The box office picked up steam this weekend, thanks to DreamWorks Animation sequel “ .” Last year, on its second weekend “Black Panther” delivered double this $55-million opening. 2018’s number one blockbuster aside, the reality is that 2019 box office revenue is down by 25 percent from last year, with the amount likely to increase to 27-28 percent by month’s end.
The total gross (at slightly lower ticket prices) through February 24 last year was around $1.85 billion. Through the same date this year, it’s below $1.4 billion. By Thursday, the gap will approach $500 million –one sixth of the way through the year. And the total isn’t just down from last year. The falloff in ticket sales is no less than 15 percent over the previous five years.
This initially strong start comes on top of $216 million the third “Dragon” movie has already taken in overseas. The operatic animated adventure needs to come close to doubling that number to best 2014’s initial sequel. But the take so far, with this good domestic opening, could position this to be the best in the series so far.
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So Universal beat the general box office trend. First, “Dragon” beat expectations, something many recent would-be hits have been unable to do. “Dragon” was projected as low as $40 million as an opening total. Instead, it grossed more than a third above that.
Then, as the third entry in the animated series, it is the true best opening weekend result for the franchise. Even adjusting the grosses for earlier films, and leaving out (as the studio appropriately did) $2.5 million from earlier Fandango weekend sneaks, it beat the previous best of $53 million.
And unlike the June and March dates for the first two, it opened on an ordinary February weekend with zero boost from school holidays. Plus it came only two weeks after the most recent underperforming “LEGO” movie, which normally would have offered more competition.
Universal took a gamble that opening later would ultimately pay off. “Dragon” has a much cleaner shot at its core audience in March, when its staggered spring vacation weeks will help sustain it for a longer run.
Projecting how well this opening gross will sustained is risky. For example, while 20th Century Fox scored a better than expected holiday opening for $170-million VFX spectacular “Alita: Battle Angel,” which earned mixed reviews, word of mouth did not sustain the James Cameron production, despite an A- Cinemascore and it took a bigger-than-expected 58 percent fall.
That total is a little over $60 million through the second weekend, and now reaching $100 million domestic is unlikely– it will top out at $85-90 million. A welcome counterbalance was China, which in three days grossed more than the “Alita” 11-day domestic take. The foreign total, with nearly the whole world open, is now at $202 million.
With earlier opening territories showing 40-45 percent drops, all eyes will now be on how well China holds up. Non-local films are known to drop steeply. And returns from China are miniscule — 25 percent rental was returned to Fox last time around — so even a strong hold and substantially higher gross don’t look likely to rescue the film from an inevitable ultimate loss.
The overall drop comes as much as from the lack of other studio new product as the impossible challenge of meeting “Panther.” All eyes are now on the upcoming “Captain Marvel.” Studios are not only spreading more tentpole releases to off-season dates, but are releasing fewer films. And when that happens, grosses decrease.
Two other films tried to take advantage of this open market. The biggest was MGM’s “Fighting With My Family,” a biofilm about the beginnings of WWE superstar Paige and her family. This passion project from Dwayne Johnson had a credible platform start last weekend, bolstered by its premiere at Sundance and smart marketing. The $8 million gross in wide release (2,711 theaters) classifies this as a work in progress. MGM was chasing middle American audiences on this date; the movie did well enough to place #4, which is a better than usual ranking for this level of gross for a normal late February weekend.
The question now is whether word of mouth kicks in. It got another A- Cinemascore, but as “Alita” shows, that isn’t a guarantee. But as a non-franchise title, with not typical theatrical movie content, it stands a better chance of kicking in and sustaining a credible run ahead.
The other new wide-ish release, just making the Top Ten, was “Run the Race” (Roadside Attractions). The first wide faith-based title in a few months, this saga of two teen brothers overcoming the shock of separation from their parents scored a lackluster response in 853 theaters (just under $2.3 million). These titles are often front-ended with a large share of the audience showing up early. There are exceptions– recently Roadside broke out “I Can Only Imagine” with the more general-audience. But this one is geared to appeal to the ardent and forgiving faithful.
Normally, a lack of multiple new openers yields better than average holds. TNot this weekend. Comparison to the three-day holiday are a factor, but no film fell less than 40 percent is another sign of a flat box office. One exception is STX’s The Upside,” which continues its great run as it stands just shy of $100 million.
At least three March releases give hopes for a rebound — “Captain Marvel” on March 8, then later Jordan Peele’s “Us” and Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo” from Disney among the films giving hope that help is near. But 2019 has dug a deep hole, and it will need a regular diet of better than expected openings like “Dragon” to right this ship.
The Top Ten
1. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Universal) – Cinemascore: A; Metacritic: 71; Est. budget: $129 million
$55,527,000 in 4,259 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $13,038; Cumulative: $58,027,000
2. Alita: Battle Angel (20th Century Fox) – Week 2; Last weekend #1
$12,000,000 (-58%) in 3,802 theaters (+12); PTA: $3,156; Cumulative: $60,681,000
3. The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Act (Warner Bros.)- Week 3; Last weekend #2
$10,015,000 (-52%) in 3,833 theaters (-470); PTA: $2,613; Cumulative: $83,619,000
4. Fighting With My Family (MGM)- Week 2; Last weekend #
$8,012,000 (+5,683%) in 2,711 theaters (+2,704); PTA: $2,955; Cumulative: $8,227,000
5. Isn’t It Romantic? (Warner Bros.)- Week 2; Last weekend #3
$7,510,000 (-47%) in 3,444 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,181; Cumulative: $33,769,000
6. What Men Want (Paramount)- Week 3; Last weekend #4
$5,200,000 (-51%) in 2,389 theaters (-523); PTA: $2,177; Cumulative: $45,061,000
7. Happy Death Day 2U (Universal) – Week 2; Last weekend #5
$4,988,000 (-47%) in 3,212 theaters (+5); PTA: $2,181; Cumulative: $21,612,000
8. Cold Pursuit (Lionsgate) – Week 3; Last weekend #6
$3,300,000 (-45%) in 2,320 theaters (-310); PTA: $1,422; Cumulative: $27,086,000
9. The Upside (STX)- Week 7; Last weekend #7
$3,210,000 (-45%) in 2,148 theaters (-633); PTA: $1,494; Cumulative: $99,749,000
10. Run the Race (Roadside Attractions)
$2,273,000 in 853 theaters; PTA: $2,665; Cumulative: $2,273,000