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In 2019 Walt Disney’s (NYSE: DIS) “Frozen II” did over $125 million in domestic box office. 

That beat out another Disney Film, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” which pulled in nearly $85 million during the same 5-day holiday period in 2018, according to data from Box Office Mojo.

Individual films leading the extended holiday weekend box office with over $80 million has been typical and the top film during that period generally takes in at least $50 million with only a few exceptions over the past 20 years. 

But, one film does not make an entire weekend’s box office and over the past 10 years, the weekend has produced at least $250 million in domestic box office eight times with only 2011 and 2014 failing to hit that threshold, topping out at $230 million, according to CNBC.

Last year, with the pandemic closing many theaters, only two films “The Croods: A New Age” ($14.2 million) and “Freaky” ($1.1 million) earned at least $1 million while total box office topped out around $20 million. 

It was a disastrous season for AMC (NYSE: AMC) and other theater chains, but the disaster could at least somewhat be attributed to the ongoing pandemic, lack of vaccines, and limited capacity in many markets.

Now, however, with vaccines prevalent (and available for kid over 5), the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday period should show what the new reality for movie theater chains is. 

The answer may not bode well for AMC shareholders as while 2021 will certainly greatly exceed last year’s dismal numbers, a full return to pre-pandemic numbers looks like something that my never happen.

What films are in theaters?

Disney’s Pixar brand has owned the Thanksgiving weekend six of the ten years between 2000 and 2020 while also taking the top spot in 1999 with “Toy Story 2.” 

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The company returns this year with “Encanto,” a Pixar film, which started slowly, bringing in $7.5 million on Wednesday to start the five-day period, according to Deadline.com.

That film will be joined at the box office by the second weekend of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which after a strong-for-the-pandemic $44 million opening brought in another $5.4 million. 

Overall, while the box office numbers will certainly be better than last year, they will be well below pre-pandemic levels.

“Industry estimates figure that the five-day holiday frame for all movies will ring up $140.1M, down by 46% from 2019’s five-day Thanksgiving of $258.5M, when Disney’s Frozen 2 ruled,” Deadline reported

It’s not all bad news

While the 2021 box office numbers suggest that AMC and other theater chains have a long way to go, a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest that the industry should get back to 2019 box office totals by 2023.

“Cinema revenues contracted at unprecedented levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic and changed the face of the industry, with physical cinemas and streamers now existing side by side. However, signs of a cinema revival are already underway, and the sector is expected to rebound after the crisis-driven slump of 2020,” according to PwC’s Global Entertainment & Media Outlook report.

That’s good news for AMC compared to now, but it’s worth noting that that PwC report basically shows the industry only slight exceeding 2019’s numbers in 2023, 2024, and 2025 with projections topping out at $43 billion in global box office expected in 2025. 

That’s up from nearly $41 billion globally in 2019, a relatively small increase that likely means numbers fall from 2019 levels in the U.S. due to growth in box office receipts from China.

For AMC shareholders hoping for a business turnaround these numbers aren’t all that encouraging. 

Yes, customers will come back to theaters but the movie business — at least the theater owner part of it — was not thriving before the pandemic and a return to slightly better than normal won’t change that.