While Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” continues to do big business overseas, it was pushed into the number two spot in North America by the Robert De Niro comedy “The War With Grandpa.” While it’s not news that films holding the top spot for several weeks eventually drift down, this was a film that was shelved back in 2018.

Disney’s re-release of Bette Midler’s “Hocus Pocus” came close to unseating “Tenet,” last week, and it is still in the third spot earning $685,000. With tentpole films like James Bond’s “No Time To Die,” delaying until 2021, theater chains like Regal Cinemas are once again closing down. With people not trusting information that it’s fine to get back out like normal during the pandemic, less are willing to risk their health for a film. Theaters were holding out hope that 007 might be able to save the holiday season, but as with many businesses in America, it looks like there will be a lot of lights turned off at theaters.

The Story

The story behind the “Home Alone” knockoff, “The Trouble With Grandpa” was Harvey Weinstein. The mega indie film producer’s company The Weinstein Company was to distribute the film, but then the news hit of him being a sexual harasser and serial predator. His fall from power led to the dissolution of The Weinstein Company and plunged “The War With Grandpa” and other films that the studio had expected to release such as “The Upside” and “The Current War,” into a perilous kind of limbo.

Two years after it was intended to hit theaters “The War With Grandpa” finally debuted, although in a markedly different theatrical landscape, one that faces an existential crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The film grossed $3.6 million from 2,205 locations while receiving a brushoff from critics who dismissed it as a derivative and joyless. In pandemic times when major markets like New York City and Los Angeles are closed, that may rank as a decent opening.

Worst Box Office Topper

That being said, as Forbes notes, it still clocks in as the worst box office topper since 1988, so clearly the exhibition industry is facing some very punishing headwinds.101 Studios, the new label run by former Weinstein Company executive David Glasser, and Brookdale Entertainment picked up the rights to “The War With Grandpa” and released it. The company also distributed the similarly orphaned “The Current War” in October, with the subtitle “The Director’s Cut.”

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“The War With Grandpa” was about a cantankerous grandfather who gets into an all out war with his grandson (Oakes Fegley). Families and older adults turned out to see the film with 46 percent stating that it was their first time back to the cinema since March 2020. “We are really pleased that 101 Studios was able to offer audiences a comedy that is bringing the whole family back to theaters,” 101 Studios president of distribution Laurent Ouaknine said.

Tenet

In its sixth week of release, “Tenet” grossed $2.1 million domestically, bringing its haul to $48.3 million. The Warner Bros. sci-fi thriller took in an estimated $9.8 million globally this weekend in 62 markets, pushing its worldwide total to $323.3 million.

Disney’s re-release of “Hocus Pocus” continued to be a rare COVID-era hit, earning $1.2 million. The comedy about a coven of witches stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy was a box office disappointment when it debuted in 1993, but became a cult classic on cable and other home entertainment platforms. “The New Mutants,” the X-Men spinoff that Disney inherited after it purchased Fox, earned $685,000, pushing its domestic gross to $22 million.  With those tepid results, “The New Mutants: Part 2” seems like a dream that will be permanently deferred.

Sony’s “Yellow Rose,” a drama about an undocumented Filipino girl who wants to be a country music star, netted $150,000 from 900 locations, bringing its domestic total to $170,000.

This weekend — with its collection of underperforming blockbusters and castoffs — paints a dire picture for cinemas. It’s going to take a lot more than this to keep moviegoing viable. “Wonder Woman 1984” can’t arrive soon enough. Or a new administration to fix America’s problems.

North America Box Office

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Box office number courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

1. “The War with Grandpa,’ $3.61 million

2. “Tenet,” $2.1 million.

3. “Hocus Pocus,” $1.2 million.

4. “The New Mutants,” $685,000.

5 “Unhinged,” $660,000.

6. “Infidel,” $205,000.

7. “Possessor Uncut,” $163,500.

8. “Yellow Rose,” $150,000.

9. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” $145,000.

10. “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” $90,.

Disney betting big on streaming

While it’s rare that an activist investor wants a company to spend more money on itself and less on shareholder payouts outrageous (at least in the conservative business world) moves are required. This is what hedge fund billionaire Dan Loeb is planning on by pushing Walt Disney to do with its Disney+ streaming service.

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Mr. Loeb’s Third Point wants Disney to buy more content instead of paying dividends. The hedge fund first built a stake in Disney during the second quarter, believing that streaming could eventually bring the company some $500 billion in revenue. That belief only hardened as Disney’s theme parks remain shuttered or under-attended and release dates of blockbuster movies like “Black Widow” slide because of the pandemic. Yesterday, Mr. Loeb sent a letter to Disney’s C.E.O., Bob Chapek, outlining his plan.

Putting Pressure On

It’s unusual for an activist to forego short-term payouts for long-term investments. Mr. Loeb noted that big spending now would put pressure on Disney’s earnings, and eliminating the dividend would displease some investors. He believes that Disney can build a streaming business that eventually generates more revenue than cable TV and box-office releases, “but only if the company leans into this opportunity and invests more aggressively,” he wrote.

Mr. Loeb’s math: By permanently cutting its dividend — worth about $3 billion a year — the company could more than double its Disney+ content budget of about $1 billion a year. Combined with raising the service’s monthly fee, currently $6 a month, and reducing so-called churn, or subscriber defections, the hedge fund thinks that the “lifetime value” of a Disney+ customer could rise to $500, from $100 today. (Third Point says the market values Netflix customers at about $1,200 apiece.)

Disney already suspended its dividend payout in June and is expected by many analysts to halt its next one as well.

Would that be enough to compete with Netflix? The streaming king’s content spending this year alone is expected to surpass $17 billion, according to BMO Capital, and could grow to more than $26 billion by 2028. For comparison, AT&T’s WarnerMedia plans to spend up to $2 billion on content for HBO Max, while Comcast’s NBCUniversal has allocated $2 billion over two years for Peacock.

This drastic action has many wondering what Nelson Peltz’s Trian has in mind for Comcast. 

To date, Trian hasn’t said publicly what it wants from the cable and entertainment giant after taking a stake. What if, instead of calling for asset sales, as many analysts expect, the activist firm takes a page from Mr. Loeb’s book? With cable subscribers falling off as they have for the behemoth, streaming might be the answer. Their Peacock test has succeeded thus far.