What All Those Broken Records Mean

As it turns out, the only thing surprising about the opening weekend for Avengers: Endgame was how it surpassed everyone’s expectations. While it was initially projected for an initial frame of up to $250 million it topped that dramatically, bringing in over $350 million domestically and $1.2 billion globally among the more granular records it blew past easily.

That outsized success has everyone commentating, from Brooks Barnes saying this is a win for movie theaters and an example of how even with streaming bifurcating the audience into endless niches, communal movie watching is still essential and desired by the public to Tom Brueggemann pointing out that this is what the future will look like, with Disney dominating the market because it’s bought up all the most valuable IP and acquired the competition.

The box office for the first four months of 2019 was, as reported last week, down to the lowest point it’s been in six years, bad news coming off a pretty solid and upbeat 2018. Endgame was being anticipated as one of the handful of movies that might turn the year’s prospects around, almost all of which are coming from Disney.

It’s difficult to divine the reason that audiences seemed disinterested in heading to the theater so far this year, with Captain Marvel the only other movie to break $175 million in revenue to date. Was it just that mass audiences simply weren’t interested in what was being offered or unable to find screenings of titles like Greta, Miss Bala and others? Or is it that people were saving their money for Endgame, knowing it was the one movie they felt strongly about seeing in theaters?

The second scenario seems more likely to me.

Wages in the U.S. are growing, more so than they have in recent years, but they’re still only occasionally keeping up with inflation, so purchasing power hasn’t increased much if at all, a reality that’s been true for the past several decades. And while movie ticket prices have fallen a bit from the same period in 2018, so too have actual ticket sales, so before Endgame fewer people are going to the movies than did last year, a more accurate measure of intent and interest than revenue. Meanwhile Netflix added 1.74 million members in the U.S. alone in the first quarter because there’s higher perceived value in that subscription, which costs as much for one month as about two movie tickets for an evening showing.

May is about to hit and there’s not much that screams “surefire runaway hit” on the release calendar. There are a mix of movies that seem like they’ll be high-profile duds, modest successes or simply vanish with nary a puff of smoke, but nothing that seems to provide a strong point of differentiation enough to draw people to the theater in droves.

Instead of looking at a single outsized example to try and determine whether people are or aren’t committed to theater going as a leisure entertainment activity, it will be important to watch and see what happens in the wake Endgame leaves. If audiences were saving their money for the first three and a half months of 2019, what will the landscape look like now that they blew their splurge account buying opening weekend tickets for the whole family? My hunch is they’re not going to feel like dropping another $15-25 to see Long Shot when it looks like something they would enjoy just as much on iTunes in four months. John Wick 3 may bring out some fans of that series. Godzilla might do well and Rocketman could surf Bohemian Rhapsody’s coattails, but the rest of the calendar looks a bit rough as people take some time off and finally watch “The Umbrella Academy” like everyone at work has been telling them to do.

If there are any hints contained in the release of Avengers: Endgame and what it means for theatrical exhibition, it’s that only the biggest have any chance of seeing mass release and subsequent success. Even a movie like Us – the third biggest release of the year and a wholly original story featuring a largely black cast – could wind up being shut out because theater owners see it as not being worth the effort if it’s not virtually guaranteed to break $200 its opening weekend.

Let’s watch and see what happens.

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