Even With ‘Frozen 2’ First, ‘Knives Out’ and Other Original Titles Slice Their Way to Thanksgiving Box-Office Success

Frozen 2 may have been the unquestioned champion of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend; indeed, its name had been practically inscribed on that first-place medal from the moment Disney dated the animated sequel.

A $123.7 million finish for the studio tentpole (across Wednesday through Sunday) shattered records, and its overall haul is only expected to swell with Monday’s final tally and in coming weeks, as it eyes a billion-dollar payday on par with its predecessor. In fact, Frozen 2 finished ahead of the first film, which grossed $93.6 million across the same frame in 2013, and the lasting cultural impact of the first film will only work in Frozen 2‘s favor.

But the fight for second place at the box office this past weekend emerged as a historic four-way triumph for original marquee programming, a rarity within a year of tentpole takeover. Knives Out, Ford v Ferrari, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and Queen & Slim all overperformed in theaters, marking a real moment for Hollywood studios in which standalone titles, driven by star power and original concepts, were able to hold their own against a franchise juggernaut.

The cast of “KnIves Out,” which took second place at the Thanksgiving weekend box office, followed by “Ford v Ferrari,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and “Queen and Slim.”
Claire Folger—Lionsgate

Knives Out, a Rian Johnson-directed murder mystery in its first week of release, is one of the biggest Thanksgiving success stories in recent years. A star-studded whodunnit that Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) turned into both a sly skewering of and love letter to the mahogany-tinted genre, Knives Out grossed a stellar $41.7 million, more than doubling industry expectations that had it ballparked around $20 to 25 million.

That Knives Out proved such a runaway hit at the box office can only be seen as tremendous news for studios trying to determine whether the midrange studio pic still has a pulse in the age of Disney and streaming. It was budgeted around $40 million, with much of that going toward a murderer’s row of stars including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Michael Shannon. Surely enthused by rave reviews and a savvy marketing campaign that emphasized the film’s playful tone, audiences responded by turning out in droves.

Though neither were competing in their first week of release, Ford v Ferrari ($19 million) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ($17.3 million) both held up solidly over the Thanksgiving frame, functioning as seasonally ideal prestige vehicles driven by bankable A-listers and family-friendly themes of friendship, national pride, and shared accomplishment. That Matt Damon and Christian Bale have both earned awards buzz for their turns in James Mangold’s historical racing drama, as has Tom Hanks for playing Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s tribute to the impact of the children’s talk show host, certainly didn’t hurt when it came to getting families out to the theater.

But when it came to harnessing momentum on social media, Queen & Slim (in fourth place with a $15.8 million debut) is the real case study in how to play your cards exactly right. The debut of filmmaker Melina Matsoukas, the Bonnie and Clyde-esque lovers-on-the-run drama-thriller took a highly combustible premise (the two leads are black and go on the lam after killing a police officer in self-defense, only for the incident to go viral and turn them into modern folk heroes) and partnered it with a red-hot star, Get Out Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, as well as a buzzy up-and-comer, Jodie Turner-Smith. The marketing campaign for Queen & Slim was slick, stylish, and provocative exactly in line with the film it was promoting, and the formidable charge of social relevance it carried was certainly a factor in its success. Helping matters was a decidedly slim $20 million budget; as with Knives Out, Queen & Slim let its story do the talking, and audiences hungry for original, concept-driven filmmaking responded by showing up.

A regal first-place finish for Frozen 2 came as no surprise; the famously family-friendly Thanksgiving frame coupled with a name as culturally beloved as Frozen created a perfect storm of circumstances for the sequel to break records. Its $123.7 million haul across the Wednesday through Sunday frame constitutes the strongest Thanksgiving opening since The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in 2013 and has a more than $10 million edge on that title.

But that there was still room at the multiplex for titles like Knives Out, Ford V Ferrari, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and Queen & Slim to succeed is a remarkably hopeful turn of events for Hollywood, which has struggled this year to open original titles against formidable, primarily Disney-released tentpoles.

There’s no telling how a tougher sell, Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour opus The Irishman, would have fared against such fierce, multi-faceted competition this weekend. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical window, the film became available on Netflix on Nov. 27; since the streamer doesn’t report theatrical grosses, it’s unclear how much its small indiehouse release ended up grossing, though the lengthy runtime certainly cut down on available screens.

To have Scorsese, a cinema kingpin, relegated to the streaming circuit for The Irishman is a strange condition of this box-office year indeed. But one has to imagine the filmmaker, a long-time champion for original filmmaking who made headlines earlier this fall for critiquing superhero blockbusters, was personally cheered by the success of Knives Out and others. Such a warm reception for original movies bodes well for smaller, ambitious titles opening against in December— among them A24’s Uncut Gems, a scuzzy New York-set thriller starring Adam Sandler, which Scorsese executive-produced.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

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Vanessa Hudgens talks Knight Before Christmas and why she loves Booksmart
Knives OutRian Johnson and composer Nathan Johnson discuss their cousinly collaboration
Alan Cumming on taking career risks in his 50s and “spinning a lot of plates”
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