After weathering a lackluster fall, Hollywood is looking to lift itself out of the doldrums this holiday season in what could end up a record year in ticket sales.
The movie business is enjoying a satisfying run of recent hit films, including Marvel's "Doctor Strange," DreamWorks Animation's "Trolls" and the Warner Bros. Harry Potter spinoff "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" — each of which has posted strong results.
Now the industry is hoping that momentum continues over the Thanksgiving holiday with a Disney cartoon featuring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a tattooed Polynesian demigod. "Moana," a musical starring Johnson and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, could gross $75 million domestically through Sunday after opening Tuesday night, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys.
Combined with continued sales for "Fantastic Beasts" and new releases such as the Brad Pitt historical drama "Allied" and comedy "Bad Santa 2," movie theaters and studios could collect a solid $240 million during the long holiday weekend, according to box office data firm comScore.
A healthy string of winners would be welcome news to Hollywood, which had a bruising summer with multiple flops.
The industry continues to face long-term challenges, including the growing prevalence of entertainment options such as Netflix competing for the audience's attention, and an over-reliance on sequels, remakes and reboots that resulted in some ill-advised summer releases like "Ben-Hur" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass."
But, for now, Hollywood is benefiting from a better mix of different kinds of movies for different people, rather than a glut of broadly targeted franchise films trying to please a baked-in audience. Paramount's "Arrival" and Lionsgate's "Hacksaw Ridge" attracted grown-ups neglected by the summer blockbusters, while "Trolls" drew families and young girls. Even "Doctor Strange" and "Fantastic Beasts" offered novel twists on familiar genres.
"The bottom line is there's something for everyone out there right now," said Shawn Robbins, an analyst with BoxOffice.com
Despite some recent disappointments like "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" and "The Edge of Seventeen," box-office receipts have so far tallied $9.85 billion in the U.S. and Canada, up nearly 5% from the same period of time in 2015, according to comScore.
Analysts say the total annual haul has a chance to beat last year's record by 1% to 2% for a sum of about $11.3 billion. Whether the cinema business can hit that mark depends partly on the success of gambles such as Sony's space drama "Passengers," starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and 20th Century Fox's video-game adaptation "Assassin's Creed." And Illumination Entertainment's animated karaoke musical "Sing" could prove a big draw with families, following up on the company's hits including "Minions."
There's also the chance that an Oscar hopeful will become a breakout success with audiences, something Paramount Pictures is hoping for with its Denzel Washington drama "Fences" coming out Christmas Day.
To be sure, higher box-office revenues partly reflect higher movie ticket prices. The average ticket price for the third quarter was $8.51, up from $8.25 a year ago, according to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, thanks to premium screening formats like Imax and the increased prevalence of recliner seating in cinema auditoriums.
More people aren't necessarily going to the multiplex. In fact, actual theater attendance is expected to be virtually flat with 2015 at about 1.32 billion, according to Barton Crockett, media analyst at FBR & Co.
Another worrisome sign is a possible cooling of the international market, especially China, which has been a critical source of studio revenue but is now experiencing a sharp slowdown after years of rapid box-office growth.
Perhaps the biggest unknown about the 2016 box office is whether it can match a year that ended with one of the highest-grossing movies of all time: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
The seventh film in the George Lucas space opera smashed opening weekend records in December 2015 with its $248-million bow. This time, Disney on Dec. 16 will release "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," the first of multiple planned spinoff films from the storied franchise.
Initial signs are promising for Disney's efforts to expand its Lucasfilm empire. Still, while "Rogue One" may be headed to a powerful $130-million debut according to early audience tracking surveys, no one thinks it will match "The Force Awakens."
"As good as 'Rogue One' might be, you can't assume it'll do the $650 million that 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' did in its first two weeks," said Eric Handler, a media analyst at MKM Partners who follows box office trends.
Walt Disney Co. has been a dominant force at the box office this year, benefiting from multiple divisions such as Pixar and Marvel. So far the studio has claimed five of the top 10 movies in the U.S. and Canada, including "Finding Dory," "Captain America: Civil War" and "The Jungle Book."
With the latest offering "Moana," Disney Animation Studios hopes to continue an impressive run of computer-animated movies that includes this year's "Zootopia" ($1.02 billion in global receipts) and 2013's "Frozen" ($1.28 billion).
"There is so much momentum inside Disney Animation Studios," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for the studio. "They are on an absolutely amazing creative and commercial run."
"Moana" tells the story of a teenage girl (voiced by Auli'i, a 16-year-old Hawaii native) who leaves the comfort of her island home for a mission to save her people, and is reluctantly joined by the demigod Maui (Johnson).
Disney says it auditioned hundreds of young women from the Pacific Islands before discovering Auli'i. To write the film's original songs, Disney recruited Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony- and Grammy-winning composer who created the Broadway phenomenon "Hamilton." The star power of Johnson, known for the "Fast & Furious" franchise, is also expected to boost the picture's appeal.
The studio won't say how much the movie cost to make, but the company's production budgets for animated films are usually at least $150 million.
With a projected $75-million debut, "Moana" is almost certain to top the domestic box-office charts this weekend. "Fantastic Beasts" should take in $55 million to $60 million for a second-place finish, after the J.K. Rowling-penned adventure grossed a solid $75 million last weekend.
That leaves "Allied," a World War II drama starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and "Bad Santa 2," again starring Billy Bob Thornton, to hunt for box-office dollars. "Allied," from Paramount Pictures and director Robert Zemeckis, is expected to catch roughly $20 million in ticket sales through the long weekend. The "Bad Santa" sequel is on track for about $16 million. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox's "Rules Don't Apply," the long-awaited Warren Beatty film about eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, seems headed for $8 million in its opening.