2019 Box Office: Here’s What Worked and What Didn’t

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Thanks to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which raked in $32 million on Christmas Day, the 2019 domestic box office will end the year on a celebratory note. But it still won’t be enough to compete with 2018’s record haul.

North American ticket sales for 2019 are expected to total approximately $11.4 billion, according to data firm Comscore. That’s a dip of about 4% from 2018’s record-setting $11.88 billion. We won’t know the exact numbers until the box office numbers for the final two days of the year are tabulated.

With the onslaught of new streaming services competing for moviegoers’ attention (such as Disney+), a 4% year-to-year drop isn’t so bad—especially considering 2018 was a record-setting year.

“When you’re trying to go up against a record year, almost every movie has to perform,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore senior media analyst.

Unfortunately, 2019 had its fair share of clunkers.

With 2020 almost upon us, it’s time to review what worked at the 2019 box office and what didn’t.

Disney ruled the roost

Any way you frame it, Disney dominated the box office in 2019. The studio accounted for an unprecedented 33% of ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada. If you include movies from 20th Century Fox and its specialty arm Fox Searchlight, which Disney acquired in March, the company’s North American market share is a whopping 38%.

With a record six films topping $1 billion each worldwide in 2019, Disney became the first studio ever to surpass $10 billion at the worldwide box office.

Even more impressive, it broke that record even before its latest release, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker took in $177 million in North America during its opening weekend of Dec. 20. Through Dec. 29, the final installment in the Skywalker saga has reached $361.8 million domestically, with little sign of slowing down.

Avengers Endgame Marvel Characters
L to R: Hawkeye/Clint Barton, War Machine/James Rhodey, Iron Man/Tony Stark, Captain America/Steve Rogers, Nebula, Rocket, Ant-Man/Scott Lang and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff in “Avengers: Endgame.”
Marvel Studios/Disney

Disney earned bragging rights to the top five top-grossing movies domestically this year: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Captain Marvel, and Frozen II. Then there’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Aladdin, which rank in the top 10.

“For Disney, 2019 is the pinnacle,” says Dergarabedian. “I don’t know that any other studio, including Disney, will be able to replicate a $10 billion global year. It’s an outlier for any studio to have that big of a year.”

That said, even Disney had a few misfires in 2019, including Dumbo, Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the animated classic. A number of Fox titles Disney inherited as part of its $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox also disappointed, including Dark Phoenix, Stuber, and The Art of Racing in the Rain.

The only Fox film that gained traction at the 2019 box office was Ford v. Ferrari, the high-velocity drama starring Academy Award-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale, which continues to perform at the box office. Disney’s specialty unit Searchlight had a couple of standout box office performers, including the horror film Ready or Not and Taika Waititi’s Nazi Germany-set satire JoJo Rabbit. Lucy in the Sky, the science fiction drama starring Natalie Portman, never took off.

There was no shortage of box office disappointments

For every mega-successful movie in 2019, there was a handful of box office disappointments. Audiences rejected a trio of high-profile adaptations of award-winning books: Motherless Brooklyn, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, and The Goldfinch.

Warner Bros. suffered more than its share of box office disappointments. In addition to The Goldfinch and Motherless Brooklyn, a number of the studio’s releases fizzled in theaters: The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, YA adaptation The Sun is Also a Star, Sundance hit Blinded by the Light, a Shaft reboot, and The Kitchen, the heist thriller starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish.

Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker in Warner Bros. Pictures and Amazon Studios drama, “The Goldfinch.”
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Most recently, despite largely positive reviews, Richard Jewell turned out to be a box office buzzkill, becoming director Clint Eastwood’s weakest opening in four decades. Earning a meager $5 million in its first weekend, Richard Jewell marks the eighth Warner Bros. film of 2019 to earn less than $10 million in its debut.

Some franchises showed signs of softening in 2019 with audiences largely ignoring Dark Phoenix, the latest in the X-Men series. Other much anticipated sequels that disappointed include Terminator: Dark Fate, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and Men in Black: International.

Every studio had at least one hit

Despite a slew of disappointments in 2019, Warner Bros. ended the year with 14% of the market share at the domestic box office. It was buoyed by Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker, which became the first and only R-rated release to cross $1 billion worldwide ever. The film’s relatively lean $55 million production budget has already been recouped as Warner Bros. laughs all the way to the bank with a global box office of $1.06 billion.

With nearly 14% of the market share for 2019, Universal had a decent year, thanks to a diverse slate, including strong performers such as Beatles-centric Yesterday, raunchy comedy Good Boys, Jordan Peele’s Us, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and Hobbs & Shaw, the latest in the successful Fast and Furious franchise.

On the downside: Cats, Tom Hooper’s excoriated screen adaptation of the Broadway show, cost a staggering $100 million to make (not including marketing expenses) and only took in $6.5 million in its opening weekend at North American theaters.

Universal’s specialty label Focus Features scored with biopic Harriet and Downton Abbey, the big-screen adaptation of the beloved period TV series, which ended its run in 2015. The film far exceeded the studio’s expectations and there’s already talk of a sequel.

DOWNTON ABBEY
Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and in “Downton Abbey.”
Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Sony scored big in 2019 with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, one of the few original films (not based on existing intellectual property) to attract audiences at theaters. The studio also benefited from Spiderman: Far from Home and Jumanji: The Next Level, both of which exceeded box office expectations.

Paramount aimed big and failed with Ang Lee’s ambitious Gemini Man, which relied on CGI to pit young Will Smith against older Will Smith. The studio fared better with Elton John biopic Rocketman, its sole standout for the year. With a reported production budget of $40 million, the crowd-pleasing film grossed $195 million at the global box office.

Lionsgate bounced back from a weak 2018 with strong performances from John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and Knives Out, a star-studded, original whodunit from director Rian Johnson, which continues to draw audiences to theaters.

STX Entertainment had a strong year at the box office, thanks to Hustlers, a surprise hit starring Jennifer Lopez as a scheming stripper in a performance that may earn her an Oscar nod.

Amazon Studios theatrical plans faltered with weak showings for Sundance acquisitions Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon, which disappointed at the box office.

Independent film distributor Neon scored with Bong Joon-Ho’s thriller Parasite, which has passed the $20 million mark at the domestic box office, becoming the highest grossing foreign-language film in North America released in 2019 and the highest grossing Korean film ever to be released in North America.

Audiences still want original movies

Though the vast majority of the top-grossing films at the 2019 domestic box office were based on existing IP (established brands such as sequels, superhero films or comic books), there were some original standouts.

Among the original films released in 2019, Us, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Knives Out, Rocketman, Yesterday, and Ford v. Ferrari were generally well reviewed and also succeeded at the box office.

“There’s a lot of original content available everywhere these days, which means the movies that are released in theaters must have that ‘must see’ vibe going for them,” says Dergarabedian. “People want original content, but they want something familiar at the same time. The marketing has to grab you and draw you right to the movie theater.”

Looking onwards to 2020

It’s likely that next year’s box office grosses won’t equal 2019’s take. The studio lineup features fewer mega-blockbusters. Paramount will have Top Gun: Maverick and Warner Bros should do well with Wonder Woman 1984. Universal is counting on the 25th installment in the Bond series, A Time to Die, as well as Minions: The Rise of Gru, and a new Fast and Furious movie.

Disney’s got a few big films slated for next year, including a live-action remake of Mulan and Marvel’s Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson.

But nothing on the calendar is expected to reach Avengers: Endgame heights.

The final installment in the Marvel Studios series, Avengers: Endgame grossed nearly $2.8 billion worldwide, toppling Avatar (not adjusted for inflation).

Industry experts agree that this year was a perfect storm for Disney and it’s highly unlikely the studio will continue its command of the box office.

“Disney owned the box office in 2019,” Dergarabedian. “The wealth is going to be more evenly spread out amongst the studios in 2020.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Aldis Hodge on going to “that dark place” for death row drama Clemency
—From Hellboy to Charlie’s Angels: The biggest box office disappointments of 2019
Little Women director Greta Gerwig and cast reveal how they reinvented a feminist classic
—How Netflix transformed the peak TV terrain in the 2010s
—Why these high-profile book adaptations bombed at the box office in 2019
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