Periodically, I check in on the winners and losers of the box office, but 2020 has obviously been a very different year. Not only was the world rocked by a pandemic, but the pandemic disproportionately affected movie theaters, which led to an absolute bloodbath at the box office in 2020. Here were the winners and (mostly) losers.
Loser: The Box Office itself — The box-office was not only down 80 percent compared to 2019 ($2.3 billion compared to $11 billion in 2019), but it was literally the worst year at the box office in 40 years, since 1980 when there were only three films that topped $100 million (Empire Strikes Back, 9 to 5 and Stir Crazy). There are some glimmers of hope that the box office might start to recover in the summer, but until the vaccine is distributed widely, it’s probably going to continue to be another long year, one in which we will have to readjust our expectations for months where it concerns box-office figures. There are not going to be any $200 million openings for a while.
Loser: Movie Theaters — No box office means that theaters themselves were shellacked in 2020. The two largest theater chains, AMC and Regal, have only narrowly averted bankruptcy, so far. The bigger problem, however, may be smaller and independent theaters, many of which may file bankruptcy or never reopen. It’s going to hasten the demise of those smaller theaters that screen arthouse films. Once the pandemic is over, most of those are not likely coming back.
Winner: Art House and Mid-Budget Films — Although they won’t have movie theaters to screen in, those art-house and mid-budget films are not going away; they’re pivoting to the streaming platforms, which is a more suitable place for many of them anyway. The last movie I saw in theaters, in fact, was Ben Affleck’s The Way Back, a $25 million film about a basketball coach with addiction issues. That movie would have actually been perfect home viewing — it wouldn’t have lost much if it’d be watched on the small screen. There will be a lot of those movies that will move to Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and Disney over the next few years. Expect to see a lot of big stars who are not attached to superhero movies — George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lopez — appear with some frequency on streaming networks instead of movie theaters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if we get a Netflix sequel to The Accountant.
Too Early to Say: Warner Brothers — Warner Brothers has been manuevering more than other studios during the pandemic. They tried to peg the return of the box office to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and while the film managed a decent $364 million worldwide on a $200 million budget, only $57 million of that came from the United States, and even then, it took 100 days to get there. The fizzling of Tenet, meanwhile, prompted Warner Brothers to make the decision to release its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and HBO Max. While that sounded like an iffy idea, Wonder Woman 1984 had the biggest opening weekend of the pandemic (opening with $16.7 million over Christmas weekend) and nearly half of HBO Max subscribers watched it on Christmas Day. On the other hand, Warner Brothers may have burned bridges with the likes of Christopher Nolan and Legendary Films.
Winner: Disney+ — The Disney parks may have been shut down, and 2020 is the first year without a Marvel movie since 2008, but Disney had plenty to cheer about when it came to Disney+, which grew its subscriber base from 28 million subs in February to a whopping 86.8 million by December. It still has a ways to go to catch up to Netflix (190 million), but its massive back catalog along with a few new series features (like The Mandalorian) have quickly propelled it to the third biggest streamer in the United States (and growing) in just over a year. Expect those numbers to continue to rise once Disney begins releasing all the projects it has in the pipeline.
Winners: Bad Boys for Life and Sonic the Hedgehog — By opening before the pandemic, Bad Boys for Life and Sonic the Hedgehog were able to stake out the #1 and #2 spots at the box office in 2020 early on and hang on to those leads all year long. In fact, the third highest-grossing film of the year, Birds of Prey, was seen as a disappointment at the time, but perhaps the $84 million domestic tally (and $201 million worldwide number) may be looked upon more favorably in retrospect, particularly if Birds of Prey also gained a sizable following on HBO Max.
Unclear: Universal Studios — While Disney held mostly firm, and while Warner Brothers decided to release its movies onto HBO Max in 2021, Universal chose a route somewhere in the middle of each approach. They struck a deal with AMC theaters to shatter the theatrical window, reducing it to 17 days before making their films available PVOD. It’s still unclear how well that will work, although The Croods: A New Age brought in a respectable $34 million (and $101 worldwide) before being made available for digital purchase, where it’s been the top film since its PVOD release three weeks ago.
Finally, here are the 10 highest grossing movies since the pandemic began in earnest in mid-March.
1. Tenet — $57 million
2. Wonder Woman 1984 — $30 million (estimated)
3. The New Mutants — $23 million
4. Unhinged — $20 million
5. The War with Grandpa — $18 million
6. Honest Thief — $14 million
7. Come Play — $9.5 million
8. Let Him Go — $9.3 million
9. Freaky — $8.7 million
10. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run — $4.8 million