Holiday weekends typically mean higher than average box office grosses for prospective mainstream releases; Christmas and Thanksgiving can often shape weak debuts into successful, sequel-spawning hits (take 2012’s Jack Reacher, which opened to $15 million Dec. 21, and went on to finish its theatrical run with $80 million, for example). But as of late, movie studios are grappling with more tricks than treats when it comes to reaping Halloween box office totals.
Over the last decade, Halloween has fallen on either a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday — the most profitable days of the week for new (and holdover) theatrical releases — five times. Of those five occurrences, three have registered significant decreases in weekend box office totals from the same frame of the preceding year.
2015, the biggest box office year on record, saw Ridley Scott’s The Martian topping the domestic chart with $11.7 million (in its fifth week of release, when Halloween fell on a Saturday), notching a 22 percent decline from the same period in 2014, when Halloween landed on a Friday; 2014’s holiday numbers, however, were even worse, dropping 25.8 percent from 2013 as Ouija claimed the top spot for the second three-day stretch in a row with a mere $10.7 million. In 2008, when Halloween was on a Friday, High School Musical 3 fronted a weekend that finished 34.8 percent below its 2007 counterpart.
“One of the scariest things in Hollywood is when Halloween lands on a weekend,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, which tracks weekly box office charts, tells EW. Dergarabedian notes most people are busy with holiday-themed events like trick-or-treating or watching scary movies in their living rooms instead of venturing out to see a movie on the big screen. “[Halloween is an] activity-centric, very specific holiday that has traditions and rituals attached to it that preclude going outside of the home to do anything. It’s a stay-at-home holiday… nobody goes out trick-or-treating on the 29th or the 30th; they go out on the 31st.”
That could be why Halloween typically doesn’t bode well for major studio releases when they arrive on the same weekend as the holiday. There are exceptions, however, as the concert film Michael Jackson’s This Is It led a 3.7 percent increase in cumulative box office as the sole new wide release across Halloween weekend in 2009, making $23.2 million when the holiday arrived on a Saturday; similarly, Saw 3D boosted overall domestic numbers by 2.9 percent (Halloween fell on a Sunday) in 2010.
There’s a reasonable explanation for the success of both titles, though: This Is It debuted roughly four months after Jackson’s sudden death, meaning audiences were eager to consume a film chronicling what would have been his long-awaited comeback concert series. Saw 3D, on the other hand, opened as the week’s sole new wide release — a horror title in a mega-successful, time-tested franchise with the added bottom-line benefit of 3D surcharges added to its tickets sales.
When studios find a perfect match between holiday and genre, films tend to exceed expectations at the box office, particularly when they’re released at the top of the weekend prior to Halloween, when the holiday occurs during the week. Take, for example, Boo! A Madea Halloween, a blend of campy horror and comedy, which sees filmmaker Tyler Perry not only tapping into the niche audience that consistently propels his movies to solid opening weekend bows, but capitalizing on Halloween itself with the film’s holiday tie-in. Boo!, which charted at No. 1 for the second weekend in a row as it boosted total grosses amid a year that trails its 2015 forerunner by around 10 percent overall, became a must-see for Perry’s followers and casual moviegoers hungry for seasonally appropriate fare. The appeal is evident when analyzing Perry’s box office history, as Boo! tallied the softest second weekend drop (around 39.6 percent) of any film in the auteur’s filmography — including non-Madea features — in the days leading up to Oct. 31.
While proof that Halloween is generally box office poison for weekend releases is all in the numbers, Dergarabedian admits movie studios might fear one thing more than the ghoulish holiday.
“The only thing scarier than Halloween, this year, is election night, which is, thankfully, on a Tuesday. [Election night] highly impacts the box office because people are glued to their TVs,” Dergarabedian says, stressing that weekday grosses aren’t exactly where films make the bulk of their money in the first place.
If your Halloween plans do include seeing a movie on the big screen, however, beware that not all theatergoers will be gushing with holiday spirit.
“The only people who [leave their neighborhoods] are the ones who don’t want to give out candy,” Dergarabedian jokes. “They don’t want to deal with trick-or-treaters. So, the Scrooges of Halloween either hide somewhere in the living room with their lights off or they might go out to a movie or restaurant, just to get away from the whole thing!”