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Box office plunges to lowest level in over two decades amid coronavirus pandemic

  • Published at 09:18 am March 16th, 2020

Studio executives and media analysts recognize the global box office is in uncharted territory

Much of public life in the United States essentially ground to a halt this week. In the entertainment world, theme parks shut down, Broadway went dark, studios pulled major tentpoles from their release calendar, and virtually all Hollywood movies and TV shows halted production as coronavirus continues to rapidly spread across North America. 

Prior to Friday, fears of coronavirus didn’t appear to impact moviegoing. But this weekend’s box office results display that significantly fewer people are going to their local multiplex.

Ticket sales in North America hit the lowest levels in over two decades, generating roughly $55.3 million between Friday and Sunday. 

Only one movie, Disney-Pixar’s Onward, made more than $10 million over the weekend. The last time revenues were this depressed was a weekend in mid-September of 2000 ($54.5 million). The steep decline pushed the year-to-date box office down almost 9%, according to Comscore. 

Domestic receipts were inevitably going to plummet this weekend because AMC and Regal, two of the biggest movie theater chains, and several other circuits like Alamo Drafthouse and Arclight, cut capacity in individual auditoriums by 50% to avoid crowding. Reducing the number of tickets sold per theater helped multiplexes comply with Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for “social distancing.” Theaters also kept room between rows and seats to ensure patrons had ample space.

So in all, low ticket sales were a combination of audiences staying home and theaters capping seating capacity. 

“The impact of this unprecedented situation was apparent across many industries,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “Of course, movie theaters, amidst reduced capacity and an ever-evolving set of circumstances, had a very challenging weekend.” 

Faith-based drama I Still Believe, from Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company, pulled in the biggest haul among newcomers and placed second on box office charts. The film, starring KJ Apa as Christian singer Jeremy Camp, earned $9.5 million from 3,250 theaters, slightly below expectations. I Still Believe was directed by brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin.

Sony’s superhero thriller Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel, launched at No 3, bringing in $9.3 million from 2,861 venues. Though only slightly behind the studio’s projections, it’s still a disappointing result for a film that cost $45 million to produce. Bloodshot — which earned a “B” CinemaScore from audiences — was co-financed by Columbia Pictures, Bona Film Group and Cross Creek Pictures.  

The Hunt, an R-rated political satire from Universal and Blumhouse, came in fifth place with $5.3 million from 3,028 locations, about half of what was expected heading into the weekend. It carries a $14 million price tag. It had been the subject of controversy since it was initially slated for last September. But Universal scrapped its release in wake of three mass shootings, as well as intense media scrutiny after President Donald Trump criticized it on Twitter. The film, meant to poke fun at the divide between red and blue states, follows elites who kidnap and prey on average Americans for sport. In an early trailer, those being hunted were referred to as “deplorables.” Universal turned the turmoil into a marketing play, calling it the “most talked about movie of the year that nobody has seen... yet.” 

The Elisabeth Moss-led sci-fi thriller The Invisible Man, generated $6 million, enough for the No. 4 spot. So far, It has a cumulative tally of $64.4 million in the US and Canada and $122 million worldwide. 

Though most theaters in North America remain open to some degree, China, South Korea, Italy and other areas greatly impacted by coronavirus have either completely or partially have shuttered multiplexes for weeks. The mass closures have already resulted in billions of dollars in lost revenues. 

In light of concerns over coronavirus, exhibitors in the US that stayed open for business took extra precautions to increase sanitation. That included sterilizing seats, arm rests and cup holders more frequently and disinfecting all hand-contact surfaces during peak times. 

Studio executives and media analysts recognize the global box office is in uncharted territory, with crucial developments unfolding at a rapid pace. By last Thursday, most major Hollywood films that were set to hit theaters over the next two months had been removed from release calendars as the virus’s infection rate continues to increase. That means even if theaters do keep the lights on, the volume of content available will have dramatically shrunk.

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