Editors note: The 2019 domestic box office figures are for the period of January 1-December 29. We will update further on January 2.
With the total 2019 domestic box office expected to ring up close to $11.4 billion according to Comscore, down 4% from last year’s banner $11.88B, and the forecast that 2020 will be down further due to fewer franchises on the schedule, various business publications will scream the headline that the theatrical business is in the toilet in the booming streaming age of Netflix, Apple TV+ and Disney+, and HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock on the horizon.
But, man, is that declaration so wrong.
What 2019 continued to underscore at the box office is the old adage of how product-driven the theatrical business is. In a year when exhibition was fueled on all cylinders to deliver the astronomical, biggest opening of all time stateside with Disney’s Avengers: Endgame ($357.1M) — which bested the previous record set by 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War by 39% — there’s no way one can say theatrical is dead. Even though Disney is boss, and continues to prove that its branded IP is the bread and butter of the entire theatrical business, no, theatrical isn’t in the hospital. Other studios also proved the vibrancy of theatrical with big swings, i.e., the R-rated comic book villain gamble that paid homage to Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer and Taxi Driver — we’re talking Warner Bros./Village Roadshow/Bron’s Joker — which unexpectedly became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all-time with a global take of $1.063B.
And while the argument can be made that streaming is encroaching on low- to mid-budget fare and that the indie box office is endangered, we’ve seen such explosions from original movies like Universal’s Us ($175M), Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ($141M), STX’s Hustlers ($105M), Lionsgate’s Knives Out ($110.3M) and Fox’s Ford v. Ferrari ($106M). On the specialty side, hits inlcude Neon’s Parasite, the highest-grossing South Korean movie of all time with $22.3M, and Fox Searchlight’s Nazi comedy satire Jojo Rabbit ($21M).
Non-Disney studios are looking forward to a true showdown at the domestic box office. Disney was always expected to crush it in 2019 with its franchise-built slate, a rampway to Disney+. Critics complain there’s not enough original fare. Well, 2020 will make good on that promise. If streaming has done the theatrical business any favors, it’s forcing major studio development execs think harder: The bar has risen in regards to what exactly works nationwide in cinemas, and the simple recipes of talent, filmmaker and IP (think Paramount/Skydance/Fox’s bomb Terminator Dark Fate) aren’t always the solution.
Many have already predicted that in the face of the major studio congloms, such mini-majors as MGM, Lionsgate and STX are challenged and merger buzz abounds. But while the industry may merge, what will not change is audiences’ appetites for original and unique fare, especially those from great auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon-Ho, Rian Johnson or even Sam Mendes (look for his one continuous shot WWI pic 1917 to ring in 2020 with a $20M wide opening on January 10).
Also, while chatter abounded in 2019 that Netflix nearly closed the wide-release theatrical window to 30 or 60 days with its theatrical release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, such haggling will be harder to pull off (and if so, arguably by Disney, as it did when it reduced the span from four months to three months with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland) now that Mookie Greidinger’s Cineworld has taken control of Canada’s Cineplex Odeon, becoming North America’s biggest movie circuit with Regal Cinemas already under its domain. As Disney beefed up its power with the acquisition of 20th Century Fox and Searchlight, so does exhibition by consolidating its power to haggle back.
Here’s a rundown of what went right and wrong and 2019, with an outlook for 2020. Box office calculations are a combination of Comscore and Deadline figures.
No. 1 Disney ($3.7 billion, +21% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: Everything, literally. It’s the third time it passed $3 billion, beating its own industry record set last year with $3.09B. Driven by Pixar/Disney Animation, Marvel, Lucasfilm and the live-action adaptations of its own Disney animated toons, nine pics surpassed $100M; seven of them made $300M, and five $400M+. Let’s not forget that two passed a half-billion stateside, with Endgame being the second-highest-grossing movie of all time in U.S./Canada with $858.3M. Seven Disney pics opened to $100M+, plus they scored the best opening of all time both worldwide ($1.22B) and stateside with Endgame.
What Went Wrong: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker remains a glass half full among Disney’s franchises. On one hand the finale generated a wealth for exhibition at the tail end of the year with $363M+, but the studio made the mistake of not putting the last three Skywalker Saga pics solely in the hands of one visionary, like they did Avengers with the Russo brothers. It would have helped if Last Jedi had a cliffhanger on par with Infinity War, which would have certainly goosed ticket sales for Skywalker. While Disney is winning over Star Wars fans on Disney+ with The Mandalorian, Disney needs to watch out that they don’t sideline the franchise strictly to streaming. Like Marvel, they need to entrust the franchise’s cinema future to those filmmakers with cred among fans (Hello! Mandalorian‘s Jon Favreau or Dave Filinoi to direct spinoff films?), not those that spark division. Rogue One was a brilliant spinoff and fans worldwide gave their thumbs up, shelling out $1.05 billion worldwide. That success can’t be ignored, and should only provide confidence for Princess Leia or other origin movies. Seriously, Disney, it’s time to get over the shell-shock of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Fact of the matter is that these movies just need more time to bake compared with Marvel.
2020 Outlook: Next year, rivals are foaming at the mouth over the fact there’s a more original slate in place for Disney, with seven of their nine pics being fresh IP. Following the uber-success of Avengers, it’s a reset year for Marvel with cosmic gods movie The Eternals opening on November 6. The brand alone will need to carry Black Widow to lofty grosses as we’ve seen this Scarlett Johansson assassin movie before (it was called Lucy).
Also, Disney states that starting next year it will include all Fox titles in their B.O. tabulation. Combined for this year, Disney-Fox counts $4.28 billion — 37% of the annual U.S./Canada marketshare. As a studio that commands a 65% theatrical rental from exhibition with four weeks amount of play on its big tentpoles, they need to be careful about antitrust issues.
No. 2 Warner Bros. ($1.558 billion, -19% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: Taking the R-rated comic book film to a gritty, brilliant level and reaping an enormous amount of box office at the same time with Joker at $333.5M stateside, $1.06B worldwide. It’s these types of auteur-driven bets for which the studio has a reputation, and that will always distinguish it within a Disney-laden IP market. It Chapter Two was a self-fulfilling prophesy coming off the great success of the first film with $211.6M domestic, $472M WW. And the studio built out its DC brand with the thrifty priced Shazam! at $140.3M domestic, $364.5M WW. Legendary’s Pokemon Detective Pikachu was a nice surprise thanks to Ryan Reynolds’ voice at $144.1M stateside, $431.7M WW.
What Went Wrong: Why did you flood the fall Q4 with six adult (mostly drama) titles (The Goldfinch, Motherless Brooklyn, Good Liar, Doctor Sleep, Richard Jewell and Just Mercy)? We get that it is awards season, but they all tanked. Drama is hard, but then drama has always been hard for Warner Bros at the B.O. with such notable award-winning fare as Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James never really breaking out commercially. A few notes on those pics that tanked: A studio will never throw good money after bad, and typically testing indicates how much they should invest in P&A. That said, most of the P&A for Warners went to Joker and It Chapter Two in Q4. Other studios like Sony, Universal, Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and even STX have demonstrated that adult fare works at the box office; these types of movies aren’t meant to be sidelined to a streaming service, and Warners needs to stop using that excuse every time an adult drama fails. When it glows in its heightened package, with sleek storytelling, thanks to a great director’s vision — i.e., last year’s Oscar-winning A Star Is Born ($434.9M WW, $36M and $178M profit) or Crazy Rich Asians, Sully, The Mule, or Argo — then the movie sure as hell shouldn’t be punished to streaming.
The one misfire I will rap Warners knuckles about is Doctor Sleep (77% certified fresh, B+ CinemaScore, $31.4M). As a studio that has had great success with horror and was responsible for the recent Stephen King renaissance with It, I still believe it never eventized this Shining sequel with genre fans like they did with It Chapter Two at San Diego Comic-Con. Doctor Sleep was brilliant and entertaining, with amazing performances by Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Ferguson, and it was a missed opportunity.
2020 Outlook: They have a really exciting year, arguably more so than Disney’s slate, with branded fare including DC’s Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984; Scoob; plus intriguing counterprogramming like the Lin-Manuel Miranda-Jon Chu team-up In the Heights, the feature adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway show, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
But like all non-Disney studios here, Warners needs stronger branded event pics because Lego Movie 2 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters didn’t cut it. Beware tapping out The Conjuring franchise (part 3 The Devil Made Me Do It arrives on September 11). Dune should be amazing visually in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, but let’s hope it does more than Blade Runner 2049‘s amount of business.
No. 3 Universal ($1.51B, -16% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: The studio thrives on a diverse, auteur-driven slate and consistency under Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley, hitting $1B-plus stateside for a ninth year in a row. It excelled in 2019 by sidestepping Disney on the calendar with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass over MLK ($111M domestic) and Jordan Peele’s Us in late March ($175M). As Fast and Furious gears down, Uni has shown that it can pivot and adapt by building out that franchise with spinoff Hobbs & Shaw ($173.8M). That proved to be a promising start for a frosh franchise, holding No. 1 for four weekends at the worldwide box office on the way to a final tally of $758.9M.
While Uni doesn’t have the IP of Disney or the DC and Harry Potter pics like Warners, its filled the slate with original movies from unique storytellers. What was once programmed out of necessity is now a calling card for fresh filmmaking voices: Peele’s Monkeypaw label signed an exclusive five-year deal with the studio; one of the remaining big free agents, Lord & Miller, also inked a first-look, and Shyamalan announced his next two original movies with the studio.
Uni also rebounded R-rated comedies to the best of any studio’s ability in the genre’s current theatrical drought with Good Boys ($21.4M opening, $83M) despite a risky concept starring largely under 12-year-old fresh faces. In sum, Abominable, Us, and Boys are the only original movies to open to No. 1 at the domestic B.O. this past year. DreamWorks Animation’s bread-and-butter comeback How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was also a bright spot at $160.8M domestic, $520.2M WW.
Uni’s year also includes the overall $208M stellar results from Focus Features, which kept the autumn box office going with the Downton Abbey feature film ($96.85M) and Harriet, which counts $42.2M; they are proof that upscale adult pics truly work in the fall, and don’t need to be designated to streaming.
What Went Wrong: Actually counter-programming. Not all of it turned to gold, i.e., Black Christmas, Last Christmas, and WTF happened with DWA’s Abominable at the end of the day with $176.3M WW? Also, unfortunately, the studio didn’t see the audience and the critics from the trees when it came to the $90M musical Cats tanking with what the industry estimates to be a $71M+ loss. The most intriguing movie on their schedule, the Red State vs. Blue State movie The Hunt, moved off in the wake of mass shootings. Will it come back?
2020 Outlook: It’s off to a great start with the wide release of Sam Mendes’ 1917 on January 10. DWA’s Trolls World Tour (April 17) and Illumination’s Minions: Rise of Gru on July 3 will do their jobs for the masses, in addition to Fast & Furious 9 on May 22. Halloween Kills on October 16 should do killer business, and the Peele-produced and co-written Candyman on June 12 sounds intriguing. Dolittle at a $175M price tag arrives with baggage and a low projection of $25M-$30M.
No. 4 Sony ($1.32 billion, +3% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: While Warner Bros and Universal saw annual declines in the face of Disney’s slate, Sony realized a small uptick thanks to its mix of sequels to rebooted franchises like Spider-Man: Far From Home ($1.1B WW) and Jumanji The Next Level ($450M WW to date), plus turning Quentin Tarantino’s original feature Once Upon a Time in Hollywood into an event; its the director’s fourth to cross $300M WW, and overall his second highest-grossing movie of all time with $372M. While Disney-Marvel’s Kevin Feige is the secret sauce to the Avengers-integrated Spider-man, Sony agreed to keep the series alive for a threequel with Disney taking a 25% co-finance equity stake and having Spidey cross over in another Disney-Marvel movie. Smart move. Also, the studio’s awards-season fare of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Little Women did much better than last year’s 4Q dogs, i.e., White Boy Rick, The Front Runner and 2017 carryover All the Money in the World. But overall, the upside with the Tom Rothman administration is that when it swings, it does so at an efficient cost, and minimizes risk even if it means taking on co-fi partners. A profitable year is what many outside finance sources keep telling us.
What Went Wrong: Despite finding success in the rejuvenation of dormant franchise Jumanji, the plan to reboot aging Sony cinema IP didn’t really pan out: Elizabeth Banks’ horrendous Charlie’s Angels and Men in Black International, though besieged by production problems, didn’t create excitement for moviegoers despite Thor: Ragnarok stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson). Zombieland: Double Tap did slightly less than its first chapter 10 years ago stateside, $72.8M versus $75.6M; though slightly better WW with $121M versus $102.3M. Part of the problem here entailed Sony rushing these projects into development in order to build a 2019 pipeline. Also, sorry, but despite low budgets, Screen Gems movies aren’t the cash cows they use to be with Brightburn, The Intruder and Black and Blue all posting low ticket sales.
2020 Outlook: Hopefully Bad Boys For Life and The Grudge jump-start the year and improve on the studio’s rebooted IP plan. Outside of that, like Disney, there’s fresher fare on Sony’s schedule as it seeks to start new franchises in Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot (February 21), Marvel vampire Morbius (July 31) starring Jared Leto, Uncharted with Tom Holland in a feature adaption of the PlayStation video game (December 18), plus Blumhouse’s big-screen take on 1970s-’80s TV series Fantasy Island (February 14). Also, the Culver City lot is taking another stab at Ghostbusters with Afterlife (July 10) under Jason Reitman, who inherits the property from his father Ivan Reitman.
No. 5 Lionsgate ($768.5M, +98% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: The mini-major thrived in a Disney-dominated marketplace thanks to a marquee R-rated brand in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum ($171M domestic), Rian Johnson’s original whodunit Knives Out ($110M-plus), and the final Tyler Perry movie under their umbrella, A Madea Family Funeral ($73.2M).
What Went Wrong: Lionsgate used to win over millennials, and still lacks that uber-franchise like Twilight, Hunger Games, or Divergent. Back in June, Lionsgate said it was in talks to bring Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, to the screen at some point in the future; the book goes on sale May 19. There’s also a big hole in losing Perry to Viacom. While some middle-grossing pics financially worked in their favor, i.e., Angel Has Fallen ($69M), there was a lot that didn’t work, i.e., the Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron screwball comedy Long Shot ($30.3M), Millennium’s Hellboy ($21.9M) and EuropaCorp’s Anna ($7.7M).
2020 Outlook: Mostly original, thrifty fare, which leaves a big question mark as to whether it will rally. Some highlights include the Christian-faith pic (a profitable sector for Lionsgate) I Still Believe, about singer Jeremy Camp starring Riverdale‘s K.J. Apa; the Janelle Monae unique horror movie Antebellum on April 24; and another attempt at comedy with Kristen Wiig-Annie Mumolo’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Among IP, there’s a complete Saw reboot with Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock on May 15. Unless it fills pics in its schedule, according to Comscore, the Deon Taylor thriller Fatale reps the last movie dated on Lionsgate’s schedule for 2020 on October 9. The continued buzz around town is that Lionsgate will merge at some point with another studio.
No. 6 Paramount ($563.4M, -26% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: Not much, except for mid-sized and low-budget movies that Viacom sees as profitable, i.e., Elton John musical Rocketman ($96.3M domestic, $195.1M WW), alligator horror movie Crawl ($39M, $91.5M WW, and the Walden Media-co-financed Dora and the Lost City of Gold ($60.4M, $119.6M WW).
What Went Wrong: After seeing a surge last year thanks to Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the highest-grossing title in the Tom Cruise franchise, and the explosion of A Quiet Place, two linchpin movies failed: the refurbished James Cameron-produced, Linda Hamilton-starring Terminator: Dark Fate didn’t have enough Shellac to impress the masses ($62.2M domestic, $261.1M), and the Ang Lee-directed Will Smith action film Gemini Man ($48.5M), a long-gestating project about warring clones. Both were Skydance co-productions and neither grossed in excess of $100M at the domestic B.O. With duds like the $90M-plus Wonder Park ($45.2M domestic) on the schedule, the Melrose lot remained in transition mode, still suffering from the sins of its previous exec administration.
2020 Outlook: A more promising year with long-awaited sequels (Top Gun Maverick, SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, A Quiet Place 2), the branching out of the studio’s Tom Clancy franchise with the Michael B. Jordan action pic Without Remorse, and the start of something great and new with sci-fi movies like Antoine Fuqua’s Infinite with Mark Wahlberg and Chris Pratt and Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War.
No. 7 20th Century Fox ($554.75M, -49% vs. 2018)
What Went Right: Racing car drama Ford v. Ferrari was the only movie to work stateside, with $106M from big Fox ($200M+ WW), and that was under the new Disney regime with the pic taking off right out of Telluride and Toronto with great critical and audience response. Fox Searchlight had a bright spot with genre pic Ready or Not ($57.6M WW), and Toronto Film Festival winner Jojo Rabbit ($24M WW to date), which counts two SAG and two Golden Globe noms. The label’s year-to-date grosses also include $79.3M WW ($95.9M lifetime) from 2018’s Oscar-, Globe- and BAFTA-winning The Favourite. Searchlight remains an important label for Disney, as boss Bob Iger sees its product as being culturally relevant making waves at global festivals and within awards season. Searchlight can look forward to a fate on the big screen, while big Fox will split its development between streaming and theatrical.
What Went Wrong: Overall, with Disney taking over Fox just prior to CinemaCon in April, the studio’s distribution and marketing arms were greatly stressed. There was an attempt here to put quality big-budget fare in theaters, but it all went wrong, i.e., Robert Rodriguez’s expensive Alita: Battle Angel, the overpriced Regency astronaut art house-toned feature Ad Astra, and the implosion of their X-Men franchise with Dark Phoenix. Even low-budget movies like action comedy Stuber didn’t click. Even though Disney took over marketing of these pics after the merger, the argument that the films were orphaned is not a solid one as the movies arrived to the Burbank lot with their own baggage.
2020 Outlook: Despite the stale leftovers from old Fox which have been rumored to have problems, i.e. the long-in-the-works The New Mutants on April 3 and The Women in the Window on May 15, Disney’s intention with big Fox is to cover its bases with adult counter-programming. Such hope resides in the Ryan Reynolds action comedy/video game satire Free Guy on July 3, Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile on October 9, and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake on December 18.
STX added two $100M-plus-grossing pics to its library with the January hit The Upside ($108.2M) and the fall surprise Jennifer Lopez crime pic Hustlers ($105M), becoming its second- and third-highest-grossing films behind Bad Moms ($113.2M). Hustlers repped STX’s biggest opening at the domestic B.O. with $33.1M. Both pics took STX to $327.2M for 2019, +21% from 2018. As rumors swirled around the company about its finance problems in the wake of UglyDolls tanking ($32.4M WW), Hustlers came as a great Band-aid and a reminder of the potential of what this distributor can do at the box office when it has the right pic, at the right price, priming the right demos. In Hustlers’ case it was diverse females. I’m continually told that STX has enough capital to keep itself alive, but has been seeking more capital to expand. Whatever it is, its fate will become more clear in 2020. On the horizon is Miramax’s Guy Ritchie action pic The Gentleman on January 24, Brahms The Boy II on February 24, and the Dave Bautista family comedy My Spy on March 13.
MGM and Annapurna formed a distribution and marketing joint venture this year in United Artists Releasing. Together, the labels made $280M at the domestic box office, +45% from their combined 2018 total. MGM found a new franchise in its near $200M WW-grossing animated pic The Addams Family. Look for MGM to have a huge 2020 with the new 007 movie No Time to Die (April 10), Bill and Ted Face the Music (Augusty 21), the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (October 9) and Legally Blonde 3.
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