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Roughly 17 percent of ticket buyers to see Emma were 55 or older, and 14 percent for The Way Back, a drama about an alcoholic, washed-up basketball star who returns to coaching, according exit polling service PostTrak. Older consumers can often lay the foundation for an adult drama’s success at the box office (1917 and Little Women are two recent examples). In 2018, the latest year for which data is available, moviegoers 60 or older accounted for 15 percent of all ticket sold.
Now, however, the Centers for Disease Control is advising the elderly, as well as those groups with underlying medical conditions, to “avoid crowds” and, further, to “stay home as much as possible” should there be an outbreak in their communities. The agency says the elderly are twice as likely to develop a serious diseases if they catch the coronavirus.
The directive was quietly posted on the CDC’s website late last week, just as The Way Back and Emma were opening nationwide. It is the first occasion the U.S. government has suggested that any segment of the population limit their contact because of the coronavirus.
“Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like COVID-19 may increase in crowded, closed-in settings with little air circulation if there are people in the crowd who are sick,” states the CDC directive.
Across Hollywood, the CDC notice was circulated internally at the studios, which are bracing for a likely downturn in moviegoing in the weeks ahead. No theaters are presently closed in North America, unlike in China, Italy and parts of South Korea.
The CDC doesn’t define elderly populations by age group, but some experts consulting with the health agency say those over 60 should avoid going places where there are large concentrations of people, whether movie theaters, shopping malls, family gatherings or religious services (cruise ships are at the top of the list). They also note that those in their 70s and 80s are even more vulnerable.
The Way Back and Emma both opened in line with expectations — or an estimated $8.2 million and $7 million, respectively — making it difficult to determine whether the CDC advisory had any immediate impact, although 1917 and Little Women fell more than many holdovers.
Nor was there rampant evidence that the overall box office took a major hit in North of America because of general coronavirus worries. Pixar and Disney’s family animated offering Onward topped the chart with an estimated $39 million to $40 million. While that’s among the lowest starts ever for the Pixar brand, analysts say a review of various locales doesn’t show a dramatic downturn in moviegoing, an indication that the film itself had challenges.
“I’m not sure the theatrical business has been hit much yet. However, if the contagion factor ramps up in weeks to come, no doubt any event that caters to large groups of people in close proximity will take a hit,” says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “That’s why it’s no surprise to see many distributors acting in a proactive manner and moving their films towards what will hopefully be less turbulent times.”
Movies that have pushed back their releases in recent days include the James Bond installment No Time to Die starring Daniel Craig and the World War II drama Greyhound starring Tom Hanks.
The impact of COVID-19 is more clearly being felt overseas. Onward came in well behind projections with an underwhelming $28 million from its first 47 territories for a global bow of $68 million. Analysts say parts of Europe underperformed by as much as 25 percent, while some Asian markets were pacing nearly 50 percent below normal (that doesn’t include countries where cinemas are closed).
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