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Box Office Was Up in 2018, But It’s No Record: Here’s Why

Box-office revenue increased nine percent over last year, the best year-to-year jump since 2012, even without a Christmas "Star Wars" entry.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9360960cz)Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan"Black Panther" Film - 2018

Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan in “Black Panther”

Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Things are looking up at the movies: in 2018, theaters managed to pull more audiences than last year. But don’t celebrate just yet, despite glowing headlines touting a record year. Not taking into account inflation and higher ticket prices distorts the reality of a positive but hardly standout box office performance.

The Numbers

2018’s total domestic gross (U.S. and Canada) will total about $11.9 billion from some 1.3 billion tickets sold.

Box-office revenue increased nine percent over last year, the best year-to-year jump since 2012. It also marks a healthy six percent jump in ticket sales. Per capita, that’s 3.8 trips to the movie per person. (Impressive — but the record for attendance was 1946, when the average person went to the movies 29 times a year, or at least once every two weeks.)

Depending on final Christmas week business, the results mean the total number of tickets sold will be about the same as 2015 and 2016. Ranking from 2001 to the present, the adjusted gross/ticket sales put this year’s box office at #15.

Thanos Did Nothing Wrong

“Avengers: Infinity War”

That hardly means theaters are struggling. The days of expensive capital investment in new building and renovations is mostly over. (Most of this was done some years back, along with a raft of expensive acquisitions, which led to some bankruptcies and concern over the future of the business.)

So the theaters are holding their own against increased competition from other viewing options. 90-day exclusive windows for non-theatrical play are under attack from streamers like Netflix, but are mostly holding firm for now. These days some video on demand creeps in after the 75 day mark as more competition comes from the growing interest in non-feature film streaming projects. Apart from their direct competition for consumer viewing time, big-spending streaming sites like Netflix are siphoning top current talent away from theatrical features. That’s something the studios should consider a long term threat. It’s crucial for studios and theaters to promote a perception of a thriving Hollywood ecosystem for movies.

For studios, a domestic uptick is positive –if not critical, as their overseas revenues often total more than 70 percent of the theatrical take, and they also collect post-theater ancillary venues. Clearly, studios picked their 2018 projects well for the marketplace.

Awkwafina and Constance Wu Crazy Rich Asians

“Crazy Rich Asians”

Warner Bros.

Originality Did Not Make a Comeback

While some originals like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” made a dent in the onslaught of franchise/sequel/remakes, the usual formulas continue to dominate the box office. Mainly, the studios managed to make creative feints within the familiar to make their product appear fresher.

This year’s final total projections add up to 60 percent of all tickets sold to films that are not original ideas, but related to previous films as franchises, sequels, prequels, or remakes. Last year’s total was 52 percent.

Of the dozen films most likely to pass $200 million (11 so far plus “Aquaman”), all fall into the retread category. Last year, “It” and “Coco” stood out of the top 13 as stand-alone entries. This year’s top three originals–all major successes, coming in a little below $200 million — were “A Quiet Place,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” (“Rhapsody” might still stretch to the $200 mark.)

On a worldwide basis, two Hollywood originals, biopic “Rhapsody” and book adaptation “Ready Player One,” made the the top ten grossers list. (A third, China’s “Operation Red Sea,” makes the list from almost entirely local box office.)

Smart variations from the norm helped boost a sense of creativity and originality, along with a selection of directors with proven personality who made fresh twists on the tried and true. The best example was Ryan Coogler’s take on a Marvel franchise, “Black Panther,” which was not only the top North American grosser this year, but also a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar. With its African setting and mostly black cast, the movie felt different enough to feel original. The movie scored critical acclaim and proved that mainstream audiences are willing to expand their horizons.

Also clicking at the box office were films that just seemed, well, different. “A Star Is Born”? Sure, it had been done four times before, but how many of today’s viewers were really aware of that? “The Grinch”? This surprise late-year smash seems original because it took something previously live action and went animated (see also: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”). Take lesser characters from the comic book universe — “Venom,” “Aqua-Man,” “Deadpool 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp” — and let them fill in for better-known characters. It passes for new, satisfies viewers, and sustains business.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Lucasfilm

Not All Sequels Worked

Christmas 2018 marks the first holiday in four years without a “Star Wars” release. Confounding expectations, prequel “Solo: A Star Wars Story” could take a $50 million loss. Its huge expense plus increasing international disinterest (virtually none in China) yielded the year’s biggest negative surprise (although its troubled production history served as a warning).

Another once surefire franchise — Harry Potter – took a hit when its offshoot “Fantastic Beasts” sequel “The Crimes of Grindelwald” managed only 60 percent of its predecessor. International interest should get it into breakeven territory. But the future of the series looks iffy as initial production and marketing costs approach $400 million.

Another franchise has run its course, as $150-million “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” could only muster $60 million domestic and $300-million worldwide.

A new “Tomb Raider,” “Maze Runner: The Death Curse,” a remake of “The Predator,” stateside “Paddington 2,” yet another “Robin Hood,” and least of all “The Girl in the Spider’s  Web” all showed North American audiences increasingly resistant to falling for retreads.

"A Quiet Place"

“A Quiet Place”

Paramount Pictures

Low-Budget Original Breakouts

Lower budgets turned risk-taking breakouts into global blockbusters: “A Quiet Place,” ($17 million), “The Nun” ($22 million) and “Peter Rabbit” ($50 million) took in $100 million-plus in domestic alone by taking chances. Even with its turbulent production history, “Bohemian Rhapsody” only cost $52 million–against a total gross over $300 million, making it one of the year’s most profitable releases.

These successes are hardly radical departures from anything mainstream, along with formulaic action rehashes “The Meg” and “Rampage,” which both cost more than $100-million and grossed over $400 million worldwide.

Most studios added lower-budget originals to the usual franchise offerings and they weren’t just surefire horror films. Warners released independently-developed “Crazy Rich Asians” ($30 million), Universal offered “Halloween,” “Night School,” “The First Purge,” and “Green Book” (all under $30 million), Sony nurtured its Sundance-acquired Korean smash “Searching,” 20th Century Fox took risks with “Widows” and “The Hate U Give,” and Paramount scored with “A Quiet Place” and femme-appeal “Book Club.”

These successes will encourage them to continue on this course. As successful as Disney is, the studio paid $71 billion to buy 20th Century Fox party because they weren’t creating new freestanding properties. And their new Netflix-competing streaming site will need product. Lots of it.

You could argue that increased competition has forced the studios to feel compelled to create outside their wheelhouses, which worked for them.

The Calendar Expands

The biggest domestic hit of the year opened in February (“Black Panther”). April saw the second best (“Avengers: Infinity War,” and “A Quiet Place”). For the first time, two October films pushed past $200 million (“A Star Is Born,” “Venom”).

The push away from the traditional late May- mid July, Thanksgiving-Christmas mainstays is crucial in maximizing results. This Christmas box-office could match last year’s even without a “Star Wars” film because there was more room for a range of films to thrive.

Still, the main strength of the year came early. Of films released since July, only the early November “The Grinch” looks certain to reach the top ten for the year (unless “Aquaman” holds strongly). Last year, four of the ten biggest were released in the final two months, including #1 (“The Force Awakens”) and #4 (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”).

The Pact

“Blockers”

Quantrell D. Colbert

The Year’s Most Depressing Statistic

Only two of the top 50 domestic grossers, and none of the foreign, were directed by women. The year after Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” was the third-best grosser at $400 million, only Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” reached $100 million. And it lost money, with the worldwide total of $132 million at the high end of its production budget estimate. The other was the comedy “Blockers,” which at $21 million will get into the black for Universal.

Why this result after “Wonder Woman?” Just figure the usual two year-plus lag for studios to respond after something hits big. The statistic should be improved next year. But it reveals how behind the times the industry has been.

Disney Rides High Again

For the second straight year, Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal in that order will take the top three slots for domestic studio market share. And Disney will come in just a little short of its record 26 percent two years ago, while jumping from last year’s 21. They had only ten releases, and went four months (from early July to early November) with nothing new in the market.

The studio accomplished this with the year’s three biggest films–Marvel’s “Black Panther” and “Infinity War” and “Incredibles 2” (Pixar) all exceeded $600 million. That sort of dominance hasn’t been seen since the 1930s when MGM was at its height. And now they are adding Fox — and 30 percent share for 2019 seems doable.

Warners and Universal are faring well. But Sony and Paramount increasingly are lagging, and Lionsgate had by far its weakest year since it merged with Summit (only around 3 percent share). Just as there are now three major exhibitors dominating theaters, could we be headed toward two or three distributors taking 70 percent or more of the domestic gross?

That’s just one intriguing question for next year. Changes and evolution will continue. But don’t expect radical shifts in what Hollywood offers the moviegoing public.

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