2020 Box Office: Domestic Revenue Falls to 40-Year Low

The Croods: A New Age
Universal Pictures/Photofest

Due to the pandemic, thousands of cinemas in North America have been dark for the better part of nine months, while those that have reopened are operating at dramatically reduced capacity.

Mid-December is usually a launching pad for yuletide-fueled holiday blockbusters. That isn't the case this year as Hollywood and theater owners grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and a virtual nine-month standstill in moviegoing that will result in the worst showing for domestic ticket sales in at least four decades.

Case in point: There were no new wide releases at the North American box office over the Dec. 11-13 weekend. Universal and DreamWorks Animation's The Croods: A New Age topped the chart for the third consecutive weekend with a mere $3.2 million — a veritable fortune during the pandemic — for a domestic total of $24.5 million.

Preliminary estimates show North American movie ticket sales for 2020 inching toward $2.3 billion. That would be the lowest showing since the early 1980s, if not the late 1970s, and that's before adjusting for inflation. Box-office tracking didn't begin in earnest until the early '80s, so sourcing is complicated, although the Motion Picture Association shows domestic revenue hitting $4 billion for the first time in 1984.

Presently, domestic revenue for 2020 stands at around $2.2 billion, according to Comscore. That's down roughly 80 percent from 2019, which ended up at $11.4 billion.

Foreign ticket sales are hovering around $9 billion, thanks to a full-blown recovery in Asian markets including China, Japan and South Korea. Last year, global ticket sales hit a record $42.5 billion; this time around, it will be down at least 70 percent.

Croods 2, for example, has passed up Mulan in China with a total gross of $46 million. That puts the animated movie's global total at $76.3 million through Sunday.

Warners Bros. and Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman 1984 hopes to serve as a major year-end rescue mission, despite being the first Hollywood tentpole to debut simultaneously in the U.S. on a streaming service (namely, HBO Max) as well as in cinemas that are open.

The superhero sequel, with returning Gal Gadot in the titular role, begins rolling out theatrically in key international markets Dec. 16 and Dec. 18 in China. That's followed by a Christmas Day debut in the U.S., where — similar to many European countries — there are widespread cinema reclosures because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Currently, 36 percent of U.S. indoor cinemas are in operation in the U.S, according to Comscore.

"As we head into the final two weeks of what has been the most asterisk-filled year in history, the industry continues to move slowly downfield in what has unfortunately turned into a cinematic game of inches toward the end-of-year goalpost that in 2019 saw a celebration of the biggest global revenue ever at the theatrical box office," says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

"The silver lining in this playbook is that when a vaccine is widely rolled out and theaters can reopen to a normal degree, cooped up consumers will embrace the big screen experience and theatrical exhibition will once again vanquish yet another in a series of challenges to face this most resilient and tenacious business over the years," he continued.

Warner Bros. and its parent company, WarnerMedia, left Hollywood reeling when announcing on Dec. 3 that it will shatter the theatrical widow and release its entire 2021 slate — including In the Heights, Dune and Suicide Squad 2 — simultaneously on HBO Max and in cinemas, similar to Wonder Woman 1984.

Over the summer, Universal infuriated the exhibition community at large when revealing that it had signed a landmark deal with AMC Theatres allowing a new 17-day window for premium video-on-demand titles. Arrangements with Cinemark and Canada's Cineplex soon followed. Warners, conversely, didn't make any deals with theater circuits before announcing its news.

Titles from Universal, including Croods 2 and a handful of films from specialty label Focus Feature, have been populating the box office chart in recent weeks as the other major Hollywood studios sit on the sidelines.

The main exception was Christopher Nolan's original tentpole Tenet, which Warners gave a traditional theatrical release in late summer and early September. (Tenet also never had a chance to play in Los Angeles and New York City, the country's two largest box office markets.)

Despite those hurdles, Tenet has earned $362.3 million to date globally, including $303.5 million overseas and $57.8 million domestically.

Nolan, a fierce ally of the cinematic experience, took the unusual step of blasting Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia for the decision to send the 2021 slate to HBO Max.

“Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing," Noland said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

Top executives at Warners counter that they are guaranteeing a steady supply of product for cinemas amid the ongoing pandemic, which they believe will extend well into next year in terms of moviegoing based on guidance from epidemiologists.