Is Marvel on Team Avengers, or Team Thanos? The question verges on apostasy, but it has to be asked when faced with the projected opening for “Avengers: Endgame.” Not only is it expected to beat the $257 million (adjusted) opening for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), but domestic projections are a staggering $300 million (or higher!) as some theaters run round-the-clock shows. However, it doesn’t prove that exhibitors are no longer under siege; it’s more like a tsunami that washes away enemy troops… and most of the city along with it.
It Will Only Make a Dent in the Box Office
Through Monday, 2019 total domestic box office totals about a little over $2.9 billion. Through the same date last year, it was $3.5 billion. Certainly, this weekend will represent an improvement — but only a slight one. Led by “Infinity War,” the same weekend last year grossed $314 million, for one of the best weekends of 2018.
The holdovers this weekend (nothing else is opening) should make somewhere around $56 million — about the same as the non-“Avengers” films made last year. So in terms of paying off our box-office debt, everything comes down to how wildly this movie can overperform. Chances are, at most, it will be 15%. If so, the year-to-date drop would fall from 16% to 14%. That’s the right direction, but hard to call it a comeback.
“Avengers” success comes at a cost for theaters
Presuming it’s a record-smashing hit, “Endgame” will accelerate several trends that hurt theaters. These include:
Higher film rentals. Studios and theater chains have individual deals, but bigger-grossing films mean studios receive a higher return on the gross. That means 15 films that gross $50 million each will make more money for theaters than one that grosses< $750 million. And of course when a handful of films become essential, a distributor can demand even more.
Greater dependence on presold event films. This reinforces the dangerous, and increasingly common, audience instinct to stay with the familiar. It also makes efforts in related genres vulnerable: How can they compete? We’ve seen this repeatedly in recent months with disappointing or worse performances for “Alita: Battle Angel,” “Mortal Engines,” and “Hellboy.”
Creating a filmgoing monoculture. By Sunday, nearly 60% of the gross for 2019 will come from films that are sequels, franchises, horror or based on comic books. Compare that to the far more varied offerings on broadcast TV, cable, or streaming venues.
More event films means fewer releases overall. With studios investing more of their budgets in the biggest films, that means fewer films and more bad box-office weekends, and a further decline in moviegoing habits. Theaters are 7/52/365 businesses, and the same costs are there even when the movies are not.
Disney has all the Infinity Stones
A few weeks after Disney closed its deal to buy 20th Century Fox, the company stands poised to have the two dominant releases so far this year. (Three, when you include the disappointing “Dumbo.”) Last year, Disney and Fox combined comprised 35% of the gross; this year, the combined entity should end up around the same or higher. That’s unprecedented in the history of film distribution. A major theater circuit can’t function without being on good terms with Disney, and Disney is uniquely positioned to dictate those terms.