More Hollywood Studios Start to Conceal Box Office Grosses

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures


In the latest twist, Searchlight Pictures didn't provide any numbers at all for 'Nomadland' when the Oscar hopeful expanded nationwide over the Feb. 19-21 weekend.

Imagine going to a baseball game, but no score was kept.

More and more Hollywood studios are concealing their box office grosses amid the pandemic and ongoing theater closures, saying they don't want to be unfairly judged for numbers that, in "normal" times, would be considered anywhere from tepid to abysmal.

In the latest twist, Searchlight Pictures didn't even send a Sunday note to the press when Chloé Zhao's Nomadland expanded into more than 1,100 theaters over the Feb. 19-21 weekend. The Oscar hopeful was the only new wide release of the frame after playing in select Imax theaters the three previous weekends (those numbers were also kept under wraps).

Ditto for A24, which didn't send a press note Sunday with any numbers for awards contender Minari, which is playing in roughly 140 locations.

Nomadland also debuted Feb. 19 on Hulu. As a result of the hybrid release, Searchlight insiders say the specialty label opted not to report box office grosses. The company stressed that the decision was Searchlight's, and not parent company Disney's.

Otherwise, major studios such as Universal, Disney (minus Searchlight) and Paramount have continued to report numbers in the normal transparent fashion throughout the pandemic. That includes Universal's specialty division, and Searchlight rival, Focus Features.

Box office reporting had become its own sport in recent decades. When COVID-19 struck, however, studios and indie distributors wanted to more carefully control the narrative. Also, they are borrowing a page from Netflix, which is infamous for not revealing box office numbers when it plays its films in cinemas during awards season, or at any other time of the year.

When Warner Bros. released Christopher Nolan's Tenet late last summer, the studio wouldn't let its rivals see the film's grosses on Comscore, a service that collects real-time ticket sales from theaters. Rather, Warners reported numbers to the press each Sunday (that same pattern has continued for all WB titles since, including Wonder Woman 1984, The Little Things and Judas and the Black Messiah).

Sony also started being secretive in terms of letting competitors see its Comscore numbers on opening weekends, but, like Warners, sends a note to the media on Sunday.

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, says he's sympathetic to the studios' concerns but ultimately believes transparency is the best course of action.

"To that end, any instances of studios withholding box office performances presents a conundrum," says Robbins. "It would be very concerning for such tactics to become part of the new normal as the industry rises back to its feet. At the end of the day, facts should always take precedence over controlled optics."

If rivals with some access to Comscore are right, Nomadland took in roughly $500,000 over the Feb. 19-21 weekend, putting it on par, or just behind  Focus' Land, at No. 7 or  No. 8.

Universal's The Croods: A New Age stayed atop the box office chart in its 13th weekend with $1.7 million for a domestic total of $50.9 million and a global total of $154 million. The animated family pic dropped a mere 18 percent.

Awards contenders The Little Things and Judas and the Black Messiah followed with an estimated $1.2 million and $905,000, respectively, in their third and second weekends. Both films are playing simultaneously on HBO Max, similar to the hybrid plan for Nomadland, and have seen relatively steep drops at the box office.

Wonder Woman 1984 followed with $805,000 domestically for a global total of $159.5 million, while Liam Neeson-starring action thriller The Marksman grew its domestic total to $11.5 million.

Currently, roughly 38 percent of cinemas are open in North America.

The biggest box office news was overseas, where theaters in China continued to rebound in a major way buoyed by the Lunar New Year holiday. Both Detective Chinatown 3 and Hi, Mom cleared the $600 million mark to join the country's top-grossing films of all time. Imax's share alone of DC3 is $33 million, and the film became the third highest-grossing local-language title ever in the giant screen format.