How 'Supergirl' Changed Thanksgiving at the Movies Forever

How 'Supergirl' Changed Thanksgiving at the Movies Forever

Nov 27, 2014

There’s no disputing that the Thanksgiving movie box office is huge for the movie industry, typically making up the second largest moviegoing weekend of the year (after Memorial Day). There’s also no question that it’s brought us some of the biggest hit movies of all time, along with some genuine movie classics (such as the first two Toy Story movies). For most people it’s one of the few weekends of the year where moviegoing is almost mandatory, adding to the fun of the holiday weekend. This, however, was not always the case, and the movie that turned the tide for Thanksgiving at the movies was that most unlikeliest of movie heroes…  Supergirl.

Don’t get us wrong, 1984’s fantasy flop ($14 million gross on a $50 million budget) is not very well remembered or regarded (except maybe by this guy), but it did have an important impact on how the movie industry perceives the holiday weekend. Produced just after the bloom came off the Superman series' rose with 1983’s Superman III, Supergirl faced an uphill battle going into Thanksgiving weekend 1984 that definitely gave the impression this potential franchise was over before it even began. The film switched distributors, from Warner Bros. (corporate sibling of Supergirl publisher DC Comics), who passed on releasing it, to the then-new Tri-Star Pictures, forcing it out of a summer 1984 release. The film opened overseas in summer ’84, where the poor word of mouth slowly trickled down to U.S. fantasy film fans in the pre-Internet days, and to add insult to injury, it was recut by Tri-Star from 124 minutes to 105. It opened to very bad reviews and seemingly little interest, and yet, Supergirl surprised everyone by not only opening at the number-one spot at the box office, it did so at a surprisingly healthy $7.7 million for the five-day weekend, far more than anyone expected.

Granted, $7.7 million may not seem like much, but to put things into perspective, consider that the number-one film at the box office of Thanksgiving 1983 was A Christmas Story, which was number three the previous weekend, at $3.9 million, while Thanksgiving of ‘82’s biggest hits were holdovers from the summer, E.T. (number one at $3.9 million) and An Officer and a Gentleman (number two at $3.8 million)!  Supergirl's Thanksgiving success threw much of the film industry for a loop, and it changed the way the industry not only saw Thanksgiving, but November at the movies.

Back then, November was regarded as a dead period for moviegoing, where most of the films released were usually movies being dumped (like Supergirl), while the Christmas movie season actually started in December, lasting well into January.  Supergirl's brief success wasn’t due to the popularity of the character or a lack of competition (the number-two film was the previous weekend’s number one, Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action), but because it gave family audiences something safe and, they hoped, fun to see together on a holiday weekend. The industry may not have thought of it before, but it sure learned its lesson that year: Give family audiences something they might actually want to see on Thanksgiving weekend, and they’ll stop their holiday shopping and family reunions and see a movie. 

Thanks to the short-lived success of Supergirl (it was gone from most theaters by Christmas), Thanksgiving weekend was now an important weekend for the movies. This was tested the following year when Rocky IV opened to a near-record $31 million for the holiday weekend, and moviegoing hasn’t been the same since; such blockbusters as Star Trek IV, Back to the Future II, Mrs. Doubtfire and Tangled have since owned the weekend. By the early '90s “Christmas” movies started opening in early November, and now you have major movies lobbying for early November release dates years in advance. Few seem to remember the impact that the opening weekend of Supergirl had (or perhaps don’t care to acknowledge it), but back in ’84 the industry couldn’t quite believe that, for at least one major holiday weekend, a girl could fly at the box office.

ed note: This story originally ran on 11/26/13.

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