movies, watching more entertainment at home,” Mr. Gross said. “The film would be opening 50 percent higher under normal circumstances, but this is very good.”

In a positive sign for prestige films — December is peak season, with Oscar hopefuls rolling out every weekend — Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” released by United Artists sizzled in limited release. The R-rated period film, a blend of comedy, drama and romance, took in $335,000 at four theaters — two in New York and two in Los Angeles — for a per-theater average of $83,852. It was the best specialty-film debut in nearly two years.

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