Movie Theater Attendance is the Best It's Been in Over a Decade

Can 2018 sustain its success at the box office?

Blackpanther

Can 2018 sustain its success at the box office?

Another 12.3 million people went to see Avengers: Infinity War in North America over the weekend. That’s about how many tickets were sold, anyway. Some of those people were likely return customers. The Marvel movie had the fifth-best second weekend attendance of all time. Considering last weekend Infinity War had the second-best debut attendance ever, this should have been better. But its ticket sales saw a significant enough drop (56.4%) for it to fall below the first Avengers movie and the first Spider-Man, as well as Jurassic World.

Still, attendance for the year so far is up 3.3% over 2017 and almost 10% from four years ago. According to Box Office Mojo, an estimated 448.9 million movie tickets have been sold in 2018 through May 6th. That’s the most we’ve seen for the same time period since 2004, when the figure was up to 462.1 million. The two prior years also saw greater attendance through the first weekend in May, with 452.7 million tickets sold in 2003 and a whopping 487.1 million in 2002. Every year before that going back to 1980 saw smaller numbers.

Of course, there were also fewer movies out at that time. Or fewer accounted for, at least. For 1980, for instance, Box Office Mojo only shows 35 titles adding up to its attendance of 180.6 million. But if we look only at 2018’s top 35 movies, attendance is still more than twice as much than in 1980. In 1992, only 115 movies brought in 360.9 people. This year, that same number of titles (fewer than half the 360 in release so far) add up to 446.6 tickets sold. In 2001, there were only 192 titles accounted for. For 2018, the top 192 titles still add up to 448.5 million.

One thing that’s notable there is that 2018’s attendance is very top heavy. Not only do we have the mega blockbuster numbers of Marvel’s Infinity War and Black Panther but also the phenomenal late-2017 holdovers Jumanji: Welcome to the JungleThe Greatest Showman, and of course Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Plus we’ve seen surprise successes in the original sci-fi horror movie A Quiet Place and the family film Peter Rabbit, both of which have now been announced as having sequels on the way. But most everything else is just getting by.

All previous years seem to have been a lot more spread out as far as movie attendance goes. Even in the year of highest attendance, 2002, the top title was Ice Age, which had only sold 29.1 million tickets. Compare that to Black Panther‘s 75.7 million or Infinity War‘s so far 10-day total of 49.2 million. The other two years with higher attendance, 2003 and 2004, saw similar spreads, though 2004 was a little more top heavy than normal with The Passion of the Christ having brought in 59.1 million people in a little over two months.

Only one other movie has had the kind of attendance in the first third of the year that Black Panther has had. Titanic, which opened in December 1997, sold most of its tickets in the first few months of 1998, to an estimated amount of 96.8 million. Another big one was James Cameron’s other mega hit, Avatar, which opened in late 2009 and saw much of its attendance that first month but still drew 58.4 million people by this time just in 2010. In 1982, Raiders of the Lost Ark was up to 64.7 million tickets sold, which is impressive considering the movie had opened the previous summer. That was partly because it was a time before home video copies were quickly released. Raiders wouldn’t hit VHS for another year.

As far as early year releases go, Hollywood wasn’t really trying hard pre-summer until in 2007 Zack Synder’s 300 became a surprise hit for a March opening. Then in 2012, The Hunger Games had an even better March debut, selling 48.1 million tickets by this time. Meanwhile, the first Avengers movie pulled the summer season back to the beginning of May, meaning for this time frame it had come in and added 25.5 million people to the year’s attendance. Last year, Beauty and the Beast posted a new record, drawing 55 million by this date.

The question we need to ask now is can attendance stay this great through the end of the year? Hopefully 2018 will improve on 2017 at the very least, considering last year saw the lowest movie attendance (1.221 billion tickets sold) in North America in more than 20 years. There’s a good chance that Black Panther and Infinity War are the best we’re going to get as far as box office draws for the year go, yet there are a number of heavy hitters still on the way.

Later this month, a new Star Wars makes its debut, and unlike other recent releases of its franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story will see its total attendance in a single year — adding to The Last Jedi‘s holdover numbers. Next week, there’s Deadpool 2. Also in the summer months there’s Jurassic World: Fallen KingdomAnt-Man and the Wasp (Marvel’s third installment for 2018), and Pixar’s The Incredibles 2. Considering the attendance for these anticipated sequels’ predecessors, we could be looking at another 250 million tickets sold, at least, for just those five titles.

That seems good considering last year’s five best summer releases added up to about 175 million tickets sold and the year before brought in about 200 million with its top five summer titles. But we’re going to need more of this year’s other releases to do decent business too. While Disney’s event movies, including Marvel and Star Wars installments, are helping to drive moviegoing lately, we’re still far from reaching the level that attendance was in 2002, which with 1.575 billion was the peak for the era of home video (including cable) options.

If we’re going to see more tentpoles put out in the first third of the year, we need some balance the rest of the year. Will anything released in the traditional summer blockbuster months compare? What about this fall, when the Fantastic Beasts sequel is the only real sure thing? The key will be more must-see blockbusters that promise more than mere spectacle. The new draw is again, more than it has been in years, the social and cultural buzz, much of which is triggered by the desire to avoid spoilers and to generally be in the know. Also, diversity and inclusion and new kinds of heroes and original takes on familiar stories and genres.

Nobody could wait for Infinity War to hit DVD given its shocking ending. Nobody could wait to see why Black Panther and A Quiet Place were being talked about so much. They can likely wait for most of what else is coming. But hopefully this isn’t the end of 2018’s reign.

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.