LOS ANGELES — Cue the sad trombone: Movie ticket sales in the United States and Canada will total roughly $11.45 billion for the year, a 4 percent decrease from 2018.
That preliminary estimate, released by Comscore on Sunday, took into account the $175.5 million collected by “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (Disney) over the weekend. “Rise of Skywalker” got off to a soft start compared to “The Last Jedi,” which took in $220 million over its first few days in domestic theaters in 2017.
Hollywood’s 2019 lineup included one behemoth fantasy after another, including “Frozen II” (Disney), “The Lion King” (Disney), “Toy Story 4” (Disney), “Aladdin” (Disney), “Captain Marvel” (Disney) and “Avengers: Endgame” (Disney), which broke attendance records.
But moviegoers also rejected an astounding amount of what Hollywood served up.
Tom Hooper’s critically reviled “Cats” collapsed over the weekend, collecting $6.5 million at North American theaters after costing roughly $100 million to make, not including marketing expenses. At Hooper’s request, Universal sent theaters a version of “Cats” with slight special effects improvements over the weekend. Ticket buyers gave “Cats” a C-plus grade in CinemaScore exit polls.
Nine movies from Warner Bros. stumbled out of the gate, including “The Goldfinch,” “The Kitchen,” “Shaft,” “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Richard Jewell,” which gave Clint Eastwood his worst opening weekend as a filmmaker in four decades.
“It’s hard to know if this is a secular, permanent phenomenon related to audience viewing habits or movie title-specific,” said David Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy.
The movie business is cyclical, and ending the year a few hundred million dollars behind 2018 is hardly a catastrophe — not when theaters are competing with a fast-growing array of streaming services. One of the most discussed films of the year, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” largely bypassed theaters, playing instead on Netflix. “The Irishman” and two other Netflix films, “Marriage Story” and “The Two Popes” were showered with Golden Globe nominations. Those three films are also seen as major Oscar contenders.
Just four percent down? At a time when the “Star Wars” franchise expanded into live-action television for the first time with “The Mandalorian” on Disney Plus?
“Hallelujah,” you can almost hear film executives saying.
Joe Drake, the chairman of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said the competition for intellectual property and talent “is more heated than ever, but we doubled our box office this year and increased our market share.”
Lionsgate found success by deploying Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” Gerard Butler in “Angel Has Fallen,” Tyler Perry in “A Madea Family Funeral” and a bevy of stars in “Knives Out.” (Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron couldn’t save the Lionsgate comedy “Long Shot” from living up to its title, however.)
To compete in theaters, non-franchise films have to be definitive — what Drake called “great stories well told that announce themselves.” “Knives Out,” starring Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas, did not bring anything particularly new — it’s an old-fashioned whodunit — but it was a perfectly executed example of the genre.
“We genuinely believe that there is a false narrative about midrange movies,” Drake said. “They are not going extinct.”
But if a movie has flaws, there is no longer a floor. No amount of marketing hocus-pocus could convince people that “The Sun Is Also a Star,” a middling romantic comedy starring Yara Shahidi (“grown-ish”), was worth the hassle and expense of trekking to a theater.
Every studio ended the year with a few hits, including Warner, which struck a cultural nerve with “Joker” ($1.1 billion worldwide). Jennifer Lopez and her savvy stripper friends (“Hustlers,” $157 million) propped up STX. “Rocketman” ($195 million) helped Paramount return to annual profitability for the first time in memory. Jordan Peele’s cerebral horror film “Us” ($255 million), Danny Boyle’s Beatles-oriented “Yesterday” ($151 million) and the “Fast and Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” ($759 million) kept Universal competitive.
When all ticket sales are counted, Sony Pictures is expected to be the only studio — aside from Disney — to land two movies in the top 10. “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” riding on “Avengers” coattails, collected $391 million in North America and $1.13 billion worldwide. “Jumanji: The Next Level,” released on Dec. 13, is performing like “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which earned $404 million at domestic theaters in 2017. Sony also struck gold with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” ($372 million worldwide).
“This year was dominated by major franchises, but we’ve also seen the hunger for original content,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, citing Tarantino’s comedic drama as an example.
Even so, calling the film business healthy would be a stretch.
The box office is increasingly divided into haves — franchises, mostly aging ones — and have-nots (everything else). Studios churned out a whopping 58 franchise films this year, which consumed 82 percent of the worldwide Hollywood box office, according to Gross’s film consultancy. Eighty-one non-franchise films got the scraps.
Some franchises declined sharply. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” was down 51 percent from its series predecessor. “Terminator: Dark Fate” fell 41 percent.
“Story lines need to move forward, and worlds need to expand,” Gross said. “New characters and conflicts need to emerge.”
Because moviemaking relies on personal judgment calls, studios try to reduce risk by adhering to rules of thumb. But few choices seem safe anymore.
Original animation used to be a relatively sure bet. This year, mythical creatures (“Missing Link”), an amusement park run by talking animals (“Wonder Park”) and a fox named Swifty (“Arctic Dogs”) got the cold shoulder.
Stephen King sequels are hot (“It: Chapter 2”). Until they’re not (“Doctor Sleep”).
“The market is still very dynamic, but what works is more unpredictable,” said Stephen Gilula, the co-chairman of Fox Searchlight. “The costs have gone up, and the success rate has gone down.”
Searchlight, the Disney-owned art film studio, scored with the summertime horror flick “Ready or Not” ($29 million). Taika Waititi’s “JoJo Rabbit,” a Nazi satire, has earned $20 million and could generate another $5 million to $10 million based on its awards fate. But Searchlight had a very quiet year over all. “Lucy in the Sky” ($320,000), starring Natalie Portman, was an outright flop. Frequent contributors like Wes Anderson were between films.
Between January and Aug. 25, combined ticket sales for the 20 largest art film distributors — Fox Searchlight, Magnolia and the like — fell 45 percent from the same period last year, according to Box Office Mojo data.
A handful of art house offerings ultimately managed to get noticed, including Lulu Wong’s China-set family drama “The Farewell” ($18 million), the elevated A24 horror film “Midsommar” ($27 million), the quirky Huck Finn-style tale “The Peanut Butter Falcon” ($21 million) and Bong Joon Ho’s genre-defying “Parasite” ($21 million).
For the third year running, Focus Features topped the specialty box office. The Universal Pictures subsidiary saw films like “Downton Abbey” ($97 million) and “Harriet” ($42 million) over-perform in ways that seemed to startle even the studio.
“We always thought there would be an excited core audience for ‘Harriet,’ those who have a natural interest in an American icon who shockingly had never had her life story told onscreen,” said Peter Kujawski, the chairman of Focus Features. “But it crossed well past that core audience and broke into the broader culture.”
“Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, may also figure into the coming Oscar race. Cynthia Erivo, who stars in the film as Harriet Tubman, is a favorite for a best actress nomination.