Why Disney Ceded Its Turkey Day Slot to ‘Rise of the Guardians’

Analysis: Disney historically has owned Thanksgiving, but when it opened "Wreck-it Ralph" early, Paramount and Dreamworks Animation stepped in with "Rise of the Guardians"

For years, when it came to Thanksgiving, big box-office debuts for Disney animated films were as traditional as turkey and cranberry sauce. This year, however, the studio ceded that prime cartoon slot to DreamWorks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians,” which opens Wednesday.

But don’t shed any tears for the Mouse House. It scored big after going out early with “Wreck-it Ralph” and may have found a new launch pad for animated blockbusters.

To put things in perspective, four of the top five all-time Thanksgiving weekend openers have been Disney animated releases: “Toy Story 2” ($57 million in 1999), “Tangled” ($48 million, 2010), “101 Dalmatians ($33 million, 1996) and “A Bug’s Life” ($33 million, 1998). Last year, Disney’s “The Muppets” was the top opener with $29 million. (See chart)

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This year, Disney opened “Wreck-It Ralph” on Nov. 2. The animated homage to classic videogames has rolled up $121 million since opening to $49 million; over the weekend, its third, it took in $18 million. Its only other holiday animated release will be the re-release of "Monsters, Inc." in 3D on Dec. 21,

There is logic to the change.

“Thanksgiving is a great jumping off point and certainly did a ton for the start we had with ‘Tangled’ back in 2010, or even the opening of ‘Muppets’ last year,” Disney’s head of distribution Dave Hollis told TheWrap. “But the beginning of November is actually where we’ve had more of our fall and holiday pictures over time — and where we’ve had the most recent success.”

He cited two Disney films that opened in the first week of November as examples. “Monsters Inc.” opened into $62 million on Nov. 2, 2001, and went to make $255 million domestically. “The Incredibles” debuted to $70 million on Nov. 5, 2004, and ran up $261 million. 

The holiday rollout is a natural for “Rise of the Guardians,” which has a star-studded voice cast.

Based on the William Joyce’s “Guardians of Childhood” series, it tells the tale of Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who gets help from Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) after the evil Pitch (Jude Law) threatens the children of the world.

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Don Harris, head of distribution at Paramount, which is distributing "Guardians," told TheWrap he was very happy to have the date.

"This film has so many holiday themes," he said, "and though it’s not a Christmas movie in the literal sense, we think it’s timed perfectly to play through the entire holiday season.”

Warner Bros. had success with a similar long-term holiday strategy on the 2004 film “The Polar Express.” That was another computer animated family film that wasn’t a Christmas film per se but played well through year’s end and ran up a $182 million domestic total after opening on Nov. 2 with $23 million.

While Harris would just as soon not go head-to-head with "Ralph," he's convinced there's room in the market for both films.

"The key to success for 'Rise of the Guardians' will be whether it can leg it out to the end of the year," he said.