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How Hard Was the Box Office Hit by Coronavirus Restrictions?

Movie attendance was understandably low in the first weekend of limited theatrical options, whether caused by pandemic concerns or unappealing new releases.
Never Rarely Sadness
Focus Features
By  · Published on March 16th, 2020

Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, movie theaters have temporarily closed or limited capacity as Americans go into self-isolation or self-quarantine to maintain social distancing. That’s misfortunate for the film industry as a whole and especially those new releases that couldn’t suddenly delay and instead opened as planned on the first weekend of mass home-confinement in this country. Box office definitely took a dip, but maybe not as much as it could or should have given the circumstances.

While we’re still in the early stages of the pandemic’s effect in North America, a lot of people ignored recommendations to stay home and continued life as normal over the weekend, going out to bars, restaurants, and movie theaters. Based on average ticket prices and the total domestic grosses for all titles tracked by Box Office Mojo, an estimated 5.8 million people went to the movies in the US and Canada. That’s a little more than half of last weekend’s attendance of 10.8 million — a drop of 46 percent. This weekend last year, the attendance was about 15.5 million — down 63 percent.

Of course, last year we were on the second weekend of Captain Marvel. The year before, the fifth weekend of Black Panther. Other recent years saw the Disney movies Beauty and the Beast, Zootopia, and Cinderella all dominating the chart with other releases doing okay box office. But even in 2014, which had Mr. Peabody & Sherman in first place on its second weekend and Need for Speed as the biggest opener, ranking third, attendance was still about 13.9 million. Mid-March isn’t always a hot time for the movies but it’s no dumping ground wasteland either.

This year, the pickings were relatively slim, though. Disney and Pixar’s Onward had already proven a disappointment even before governments and health officials were urging moviegoing and other social activities to cease or decrease. As for the newcomers, the Vin Diesel comic book movie Bloodshot, the Christian music biopic I Still Believe, and the controversial black comedy thriller The Hunt were never going to be huge successes. And that would be the case even if they hadn’t each received some of the worst reviews of the year so far: respective Metacritic scores of 44, 37, and 50.

Back in mid-January, Box Office Pro reported early long-range tracking for this weekend’s releases (including My Spy, which was pushed back unrelated to the coronavirus delays). That was before anyone expected a worldwide crisis to be occurring. Bloodshot was anticipated to gross $14 million (or at least somewhere in the range of $12-17 million), which is roughly the equivalent of 1.49 million tickets. Last week, with COVID-19 being labeled a pandemic and social-distancing being only encouraged, Box Office Pro’s last-minute forecast put Bloodshot at $10.2 million (range: $7-12 million), or 1.1 million tickets. The reality wasn’t too far off, as the Variant Comics adaptation grossed $9.3 million domestically — almost 1 million tickets sold.

Two months ago, Bloodshot was already expected to open slightly lower than I Still Believe, which Box Office Pro forecast for an opening domestic gross of $14.5 million (range: $13-18 million), or 1.55 million tickets. Last week’s prediction was $12 million (range: $10-15 million), or 1.3 million tickets. The actual debut for the Jesse Camp biopic was just barely higher than Bloodshot‘s at $9.5 million, which equates to a little more than 1 million tickets sold.¬† The audience for faith-based entertainment would presumably put their health and safety in the hands of God, so it’s not a surprise they still turned out for this one.

Then there’s The Hunt, which was originally set to open last fall before a couple of mass shootings and censure from President Trump caused Universal to postpone its release. The violent political satire was therefore tracked for a different time by Box Office Pro, which predicted an opening gross of $14 million (range: $12-19 million) back in early August for its scheduled late September 2019 debut. That’d have been around 1.53 million tickets. Due to the circumstances of its delay plus the anticipated attendance decreases for social limitations, its last-minute tracking put The Hunt as grossing only $8.4 million (range: $6-11 million), or 0.9 million tickets. The movie instead opened with just $5.3 million, the equivalent of just over a half-million tickets sold.

Onward, which still managed to hold first place, probably took the worst hit of all the wide releases. Again, despite having Pixar’s lowest opening weekend attendance ever, the animated feature would normally have seen some kind of legs going forward. But with schools closing and parents advised to keep children home and sequestered away from large gatherings in general, family films don’t have a sizable draw at the moment. This one was expected to drop just 34 percent in its second weekend, but it fell 73 percent. That’s even greater than The Good Dinosaur‘s 61 percent drop in 2015 and Cars 2‘s 60 percent drop in 2011. Last week, Box Office Pro anticipated $26 million for Onward, but its actual gross was only $10.5 million — 1.1 million tickets sold.

Other wide releases in their second, third, fourth weeks, etc., dipped deeper than normal, too. The Way Back fell 70 percent in its second weekend. The Invisible Man fell 60 percent in its third weekend. The Call of the Wild fell 67 percent in its fourth weekend. It’s hard to imagine what their drops would have been, and there’s no easy comparison among general releases, but typically you’d have less-significant decreases in attendance past the second weekend. Second weekends are, preferably, in the 40-50 percent drop range, if not better. But a movie with poor reception, like Fantasy Island, can fall 65 percent in its second weekend anyway — The Photograph, which didn’t have much buzz, even fell 77 percent in its second weekend, last month. That same time, the DC comic book movie Birds of Prey dropped more than 60 percent in its third weekend.

Because self-imposed social distancing and mandated restrictions hadn’t reached a lot of America this weekend, the numbers aren’t as bad as they will be next weekend or the weekend after, etc. Where movies were likely hurt most, besides certain widely affected cities like Seattle and San Francisco, were New York and Los Angeles, the hubs of independent releases. Both metropolises are shutting the doors on theaters completely this week, but even over the weekend many were either shuttered or operating in a very limited capacity, including arthouse cinemas.

Therefore, a smaller release like the highly acclaimed, award-winning Never Rarely Sometimes Always grossed only $18,000 on four screens in its debut, averaging only $4,500 per screen, which is low for something of its prestige. Compare its opening to First Cow, also on four screens to start the prior weekend, averaging $20,000 on each. Two weekends ago, both Wendy and Greed, each of them poorly received by critics, also debuted on four screens with higher averages than Never Rarely Sometimes Always (which as a Focus Features release is, like The Hunt, a Universal title). But the other films were hurt this weekend, too. First Cow began its expansion to more cities expecting continued success, for example, but it wound up with only $65,000 over 25 screens for a disappointing average of only $2,600.

This is all going to get worse for the film industry and cinema business, especially with many theaters forced to close their doors indefinitely. As a result, this will likely be my last box office column for a while, as well. Hopefully, both moviegoing and box office analysis will continue as normal at some future time. Until then, here’s what the top 12 ticket sellers were for the weekend of March 13-15, 2020 (new releases in bold):

1. Onward: 1.12 million
2. I Still Believe: 1 million
3. Bloodshot: 0.99 million
4. The Invisible Man: 0.64 million
5. The Hunt: 0.57 million 
6. Sonic the Hedgehog: 0.27 million
7. The Way Back: 0.26 million
8. The Call of the Wild: 0.24 million
9. Emma: 0.15 million
10. Bad Boys for Life: 0.12 million
11. Birds of Prey: 0.06 million
12. Impractical Jokers: 0.04 million

All box office figures via Box Office Mojo unless otherwise stated.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.