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‘Onward’ Leads a Weak Box-Office Weekend, and Coronavirus Isn’t to Blame

Without Marvel this weekend, box-office totals will fall below 2019 — and that’s what makes sudden moves like the Bond movie so dangerous.

"Onward"

“Onward”

Disney/Pixar

The coronavirus postponement of Bond film “No Time to Die” is the box-office story of the moment, one that could augur future blockbuster shifts. (Looking at you, “Mulan.”) At a minimum, it wreaks a measure of havoc on the release calendar: Other films stayed away from its original date, and now it will open during the highly competitive Thanksgiving holiday period. The risks to studio and theater revenues show how a virus could upend an industry.

However, this weekend also brings a near certainty: Box office should easily fall short of $140 million, pushing the year-to-date number below 2019 for the first time. Last year, “Captain Marvel” accounted for about 75 percent of the business for a weekend total of $211 million. That makes keeping the release schedule steady even more important for theaters.

Meanwhile, this weekend’s top releases are proceeding as we head into spring break and Easter over the next few weeks. Few brands are as prime as Pixar, which makes “Onward” a particularly welcome entry for this time of year.

Pixar titles almost always open in summer or around the late-year holidays. A March date can lead to assumptions — not necessarily accurate — that it is a “lesser” effort. However, Disney placed “Captain Marvel” on the same date last year; it opened to a massive $155 million.

This should open at the lower end of Pixar releases, in the range of $40 million-$50 million. That’s good for most March films, and better than many animated titles (again, these tend not to be the studios’ A+ titles). But Walt Disney Animations’ “Zootopia” in 2016 soared above $75 million. Among family films, Disney’s live-action remakes sometimes debut to over $100 million (a key reason they chose the end of the month for “Mulan”).

“Onward” is more of a fantasy story than most of the company’s contemporary tales. Two teen elf brothers have the opportunity to bring their father back to life with a magic spell, but when it leaves Dad half-finished, they go on a quest to complete the task. The usual distinctive voices include Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, and Octavia Spencer.

This sits at the very low end of positive for Pixar in reviews (only 62 at Metacritic). In its favor is early-March positioning that should allow the film to hold its theaters for weeks. And if more films delay their releases, it’s already won by opening.

“The Way Back”

Not projected to be a winner is “The Way Back” (Warner Bros.), with an expected start of under $10 million. It shouldn’t be confused with the Peter Weir Russian-gulag film of the same name that started Colin Farrell and Ed Harris. (MPAA members are barred from reusing titles, but that 2010 film was an independent production.) Here, Ben Affleck stars in a close-to-home story of an alcoholic construction worker who goes back to his high school to coach its basketball team. The actor is generating strong notices, but the $25 million-budgeted film ranks in the mildly favorable range for reviews overall.

“The Way Back” is the latest in a series of dramas with mid-range budgets, few of which have performed. (The star-driven “Just Mercy” represents a breakout at $36 million.) Its director is Gavin O’Connor, who after his Sundance debut “Tumbleweeds” went on to similar films with varying success like “Pride,” “Pain and Glory,” and “The Accountant,” the last also with Affleck.

"Emma."

“Emma.”

Focus

Expanding this weekend into 1,500 theaters after two weeks of more limited play, “Emma” (Focus) hopes to replicate some of the interest in classic female-driven novels that took Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” to over $100 million domestic. This is a smaller-scaled project, without the star power that elevated the Louisa May Alcott adaptation. Focus usually has success with this kind of platform release (“On the Basis of Sex” and “Victoria and Abdul” are two recent examples.) Often the key here is reaching enough people so word of mouth can keep it afloat for weeks. Anywhere from $3 million-$5 million seems possible for the weekend.

Among holdovers, the most interest will be in how well “The Invisible Man” holds for Universal. It opened to $28.2 million and it will reach $40 million by Friday, terrific for the $7 million Blumhouse production. For the second weekend, $15 million would be decent.

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