The world of Motion Picture Exhibition ground to a sudden halt last March when governments ordered theatres and other places of public gathering to close down in order to slow transmission of the deadly coronavirus. While all businesses were affected, perhaps none suffered severely than movie theatres and live entertainment venues.
In the 15 months since that initial shock, the industry has recovered slowly. The successful rollout of vaccines has bolstered public confidence in the safety of moviegoing, and a slate of new studio releases has given them a reason to return to the theatre. A significant new factor in post-pandemic moviegoing is the collapse of an exclusive theatrical window afforded to exhibitors. Many major studios – led by Warner Bros. and Disney – have chosen to make their new films available simultaneously, both to theatres but also on their company-owned streaming service. Universal has chosen to maintain an exclusive theatrical window but limit it to as little as 17 days. Other studios are still undecided on the best approach.
At Screendollars, we strive to keep our readers apprised of all critical developments on the road back to a healthy motion picture industry. Now at the halfway point in 2021, we feel that it is useful to compare the current year’s North American box office results to those from the same period in 2019. Because 2020 was such an unusual year, any comparison to last year’s numbers has limited value.
Comparing Q1/Q2 of 2021 with 2019
Not surprisingly, box office results at the beginning of 2021 were extremely weak in comparison to those from the beginning of 2019. The Q1 2019 box office reached only 11% of the grosses generated during Q1 2019. The national vaccination rollout did not pick up steam until February, and studios and theatre owners were tentative in restarting film releases and re-opening theatres. Most notably, Regal Cinemas chose to sit out the quarter and many smaller exhibitors followed suit. Only 35% of North American theatres were operating at the beginning of the quarter, growing modestly to 55% by the end of the quarter. Studios continued to postpone release dates for important titles, resetting to safer playdates later in the year. Even though capacity restrictions were still in effect in most locations, these limits had little effect on actual ticket sales since demand from moviegoers remained anemic.
Q2 2021 showed dramatic improvement, with results reaching 25% of the level reaching in Q2 2019. Godzilla vs. Kong debuted on 3/31, kicking off a much stronger slate of studios releases during the quarter. Q2’s top three openers were Universal’s F9: The Fast Saga, earning $70M during its opening weekend from 6/25-6/27, Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II, with $47M from 5/28-5/30, and Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs King Kong, with $48M from 3/31-4/4 (5 days). By comparison, a string of blockbuster openings animated the Q2 2019 box office, including Avengers Endgame ($355M, Toy Story 4 ($119M), and Aladdin ($90M). The widespread rollout of vaccines boosted ticket sales, as did the re-opening of theatres at AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and most independent exhibitors. At the end of Q2, 80% of North American theatres had re-opened. Overall, the first 6 months of 2021 produced 19% of the box office generated during the same period in 2019.
The grosses from 2019 represent the benchmark on the chart, and fill up all three colors in the dial. The grosses from 2021 are shown as a black line that cuts across the dial, indicating the percentage that 2021 grosses add up to in comparison with those generated during the same period in 2019. The colors on the dial indicate the likelihood of profitability for the exhibitor. Any amount less than 50% of 2019 will result in a probable loss for the exhibitor, an amount between 51% – 75% will have some chance of breaking even, and an amount greater than 75% will have a better chance of breaking even or turning a profit.
Now that Q3 has begun, the table is set for exhibitors to see further gains in climbing back towards profitability. Studios are scheduled to release a slate of films with wide commercial appeal, including Black Widow, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, Free Guy and Shang Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings. We will track how these compare with the 2019 Q3 openers Spiderman, Lion King, It 2, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Downton Abbey, and Good Boys
With earnings during the first half of 2021 only at 19% of those in same period from 2019, exhibitors still have a long way to travel on the road back to profitability. How long will exhibitors be able to operate at these dramatically reduced revenues before it causes retrenchment and re-organization by Distributors and Exhibitors? Stay tuned.