When the sun sets on the 2020 film box office, it will be difficult to look at the numbers as anything but disastrous.
After five consecutive years of North American revenues exceeding $11bn, this year they are expected to cap out at an almost 40-year low of about $2.3bn.
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That will be down 80 percent from last year, according to data firm Comscore. Globally, where markets have been able to recover more fully, ticket sales will likely end up somewhere between $11bn and $12bn. Last year, that total hit $42.5bn. But of course, 2020 is a year with a big asterisk.
“It’s a year like no other,” said Jim Orr, president of domestic theatrical distribution for Universal Pictures. “We’ve never seen this little business in this industry.”
Outside of January and February, it’s impossible to judge the year’s box office by pre-pandemic standards. Box office, in aggregate, is fairly predictable in a normal year. But when the theatres shut down on March 20, that “all went out the window”, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “The unpredictability became the constant.”
Most North American theatres were not open for six months straight through the summer season, which typically accounts for approximately 40 percent of the year’s profits.
For the past two years, the summer movie season has netted more than $4.3bn. This year, it brought in $176.5m, much of that from drive-in theatres.
“The drive-in became the hero of the summer,” Dergarabedian said.
When indoor theatres did start to reopen in late August and early September, it was at limited capacity and with limited product.
Currently, about 35 percent of theatres are open in the US and some of the biggest markets, including New York and Los Angeles, remain closed.
Although there has been a steady stream of new releases, the blockbuster tentpoles have been few and far between. Some went to streaming services, others became premium digital rentals, but most simply retreated into 2021 and beyond.
Perhaps there is no more telling fact than that 2020 was the first time in more than 10 years without a Marvel movie.
The Walt Disney Co’s superhero factory has for the past two years topped the year-end charts with Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther, and has regularly had two or more films in the top 10.
Unsurprisingly, 2020’s top 10 list is a little chaotic and comprised mostly of films from the first two months of the year. Sony’s Will Smith sequel Bad Boys for Life has stayed in first place in North America since its January release with $206.3m.
Globally, it is in second place to the Chinese film The Eight Hundred — the first time that the top worldwide film originated outside Hollywood.
The only post-shutdown films to crack the top 10 are Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in eighth place with $57.2m and the animated family sequel The Croods: A New Age, which was released at Thanksgiving and has earned $30.8m so far to put it in 10th place.
At least 15 films in the top 100 were retro releases, including Hocus Pocus, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
“The silver lining for movie theatres is even though people had unlimited options at home, people still sought out the movie theatre,” Dergarabedian said. “People have a desire to go outside the home and be entertained. That desire hasn’t changed but the ability to do that was profoundly limited.”
It has even changed the way opening weekends, once a reliable indicator of a film’s long-term prospects, are judged and it might remain that way for a while.
“The instant gratification that we used to be able to deliver on Sunday mornings after opening on a Friday? It’s probably not going to happen again for quite some time,” Orr said.
Theatres have embraced enhanced safety protocols and experimented with different ways to get people back into seats, including private theatre rentals, but attendance throughout the fall and winter remained limited.
“People go to movie theatres to escape. If you’re going to a movie theatre where you have to wear a mask and you have to sit apart and you have to be hyperconscious of your surroundings, that is not how the theatrical experience is supposed to work,” said John Sloss, principal at the media advisory firm Cinetic. “To judge this year at all in terms of theatre attendance, I think is doing a disservice overall to what’s really going on.”
Moviegoing in 2020 is the story of an industry that employs some 150,000 fighting to stay afloat until normalcy returns, which everyone expects will happen even if it is not in the near future. Small movie theatre owners will get a bit of a lifeline from the pandemic relief package.
But effects on the businesses have been staggering and it may be a while before the full impact is known, although there have been some historic developments and compromises.
Some innovations have been well-received, like Universal’s landmark agreement with various exhibitors to shorten the theatrical window from 90 days to as little as 17 days in some cases.
Others, like Warner Bros’ decision to release all of its 2021 films on HBO Max and in theatres simultaneously, have not.
It is no secret that streaming services, whether subscription or on-demand, filled a huge gap for film fans looking for new content. While at-home options will continue to compete with theatres for consumer eyes and dollars, few believe that they are a death-knell for theatres. By and large, studios are not looking to abandon the theatrical model, even if some priorities have shifted to streaming.
“I do think there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel,” Orr said. “As vaccinations continue to roll out, I am 100 percent convinced that people will come running back into theatres when it’s possible in their area. The model is not going away.”
Disney CEO Bob Chapek noted at the company’s recent investor day that they made $13bn at the box office in 2019.
“That’s not something to sneeze at,” Chapek said.
This past weekend, Wonder Woman 1984, which was available to stream on HBO Max for free, also collected $16.7m from 2,100 North American theatres.
That number would have been a disaster before. For the pandemic? It is a record.