what constitutes box-office “success” should be redefined

The movie industry, two months after theaters began reopening in earnest with the Memorial Day release of A Quiet Place Part II, has been grappling with an existential question in that time. Namely: What does success look like?

It’s a question without an easier answer. But that hasn’t stopped the industry and press from trying to determine A) what it is and B) if anything over the last eight weeks qualifies.

Consider the following points:

  • After being pushed by a year, A Quiet Place Part II opened with $57m, the best opening weekend since widespread shutdowns in early 2020. That amount was half of what Aladdin grossed when it opened the same weekend in 2019.
  • The total box-office for Memorial Day weekend was $96.5m, a far cry from 2019’s $220m.
  • Since then, there have only been three weeks where the total weekend box office gross topped $90m and only one that cleared $100m. In 2019 only three weekends *didn’t* gross at least $150m and two were over $200m.
  • Both F9 and Black Widow opened well – $70m and $80m, respectively – only to drop by 67% in their second weekends.

Given all that, it’s clear we’re grading on a curve here when trying to score what a win for the theater industry looks like.

It makes sense. After all, we’re still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic whose…fourth?…wave is building up speed in the U.S. as vaccination rates plateau and a more easily transmissible variant spreads in that unvaccinated population. Local and federal guidance on mitigation efforts changes regularly, resulting in a confusing situation for those who *are* vaccinated.

Add to that the availability of many titles on streaming either simultaneous with theatrical release or shortly thereafter, which is going to lead some people to make different choices.

So then why are we not only desperately judging this year’s results by outdated standards but engaging in narratives that seem inaccurate at best?

the wrong yardstick

The first question brings to mind the kind of media analysis frequently offered by commentators such as Jay Rosen. He often points out that political journalism only knows two framing devices: “both sides” and “horse race.” Regardless of the context or truth of a story, the political press will frame it in one of those ways because it helps them maintain the veneer of objectivity.

So too the entertainment press doesn’t do context very often. For instance, this past weekend was labeled “slow” and the fault was put on the movies available. That may have been part of the reason why both Old and Snake Eyes underperformed projections, but the coronavirus resurgence and continued wildfires, along with other issues going on in other parts of the country, also likely played roles.

In short, the measure of what constitutes a success needs to be not only recent but also be constantly adjustable based on conditions. While extreme events like region-wide snowstorms etc are often noted in box-office reporting this should be taken up several steps and made more specific.

an inconsistent narrative

Black Widow brought in $80 million during its opening weekend, but when it dropped 67% from its first to second weekends everyone freaked out. Hot takes were written about what might be behind that drop, one of the biggest of the MCU franchise, and what it means for the future. NATO was quick to blame Disney for that drop, citing the simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

If that were the case, what’s NATO’s theory for why F9 dropped 67% from Week 1 to 2? After all, that movie isn’t available on any streaming or PVOD service, getting an exclusive theatrical release. Do NATO or other parties have theories on why the Week 1-to-2 drops for movies like Boss Baby: Family Business and Cruella, both of which were in theaters and paid streaming tiers at the same time, weren’t as dramatic? And why wasn’t F9’s drop greeted with similar condemnations and hand-wringing?

Also, Black Widow:

  • Had the highest opening weekend of 2021 to date, beating even the much-vaunted F9
  • Is the second highest grossing movie of 2021, a mere $3m behind F9 despite being in theaters for half the time
  • Black Widow has grossed more – about $13m more – in its first three weeks than F9 did in its first three weeks

And again, it did all that while also being available on Disney+ Premier Access, where it brought in an additional $60m.

It seems that if there’s going to be a narrative established – namely that streaming availability hurts long-term box-office success – it should be backed up by more than one example. Otherwise you’re making arguments the facts don’t support.

What To Make of 2018’s Movie Industry Landscape

The headlines began with a couple weeks still left before the end of last year, hyping that movie ticket sales had already reached $11 billion. The final tally wound up being just shy of $12 billion, a record-setting number that was 6.7 percent over 2017’s final haul. Disney was responsible for a quarter of that all by itself, thanks largely to the massive success of Black Panther, which was never overshadowed even though it came out all the way back in February. A late burst from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Aquaman and a few other releases helped push it over the top.

The news is even better globally, with worldwide box-office up to $41.7, with the U.S. domestic market leading the growth for the first time in a long while.

What remains to be seen is how things fared in terms of actual tickets sold. It’s estimated to be around 1.2 billion, which would be about five percent higher than the dismal showing of 2017, when attendance was at a 25 year low. That’s still well off the high of several years ago, a trend attributable to several factors including the high ticket price, the speed at which new movies come to home video and more.

Diminishing theatrical audience numbers have been masked by the focus on total sales, which has steadily increased thanks to rising ticket prices due in part to prestige formats like Dolby, IMAX, 3D and so on. Attendance figures were also helped by the popularity of MoviePass, which has done everything it can in the last six months to erase consumer goodwill.

There are, of course, lots of lessons being offered given those dollar amounts. Various op-eds are pointing to the resurgence of movie theaters, thanks in part to Hollywood studios releasing popular films throughout the year instead of grouping them all in three months of summer. And those releases have been more diverse than in recent years, though while more black directors enjoyed more success the number of female directors continued to be flat.

A recent study found little cannibalization by streaming of the moviegoing experience. Instead it seems that the two sit side by side, each fulfilling a different need in the audience and serving them unique material to enjoy. Given the study was commissioned by the National Association of Theater Owners, it’s not surprising the angle taken is that theaters are doing just fine. Some harsh realities are brewing not far below the surface, though, that could make 2019 an interesting year for the entertainment industry.

Streaming revenue has already topped that of theatrical exhibition, something driven by the proposition of higher value for the money. Netflix in particular tends to be the boogeyman haunting the dreams of theater owners and big media companies, who are either ready to launch their own streaming services to compete against it or sign deals to produce films for it.

Netflix has 55 original films a year planned, including upcoming releases from some of Hollywood’s leading filmmakers. And because they eschew all but a cursory theatrical release for most of those movies and are refusing to play by anything approaching traditional rules, they are threatening the validity of those rules.

It may be true that studios are once more in a position to grasp the Oscar statuette once reserved for the smaller independent players that trafficked in the kinds of films that garnered nomination. Left unsaid, though, is that they’re back in that position because those awards-friendly films have been produced by Netflix and others and are being shunned from prestige consideration. So the mass appeal blockbuster remakes, adaptations and sequels from the major studios are left as the only films available for nominating committees to choose from.

Netflix is simply making the kinds of movies the studios no longer are interested in, shown in stark relief this past summer when it put out a number of romantic comedies to address unmet consumer demand. When you look at the winners and losers at the box office last year, the “losers” category is filled with niche films that would play much better as streaming releases, where the barrier to entry for the audience is so much lower than taking a chance on an unknown quantity at the expensive theater. Even comedies, which once dominated the box office, are now a bad bet for studios and theaters.

It also remains to be seen how susceptible theatrical exhibition is to whatever form the looming recession will take. Also coming down the road is the potential lifting of what’s commonly known as the Paramount consent decree. That could prove devastating to smaller theaters who don’t have the safety of scale bigger players like AMC Theaters and other large chains do. If the number of movie houses with fewer screens, the ones that often operate in less affluent neighborhoods, begin folding it will create fewer people who have any theatrical experience available to them, choosing instead some mix of legal and illegal streaming or downloading.

There are lots of unknowns and predictions are likely useless, despite what others making them may believe. What seems certain, though, is that 2019 will be a rough one. Netflix will continue to find ways to dominate the cultural conversation, stealing attention from theatrical releases that, in the coming year, seem somewhat lackluster. Further problems will develop from a mix of economic slowdowns and increased competition from all quarters as the same media companies that feed movies into theaters begin to divert some of that stream to their owned streaming services.

It’s also likely there will be a major shakeout in the streaming market. The consumer base simply can’t support all of these, and we’ve seen recently that when a service can’t achieve massive scale the corporate owners will shut it down.

Basically, 2019 is going to be a little rough.