‘Joker’ Will Be Wild, but It Cannot Save the Box Office for 2019

There's still a good chance box office could end the year only slightly down, but it will require winning almost every week.
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

For box-office pundits, we’re in something of a gratitude moment. Three new films — “Downton Abbey,” “Hustlers,” “Ad Astra” — provided a rare week, one that earned $40 million more than the same week last year. And October 3 brings Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which has already boosted anticipation, if not anxieties.

So with that optimism established, is it still possible that we could banish the deficit and match the box-office performance of 2018? Short answer: Unlikely.

Here’s why:

“Joker” is not enough

Grosses at the moment are down about $500 million from 2018, or 5.7%. In addition to last weekend’s new releases, “It: Chapter 2” gave numbers a boost.

But for 2019 to achieve par, every week from here on out would needs to average $35 million more than its 2018 equivalent. That won’t happen with this weekend’s single new wide release, DreamWorks Animation’s “Abominable;” it’s expected to open under $30 million.

Then there’s “Joker,” which could open as high as $125 million and crush the record for the biggest-ever October opening. (Current recordholder is “It” in 2017, which opened to $80 million.) However, it won’t come close to that $35 million surplus: Last year, “Venom” opened the first week of October to $80 million, and “A Star Is Born” grossed $43 million. That equals the high-end guess for “Joker.”

And for “Joker” to equal the combined total of “Venom” and “A Star Is Born,” it would need to gross $428 million. That would place it ahead of all but four D.C. Comics titles: the original 1989 “Batman,” Christopher Nolan’s two “Dark Knight” films, and the 1978 “Superman.” It would also would need to be the second-highest grossing R-rated film this century (“The Passion of the Christ” leading the way in adjusted grosses).

"Bohemian Rhapsody"
“Bohemian Rhapsody”20th Century Fox

October-November brings hope

Last year saw “Halloween” in October, then openings for”Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Grinch,” and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” This year could suggest improvement.

On paper, there’s one title that looks potentially huge during this period: Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” on October 18. In 2014, the franchise-starter grossed around $250 million. It will be the first Disney-brand film in three months; with the full force of the studio, it stands a good chance to equal its total.

But what this period really has is a total of 22 wide releases, compared with 14 last year. That’s eight more chances at bat, and quantity alone could increase business.

"Frozen 2"
Frozen 2Disney

The two biggest Thanksgiving 2018 releases — “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Creed 2” — totaled about $225 million. Thanksgiving 2019 brings “Frozen 2;” the original grossed an adjusted $440 million and this sequel could do the same.

The holiday also will see Sony release the Mr. Rogers biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The Tom Hanks starrer is not a guaranteed hit, with the children TV show host’s story already covered in last year’s successful documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  It looks like an awards contender, but will it be a must-see? Hanks’ high end in live-action films over the last decade is “Sully” in 2016, which grossed $125 million.

Bottom Line: Through November, we could see improvement over last year of potentially $200 million.

"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"
Star Wars: The Rise of SkywalkerDisney/YouTube

Christmas is the great unknown

Five December openers last year (led by “Aquaman” at $335 million) ultimately topped $100 million, though the DC Comics film was the only one to pass $200 million. (Of note: YTD totals do not include the often-significant numbers that accrue after Dec. 31, so-late 2019 releases have a little less impact on the total.)

This year sees eight releases that are expected to be on screen the last week of the year, compared to 10 last year. However, the 2018 list included two duds (“Mortal Engines,” “Welcome to Marwen”), so the 20% drop in volume may be trivial.

Among the titles are awards contenders like “Little Women” and “Bombshell,” but the serious box-office possibilities contain many open questions: Will “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” rebound after the disappointment of “Solo”? Will “Cats” replicate the $440 million-plus achieved by “Les Miserables”? Can “Jumanji: The Next Level” approach the $400 million of the series reboot?

Bottom line: A $100-million improvement seems doable.

Prognosis: Very cautious optimism

Last year, box office grossed $11.9 billion. For 2019, my best estimate is $11.7 billion — an annual drop of 1.7%, which would represent a terrific improvement over the shortfall we experienced much of the year.

Now, here’s the bad news: While 2019 saw Disney alone release five films grossing over $350 million, 2020 suggests less potential. While 2019 saw three major Marvel releases that grossed a combined $1.68 billion, Marvel 2020 brings only two, with “Black Widow” and “The Eternals.” Instead of “Lion King” ($538 million), we have a live-action “Mulan.” Of course, there’s so much in the next year that remains to be seen, but a strong finish in 2019 could make next year’s drop seem even more precipitous.

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