The Year in Moviegoing is Off to a Great Start

Box office is up in 2020 for the first month, but most of that has to do with 2019 releases.

1917
Universal Pictures

If you’re only looking at the most recent releases, it might seem like January as usual. The Turning is already the second horror movie of 2020 with not just abysmal reviews but also an F grade from moviegoers via Cinemascore (that’s crazy considering there was only one in the seven years prior). And The Gentlemen underperformed a bit despite having the best opening for one of Guy Ritchie’s crime films. Yet as the first month of 2020 concludes, the year’s box office is otherwise off to a really great start.

Thanks to Box Office Mojo, we see that the first four weeks of 2020 are up more than 11 percent over the same time last year. And the total domestic gross for all movies so far is the best since 2016. Now, some of that has to do with increased ticket prices. But even when we divide the numbers by average admission cost, 2020 still comes out ahead compared to recent years — though 2018’s January attendance is pretty close. Of course, there’s always a technicality with which to spin differently.

The chart linked to above is for all calendar releases, including movies that opened prior to the start of 2020. If we switch to in-year releases, we’re looking at a much different picture. One that actually shows this year as being down almost 40 percent from 2019. And down significantly compared to the last five years’ box office overall. Worse if we were to consider inflation and/or ticket sales. Ironically, while 2019 ranks worst on the chart for calendar releases, it ranks best on the in-year release chart.

How can that be? Officially, Bad Boys for Life, which opened this month, just broke the record for the highest two-week gross for a January release. Well, not counting the 1997 Special Edition re-release of Star Wars (adjusted for inflation). And maybe some older films from before full box office records were accounted for would also place higher in terms of attendance. The sequel had the best January opening and then dipped only 45.6 percent in its second weekend.

Well, apparently last year we got more new movies that did well-enough, including Glass, The Upside, and Escape Room, to beat the combination of Bad Boys for Life and everything else that opened this month. Blame flops like Dolittle and now The Turning. But January 2019’s holdovers from 2018 did not include a Star Wars movie, as this year and every other from the last five years did — 2015 also had no Star Wars, but it had 2014’s American Sniper doing most of its business after the new year.

Interestingly enough, while Star Wars carryovers topped the box office for January of 2016 and 2017, the franchise landed in second place in 2018 and now again in 2020. Two years ago, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle triumphed instead. This year, Bad Boys for Life has the top spot, while the Jumanji sequel, The Next Level, has managed fourth place. Again, it’s strange this is the first year since 2011 to have a January release top the January box office and it still ranks worst on the in-calendar chart.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the slowest of the franchise’s current era of releases to reach the $500 million mark domestically (including non-trilogy entry Rogue One but excluding summer release Solo: A Star Wars Story, which never even came close), finally doing so this past weekend. That’s another oddity given the calendar-release status of January 2020’s box office success. Aside from some help from Jumanji and Frozen II, the achievement is, surprisingly, hardly due to tentpole titles.

Compared to other recent years, one thing we’re seeing in January 2020 is higher-grossing Best Picture contenders. Above all, 1917, which only went wide this month after a late limited release in 2019, has proven to be a major player not just for awards — where it’s been dominating since the Golden Globes — but box office as well. And Little Women has almost reached the $100 million mark, which is incredible for a period piece remake with an almost all-women cast (note: the 1994 version of Little Women topped out at $50 million domestic, which is more tickets than $100 million equates to in 2020).

If Little Women does reach $100 million, that will make five of the nine Best Picture nominees grossing above that marker domestically (the others are 1917, Ford v Ferrari, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Joker, which exceeded $300 million). The previous year saw only three movies do that. The same goes for every year prior to this one going back to 2014, which only had one. Before that, 2013 had four. And back in 2012, there were six, almost seven.

I’ll do a full look at Best Picture nominee box office next week ahead of the Oscars, but the success of this year’s crop just goes to show that moviegoers are increasingly interested in quality on the big screen. Rather than ignoring the theater altogether, many Americans are making smarter choices. And Hollywood is mainly trying to follow suit by producing sequels that critics praise and that then movie fans want to buy tickets for, like Bad Boys for Life.

Hollywood also keeps getting better at trusting movie fans to go to the movies in months outside of summer and holiday seasons. Bad Boys for Life is not just a new January record holder because it’s a good action movie but also because good action movies rarely come out in January. Every month is seeing record-breaking box office thanks to changes in release strategies for blockbuster fare, especially superhero titles. Unfortunately, the rest of this month’s new releases still fit into January’s distinction as a dumping ground. Maybe lessons are learned and we’ll be even better off next year.

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.