It was supposed to be a year when the playing field became even.
After losing to Disney for four years in a row, with the Burbank studio setting an industry record in 2019 of $13.2 billion global box office, a new major studio was set to become the domestic king.
“I think 2020 is going to be more of a horse race,” I remember one studio distribution boss beaming to me.
Even though Disney had the newly acquired 20th Century Studios and Searchlight, and would count both in their annual box office, the behemoth in 2020 lacked the franchise titles it had in 2019 (i.e., Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Frozen 2, Toy Story 4) which fired up its Disney+ streaming service. That provided rivals Universal and Warner Bros with hope they’d have an edge.
How The Box Office Will Power Back In 2021 Despite Covid Woes & Streaming Obsessions
Well, Disney didn’t win 2020 (Sony did — see the charts below). But still, the year didn’t go down as anyone had planned.
After the domestic box office through March 1 clicked ahead of 2019’s pace by 7.3% with $1.584 billion, eyebrows raised that we could possibly top 2019’s third best domestic result ever of $11.32 billion. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of theaters from mid-March until late August, with 2020 seeing a $2.7 billion total gross — down 80% for the year.
NATO hasn’t recorded an annual ticket price yet; in 2019 it was $9.16. Using that figure, admissions this calendar year also fell 80%, from 1.244 billion to 247.8 million.
Typically this year-end market share column discusses what went right and wrong for each of the majors and how certain movies defied perception (i.e., Joker from last year or Get Out from 2017), but really nothing went right for anyone i 2020. Even after exhibition turned the lights back on in late August for Tenet, it just went from bad to worse.
“This was a truly confounding year with so many norms and traditions –some good, some bad– either modified, skirted or downright obliterated by the marketplace dynamics thrust onto the industry by an unimaginable enemy if the form of the pandemic,” says comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
The year 2021 will be one of recovery. As has often been reported, it’s going to be a slow climb back at the B.O. rather than an elevator ride. All studios will be required to figure out how a shortened theatrical window suits them best. Many still expect franchise powerhouse Disney to set the table in regards to the length of a window, even though Universal’s recent model –17 days in theaters for all titles opening under $50M, 31 days for those titles opening to $50M+ before debuting on Premium VOD — looks to be the industry ideal.
The consolidation of exhibition is at hand, even as AMC struggles to survive. On Wednesday, the No. 1 movie chain sought to thwart bankruptcy by selling 50 million more shares to remain solvent. AMC needs at least $750M to make it through 2021, though its three big debt holders, notably Apollo Global Management, have encouraged the chain to file for Chapter 11. Cineworld, which is saddled with $8.2 billion in debt, opted to close the majority of its chains, including Regal in the U.S., earlier in the fall after the majors pulled a majority of their movies. Cinemark, the No. 3 exhibitor stateside, is the most financially stable of the three in the near term.
“Exhibitors aren’t primed for bankruptcy because they have lousy assets,” MKM Partners managing director of Media & Entertainment Equity Research Eric Handler tells Deadline, referring to how many have installed luxury recliners and swanked up their menus. “It’s because of their overall balance sheets.”
The standings of the major studios at the 2020 market share have largely been frozen in time, unchanged from when we last saw them in mid-March as 4,000 cinemas closed down. The overall domestic marketplace only gained $461M between March 16-December 29.
Sony was No. 1 back then, and they remain that today, now with $485.5M for the span of Jan. 1-Dec. 29 thanks to its early blast-off with Bad Boys for Life, which revitalized the franchise with $206.3M ($426.5M worldwide), and 2019 holdovers Jumanji: The Next Level (grossed $124.7M out of its $320.3M domestic) and Little Women (made $70.5M this year out of its $108.1M — phenomenal for a PG-rated female period pic). Among the B.O. rankings of studios post-pandemic (from March 20-December 29), Sony ranks fourth with $21.5M off movies such as Bloodshot, The Broken Hearts Gallery and year-end genre feature Monster Hunter. Note that Sony’s annual take doesn’t include Sony Pictures Classics, while other studios such as Universal and Disney include their sister labels.
Universal together with Focus Features earned $429M for 2020. Holdover and three-time Oscar winner 1917 was the best performer of the year for Uni, grossing $157.9M (out of its $159.2M lifetime). Dolittle, a much-reported $175M bomb for Uni, ironically was the studio’s second best performer of 2020 with $77M domestic ($245.2M WW) followed by Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man which grossed $64.9M over the course of three weeks before being jettisoned to homes because of Covid. Post-March 20, Universal and Focus slotted second among all distributors with $65.2M with such movies as The Croods: A New Age ($31.3M), Come Play ($9.5M), Let Him Go ($9.3M) and Blumhouse’s Freaky ($8.7M).
Disney, including 20th Century Studios and Searchlight, was third with $413.6M, a 90% free-fall from a year ago when the combined entity did $4.28 billion in the U.S. and Canada. Just as Covid jitters were setting in among moviegoers, Disney had the No. 1 movie with Onward before the industry shutdown; it did $61.5M, becoming the lowest-grossing Pixar movie of all time. 2019 holdover Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was 2020’s top performer for the studio with $124.4M of its lifetime domestic gross of $515.2M. It also had 20th’s Harrison Ford movie The Call of the Wild, based on the Jack London classic, which did $62.3M from February 21-March 15, as well as $47.2M in the calendar year harvested from the Thanksgiving 2019 hit Frozen 2 (which ended its run at $477.3M). Disney didn’t see any great prospects of releasing movies on the big screen during the pandemic, even as theaters reopened in August. Very early on, it decided to put Mulan out on Disney+ for the extra cost of $29.99 to its subscribers over Labor Day weekend, when Warner Bros’ Tenet was opening in movie theaters. Instead, it threw the much-delayed X-Men spinoff New Mutants on the screen on August 28, grossing a paltry $23.8M, as well as 20th Century Studios’ lesser-known horror IP The Empty Man which made under $3M. Post-shutdown, those two movies placed 20th Studios as third among all distributors with $28.7M. While Disney is planning to commit some $14B-$16B to streaming by 2024, its hoping to return to theatrical as soon as the pandemic is over as they know it’s a main driver of IP.
Warner Bros is fourth overall with $235.5M for the year. It is No. 1 among all studios during the pandemic (after March 16), having made $95.5M chiefly from Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984. The studio’s top-grossing film of the year was Suicide Squad spinoff and klunker Birds of Prey ($84.1M domestic, which at the end of the day will make more than WW1984 given the studio’s decision to release that DC sequel during the pandemic when 60% of exhibition is closed). Hindsight being 20/20, some debate whether Warners and Christopher Nolan rushed to reopen movie theaters; that they would have been better off closed down given the blowback that occurred as studios pulled all their films after Tenet‘s lackluster $20M 11-day opening, plus the studio’s decision to curb P&A spending greatly as New York and Los Angeles remained closed. In the end, Warners shocked the industry with a simultaneous day-and-date theatrical and HBO Max streaming debut plan for its 2021 slate, which the studio swears is only contingent on the pandemic. All eyes on how that strategy shakes out next year with big movies like Dune, Suicide Squad and Matrix 4 part of that plan. Industry sources estimate that the first week of WW1984 grossed $22M.
Paramount is fifth for the year with $180.9M, 81% of that fueled by Presidents Day weekend hit Sonic the Hedgehog, which made $146M. The studio also had the lackluster comedy Like a Boss ($22.1M) and Eon bomb The Rhythm Section ($5.4M). The studio moved its big pics like Skydance’s Top Gun: Maverick and A Quiet Place Part II into next year, and saw some of the financiers of 2020 titles sell their movies to streamers; MRC unloaded The Lovebirds and Cross Creek The Trial of the Chicago 7 both to Netflix. The studio opted to take its 2020 tentpole The SpongeBob Movie: The Sponge on the Run to CBS All Access in 2021, sold foreign (sans China) to Netflix, and released the animated feature in Canada in late August. The threequel only grossed $4.4M there; its predecessor, 2015’s SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, grossed $163M domestic and $325M WW.
Lionsgate grossed close to $79.3M this year, 63% of that from 2019 carryover Knives Out. It also had $13.6M from last year’s Bombshell (total B.O.: $31.7M) and saw its first wide release of 2020, faith-based movie I Still Believe, halted by the pandemic grossing $9.8M. The distributor braved theatrical recently with Deon Taylor’s low-budget thriller Fatale with a truncated theatrical-PVOD window, with the title only seeing $2.1M to date. The studio, like others, sold titles to streaming (Run to Hulu) or released via PVOD (Antebellum). Many expected Lionsgate to be merged with MGM., so we’ll see how the future shakes out.
STX saw an extra lease on life in a merger with Bollywood studio Eros back in April. Its near-$50M total this year, a number unchanged since mid-March, comes from the release of Miramax’s Guy Ritchie action title The Gentleman ($36.4M) and Brahms: The Boy II ($12.6M). STXfilms dealt with the pitfalls of the pandemic by monetizing its movies via various means, i.e., selling My Spy to Amazon (which due to its success has a sequel in development), unloading Gerard Butler movie Greenland to HBO for $20M-$30M (that’s on top of STX’s PVOD release), and the PVOD release of its Invisible Narratives pandemic thriller Songbird.
We mapped out what 2021 looks like earlier in the week. And while there is long-term optimism about a theatrical rebound, we’re still in for a grim four- to six-month period until the Covid vaccine takes effect, lowering case and death numbers and giving studios the confidence to reinvest in theatrical as moviegoers regain the confidence to return. As such, many event films from this year have been pushed until 2021, i.e. No Time to Die, Black Widow, The Eternals, Top Gun: Maverick and F9 to name a few.
Says Dergarabedian: “2021 as we like to say ‘on paper’ looks amazing, but the mega-slate of mega-blockbusters was created more by accident than design with so many films moving into the new year in attempt to flee a tough marketplace and await the eventual return of the prestige and revenue generating powerhouse that is the movie palace.”