Things are looking up after the box office bloodbath of October. A new month brings promise of better results in theaters nationwide, following the worst October attendance since 1991. (The raw numbers unadjusted are the lowest since 2007.) Total domestic (U.S./Canada) box office totaled around $510 million. That’s down about nine per cent from a year ago, and killed the hot September momentum (the second best in a decade, and a reversal of a catastrophically bad August). Year to date (ignoring slightly higher ticket prices) is down about 5.4 per cent.
How Bad Was October?
1. Thirteen wide releases during the month meant two more than last year, and still grosses were nine per cent down.
2. The production budgets (pre-marketing expense) for these surpassed $500 million, compared to $350 million last year.
3. Unlike last year, the studios shared the downturn — that’s additional bad news for theaters, since it likely leads to more caution in production or other negative impacts in production.
4. This year brought two disappointments in relation to cost, Warner Bros.’ pricey “Blade Runner 2049” and “Geostorm,” although the latter showed stronger foreign returns.
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5. “Blade Runner 2049” was October’s highest-grossing film (about $90 million). That compares to some recent years where films like “The Martian,” “Gone Girl,” and “Gravity” soared well past the $100-million mark. Not this year.
6. Only three October releases (“Blade Runner 2049,” “Happy Death Day,” and “Boo 2: A Madea Halloween”) grossed more than September holdover “It” with $33 million (about ten per cent of its take).
Four Films Could Lead a Strong Year-End Rally
It’s big-name franchise time, and four of the top brands are positioned for strong showings over the next two months. Friday sees “Thor: Ragnarok” (Disney) from Marvel. Warner Bros. opens D.C. Comics’ “Justice League” in two weeks, immediately followed by Disney/Pixar’s “Coco.” Disney then returns mid-December with what should be the mightiest of the bunch, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
These four films could easily top the top four last year (“Rogue One,” “Sing,” “Moana,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) which totaled $1.3 billion in domestic sales. “Rogue One” was a “Star Wars” spin-off, while “Jedi” continues the story in the second film of the new trilogy. “Thor: Ragnarok” looks stronger than Marvel’s “Dr. Strange” (a close fifth), “Justice League” assembles a team of characters including Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, The Flash, Aquaman and others. “Coco” is a rare holiday Pixar entry and should soar well above “Moana.”
Much of any uptick will lie with “Jedi” and its ability to replicate “Force Awakens,” which grossed $400 million more than “Rogue One.” Combined with the other prime franchise entries, these are certainly strong prospects — on paper.
The rest of the entries include two more animated titles (Sony’s “The Star” just before “Coco” and Fox’s “Ferdinand”), comedy sequel “Daddy’s Home 2” (shifting to early November from Christmas last time), and femme musical sequel “Pitch Perfect 3” (jumping to Christmas after previous earlier year success). An array of comedies and dramas not related to franchises flesh out the schedule.
Though October likely killed off any chance of equaling 2016’s totals, this strong lineup seems capable of topping last year’s $2.9 billion. A $700-million “Jedi” plus three $300-million films makes a nice start. But more is needed from the rest of the slate.
Why It Might Fall Short
Franchise fatigue has set in and might lower totals. November’s titles might cannibalize each other during a time of declining moviegoing interest. Most of the upcoming titles remain unseen, although “Thor: Ragnarok” has scored a decent response, and “Coco” opened strong in Mexico.
One other problem is fewer films, which is only likely to become more common. Studios are mostly avoiding the first three weeks of December to give “Jedi” a wide berth. When last year boasted ten November-December films that topped $100 million (two expanding in January), that puts a pressure on the new product to make a similar dent.
This weekend gives an example of the problem. “Thor: Ragnarok” is a consensus $100-120 million opener, above “Doctor Strange” last year ($85 million). But the first weekend of November in 2016 had two other openings — “Trolls” and “Hacksaw Ridge” — that combined totaled $147 million. This year sees only “A Bad Moms Christmas” (STX) opening wide (it opened Wednesday). Reaching that number could be a challenge unless “Thor” exceeds estimates.
However, the weeks that follow could exceed last year’s parallels through Thanksgiving, with a stronger “Star Wars” likely boosting December.
What the box office needs desperately is a surprise breakout similar to “It.” End of year has tended to be a great period to launch new sleeper hits and franchises. If only the pre-determined hits work, no matter how strong, the studios will stay focused on the straight and narrow.