The Box Office Hits and Misses of 2019

We look at the box office successes and failures of 2019 and go deep on the state of original movies, films directed by women, R-rated releases, and non-Disney animation.

Rewind Box Office

This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.


Disney dominated the box office in 2019, just as we’d already noticed in our midyear report. But even though the studio has seven of the top 10 movies both domestically and worldwide (plus an invested interest in an eighth title), not all was lost for the rest of cinema. Considering Greta Gerwig‘s Little Women — a remake, sure, but hardly the sort people groan about — and Rian Johnson‘s original mystery movie Knives Out are big stories at the end of the year prove that audiences are still looking for alternatives to the Mouse House brands.

Disney’s lock came in the form of two installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, two live-action-style reimaginings of their animated classics, one Star Wars sequel, and two animated feature sequels, one of those being from Pixar and one of them being from their main animation studio. They also co-produced but did not distribute the MCU entry Spider-Man: Far From Home. Rounding out the top 10 grossers of the year at home were the DC comic book movie Joker and the horror sequel IT: Chapter Two, both of which are Warner Bros. releases. Globally, IT: Chapter Two was replaced by Universal’s spinoff Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

Here’s a look at the 10 biggest movies in North America in 2019 by attendance:

1. Avengers: Endgame (Disney – Marvel): 94.5 million
2. The Lion King (Disney): 59.9 million
3. Toy Story 4 (Disney – Pixar): 47.8 million
4. Captain Marvel (Disney – Marvel): 47 million
5. Frozen II (Disney): 44.6 million
6. Spider-Man: Far From Home (Sony – Marvel): 43 million
7. Aladdin (Disney): 39.2 million
8. Joker (Warner Bros. – DC): 36.7 million
9. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Disney – Lucasfilm): 31.9 million
10. IT: Chapter Two (Warner Bros.): 23.3 million

And here are almost all the same titles on the worldwide box office chart for 2019:

1. Avengers: Endgame (Disney – Marvel): $2,797,800,564
2. The Lion King (Disney): $1,656,713,458
3. Frozen II (Disney): $1,217,590,889
4. Spider-Man: Far From Home (Sony – Marvel): $1,131,927,996
5. Captain Marvel (Disney – Marvel): $1,128,274,794
6. Toy Story 4 (Disney – Pixar): $1,073,394,593
7. Joker (Warner Bros. – DC): $1,062,994,002
8. Aladdin (Disney): $1,050,693,953
9. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (Universal): $758,910,100
10. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Disney – Lucasfilm): $724,796,816

As you can see, eight of the 10 made more than a billion dollars worldwide, with one of them nearly reaching three billion dollars. Only five movies reached more than a billion dollars last year. And only four titles did so in 2017. Moviegoing is definitely still a big deal on this planet (with an all-time global high of $41 billion) even if the domestic story is that attendance continues to decrease. Disney may have broken its own studio record with a $3.72 billion year and claimed about 40 percent of the domestic market while releasing 33 percent of the movies, overall ticket sales were down 4 percent compared to last year.

Original Movies

Here are this year’s top movies with original screenplays, by domestic attendance:

1. Us (Universal): 19.3 million
2. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Sony): 15.5 million
3. Ford v Ferrari (Fox): 11.5 million
4. Knives Out (Lionsgate): 9.9 million
5. Good Boys (Universal): 9.2 million

That list excludes other non-franchise or branded releases such as The Upside, which is a remake of a foreign-language film, and Hustlers, which is based on a magazine article. The musical biopic Rocketman, based on the songs and life of Elton John, might also fit that list just above Knives Out, while the musical rom-com Yesterday, centered around songs by The Beatles, was a surprise original hit and falls just short of Good Boys. Although two of the top five listed above are historically based rather than fully conceived originally, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is almost entirely made up. Between that and Yesterday, perhaps Hollywood will be looking to do more alternate-universe stories.

Original movies out of Hollywood don’t tend to do as well overseas, so while Us was the 11th biggest movie in the US, it was only number 28 on the worldwide chart. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood did the best for an American original. Other originals that rounded out the chart overseas include Knives Out and Ford v Ferrari, so it’s still mostly the same titles hitting biggest (some in reverse order). Original sci-fi action flick Gemini Man did much better overseas, however. As did Ad Astra, Escape Room, and Parasite, though the last of those did pretty well in the US for a foreign-language release. That said, interestingly enough, the mostly Chinese-language drama The Farewell did more than 90 percent of its box office domestically.

Women Directors

Here are this year’s top movies directed or co-directed by women, by domestic attendance:

1. Captain Marvel (Disney – Marvel): 47 million
2. Frozen II (Disney): 44.6 million
3. Hustlers (STX): 11.6 million
4. Abominable (Universal): 6.7 million
5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Sony): 5.8 million

Speaking of The Farewell and original movies, women filmmakers had a strong year with regards to accolades and/or box office achievements — the latest incarnation of Charlie’s Angels excluded, sadly. The Farewell, which is an autobiographical film from Lulu Wang, and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which shocked the industry with its disappointing box office, are among the best movies of 2019. Same with Gerwig’s Little Women, which just opened very well and has a shot at becoming one of the top five best-sellers by women released this year. The only completely original movie on the above chart is Abominable, an underrated and under-grossing DreamWorks Animation feature written and directed by Jill Culton.

The other animated feature on that list is Frozen II, co-directed by Jennifer Lee. Not only was it one of the top five highest-grossing movies in the US this year but it’s now the third biggest movie from a woman director ever, having just passed the original. The big story for 2019 and women directors, though, is about Captain Marvel. The MCU entry, co-helmed by Anna Boden, became the highest-grossing movie from a woman filmmaker ever. Frozen II could wind up passing it when all is said and done, however. But for the calendar year, Captain Marvel is the winner. Looking ahead, we could be seeing a lot more women directors in the main chart since the four most anticipated movies of 2020 are blockbusters helmed solely by women.

Live-Action Franchises

Here are this year’s biggest live-action movie franchises, by domestic attendance:

1. Marvel Cinematic Universe (Disney – Sony – Marvel): 184.5 million
2. Star Wars (Disney – Lucasfilm): 31.9 million
3. DC Extended Universe (Warner Bros. – DC): 30.5
4. IT (Warner Bros.): 23.3 million
5. Fast & Furious (Universal): 19 million
6. John Wick (Lionsgate): 18.8 million
7. Maleficent (Disney): 12.5 million
8. Unbreakable (Universal): 12.22 million
9. Godzilla (Warner Bros.): 12.17 million
10. Jumanji (Sony): 12.1 million

This year, we saw some movie franchises intentionally conclude — specific storylines at least as in the cases of the MCU, the Star Wars Skywalker Saga, and the Unbreakable trilogy — and once again, we saw some movie franchises unintentionally die horrible deaths. Men in Black and Charlie’s Angels attempted spinoff reboots with Men in Black: International and Charlie’s Angels, respectively, and nobody cared. Terminator tried to write its past wrongs with Terminator: Dark Fate, and unfortunately it was too little too late. Happy Death Day 2U didn’t capture enough magic for there to be a potential third entry. And the X-Men series went out with a fizzle with X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

Sequelitis hit everything from The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the documentary 63 Up as new franchise installments failed to perform as well as previous entries. Fast & Furious didn’t do as well with its spinoff Hobbs & Shaw as Universal would have liked. Not even Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was immune, though it does seem to be leveling out alongside the last movie in the long run. Of course, the MCU continued to be infallible at the box office, and the DCEU is now starting to make up for past disappointments — movies based on DC comics add up to attendance of 67.2 million when non-DCEU hit Joker is included (the figure above is for Shazam! and Aquaman). But a few lower-tier franchises proved strong enough for continued production, especially John Wick, probably Jumanji, and maybe even IT, despite its adaptation of the Stephen King novel being done with just the two chapters.

R-rated Movies

Here are this year’s biggest R-rated movies, by domestic attendance:

1. Joker (Warner Bros. – DC): 36.7 million
2. IT: Chapter Two (Warner Bros.): 23.3 million
3. Us (Universal): 19.3 million
4. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Lionsgate): 18.8 million
5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Sony): 15.5 million

For only the second year this decade, two R-rated movies landed in the top 10, and fittingly enough they’re equivalent to the two from 2017. One of them, Joker, is like that year’s Logan, another R-rated comic book movie (note: when looking at in-year titles, Logan doesn’t land in the top 10, it’s only when looking at the calendar year). The other, IT: Chapter Two, is a sequel to that year’s IT. This year’s third-biggest R-rated hit, Us, falls just outside the top 10, in 11th place. And all five of the titles ranked above landed in the top 20 for the year.

That’s the best we’ve seen since the early 2000s, before the industry became stricter with admission policies. In 2003, there were a few R-rated movies in the top 10 but not five in the top 20. Three years earlier, in 2000, a few movies landed in the top 10 and five landed in the top 20. Go back further and you’ve got years like 1992 when 14 of the top 20 were rated R. Could we be seeing another uptick in Hollywood going for more adult-oriented fare? We’ve already heard Warner Bros. and DC are aiming for R ratings for some of their upcoming comic book movies following the success of Joker, including next year’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). But we might not see such a repeat as early as 2020.

Non-Disney Animation

Here are this year’s biggest animated features not made by Disney, by domestic attendance::

1. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Universal – DreamWorks Animation): 17.7 million
2. The Secret Life of Pets 2 (Universal): 17.4 million
3. The Addams Family (United Artists): 10.7 million
4. Abominable (Universal): 6.7 million
5. Wonder Park (Paramount): 5 million

As usual, Disney had the highest-grossing animated features, and this year it could kind of include one of its latest “live-action” remakes among the bunch alongside the obligatory Pixar release and yet another Walt Disney Animation sequel. The rest of the industry’s family-friendly offerings continue to struggle on the big screen. That includes live-action fare such as The Kid Who Would Be King as well as output from other animation studios. One of the top animated hits of 2019 was actually 2018 holdover Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which benefits in being a superhero movie. The familiar dominated for 2019 titles as well, with sequels to How to Train Your Dragon and The Secret Life of Pets top the list above while still falling behind their predecessors.

At least neither of those performed as poorly as The Angry Birds Movie 2, which attracted a small fraction of the original’s audience and didn’t even make the top five non-Disney animated releases. Fox’s Spies in Disguise doesn’t seem too promising as a latecomer, either. Then there are the animated features that rank among the biggest bombs of the year. Animation is expensive, and many animated features fail to make a significant profit if any. But Laika’s latest stop-motion adventure, Missing Link, had a reported deficit, between worldwide gross and its production budget, of $74 million. Arctic Dogs was next with a worldwide take of just $8.5 million against a cost of $50 million. And the relatively cheap animated feature Playmobil: The Movie had a deficit of $26 million. Hey, if even the LEGO movies aren’t doing well, other toy-inspired movies aren’t going to fare very well.


Cats

Here are this year’s biggest movies starring cats, by domestic attendance:

1. The Lion King (Disney): 59.9 million
2. Captain Marvel (Disney – Marvel): 47 million
3. The Secret Life of Pets (Universal): 17.4 million
4. Pet Sematary (Paramount): 6 million
5. Cats (Universal): 1.4 million

As a hit new Netflix series tells us, don’t f**k with cats. Unless they’re surreal musical cats, of course. While Disney had one of its biggest hits with lifelike computer-animated African cats, Universal had the biggest flop of the year with bizarre part human, part computer-generated domesticated cats. In between, Disney also triumphed with Marvel’s first movie focused on a female superhero, Captain Marvel, which co-starred a feline alien, and while Universal did have the third biggest movie on the list above, the Secret Life of Pets sequel was a disappointment compared to the original. The same goes for Paramount’s Pet Sematary remake.

Even Toy Story 4 received praise for its realistically rendered store cat, and the “live-action” version of the tiger Rajah in the Aladdin remake was a lovable kitty. The lesson here is that Disney should have made the Cats musical. Or maybe just make more cats movies of their own (remakes of Aristocats and The Cat From Outer Space, for starters?) and all other studios should just stick to dogs — not that Sony’s A Dog’s Way Home, Universal’s A Dog’s Journey, Fox’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Entertainment Studios’ Arctic Dogs weren’t that big either this year. If any dog movie won this year — and it really did win with its scene-stealing pooches — it was John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.


Indies

We see fewer and fewer indie film hits these days, so it’s not surprising that one of the highest-grossing specialty releases of 2019 was from a very familiar property: Focus Features’ Downton Abbey continued a popular long-running TV series and drew its fanbase. Small studios like STX and United Artists had some decent players (The Upside and Hustlers for the former, familiar animated feature The Addams Family for the latter). But A24 remains a promising little distributor, even if Midsommar failed to do the kind of business that the company’s biggest movie, Hereditary, managed last year. Their current hopeful is Uncut Gems, which just opened and is killing it following a shining start in limited release.

The biggest story on the indie front, however, has to be that of Neon. Its highest-grossing movie of 2019 was the awards favorite Parasite, coming in at 97th place for the year, and hopefully, further Oscar buzz will keep it chugging along. Then there are the many hit documentaries Neon released this year, most of them also award contenders: Apollo 11, Amazing Grace, and The Biggest Little Farm each grossed more than $5 million, which is incredible, and the foreign-language Honeyland performed well for what it is, thanks to high marks from critics (three of those four films cleaned up at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, too). Unfortunately, Neon’s The Beach Bum is considered one of the biggest flops of 2019.


An Imperfect Disney

Despite Disney dominating the box office in 2019, the studio was far from perfect. After all, when you’re such a figurehead and yet attendance is down, that’s not a great look. But there were also specific disappointments for the company, and not just in certain releases they acquired through their buyout of Fox (see X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Spies in Disguise). Sure, Star Wars is still a moneymaking machine but it fell short of expectations with The Rise of Skywalker and after last year’s bigger concern with Solo: A Star Wars Story we know that the franchise is not as foolproof as their Marvel brand.

The studio also saw the biggest “live-action” remake yet this year with The Lion King, but Disney still can’t seem to get the sequels to these movies down, as evident in the performance of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Also, not every animated feature translates to gold in live-action form, as seen with Dumbo. Ironically, The Lion King most closely resembles another one of Disney’s brands, the Disneynature documentary franchise, yet the real thing can’t seem to cut it anymore. The studio also experienced a discouraging box office gross for its latest Disneynature release, Penguins (though it was still the third biggest doc of the year). Perhaps Disney doesn’t need to try to make all the movies?

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.