Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

November 24, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the United States, today is Thanksgiving. Historically, the holiday commemorates a feast that occurred to mark the first successful harvest in the United States, and the peacable interaction between the pilgrims and the Native Americans. (How things changed...) Today, it's essentially an opportunity for families to get together and go on a binge eating spree.

Traditionally, the Thanksgiving weekend used to be the second biggest weekend of the year for releasing movies. (The top honor went to Memorial Day.) In the 1980s, movie-goers could count on studios bringing out the big guns this weekend. For example, the highest-grossing of the Star Trek movies, The Voyage Home came out the day before Thanksgiving, 1986. (Going to a multiplex with friends to see it on Opening Night remains one of my most fondly remembered motion picture experiences.)

The three primary reasons behind opening a movie on Thanksgiving weekend were sound. First, this is a four-day school-free zone, which allows a lot of time for movie-going. Second, a film released on Thanksgiving weekend, if it displays any kind of legs, will still be going a month later during the Christmas season (when the kids are again off from school). Finally, since many theaters were in malls during the 1980s, good movies could siphon off shoppers, giving them a respite from racking up credit card charges. Rarely are malls busier than on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after Thanksgiving. (I remember going to a mall in 1991 and being astonished by the lines at the multiplex box office. I had never seen anything like it.)

Things started changing in the early 1990s. Initially, a few films opened a week early to avoid some of the pitched head-to-head battles that were occurring between high-profile titles. A few studios also moved their crown jewels back a couple of weeks into December, closer to Christmas. Gradually, big name movies started to shift away from Thanksgiving weekend, leaving the day open to live-action Disney movies.

This year, it appears that Thanksgiving weekend is just another weekend in November (albeit a long one). The roster of new releases is a short and uninspired one: The Ice Harvest (which hardly anyone will see), Yours Mine and Ours (which I won't see), Just Friends (which no one should see), and RENT (which will appeal only to a niche audience). There's not a "big" title among them. 2005's late-year tent pole entries can be found elsewhere. Harry Potter debuted last week, but will continue to rule the roost this weekend and next weekend. The Chronicles of Narnia is awaiting its turn on December 9. And King Kong towers above everything, bellowing the December 14 release date from the highest pinnacles of Skull Mountain.

I suppose it's nostalgia that makes me regret that the Thanksgiving weekend is no longer "special." For me, the day after Thanksgiving was always a day to go to a multiplex and catch a movie or two. No school, no work, no worries. Now, it's a time to stay home, polish off some leftovers, rake the last of the leaves, and look forward to the biggest and best movie month of the year, which is just around the corner.