Every week, on Sunday evening, once Box Office Mojo releases its numbers, I write up the box office report for this beautiful site. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job, a summary of sorts for the previous seven days and a sliver of insight into Hollywood’s ever-tangled world. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a while since I’ve written a box office report for Pajiba. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, there hasn’t been much to document in terms of theater attendance and cinematic grosses.
While some American states are giving the go-ahead for some cinemas to reopen, albeit with heavy restrictions and that whole ‘going against the advice of scientists who know what they’re talking about’ thing, much speculation has occurred over what the box office of 2020 will look like. Many studios and distributors are hedging their bets that things will be back to normal by July, with Warner Bros. staking a major claim on the month by stridently refusing to move the release date of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. That’s been an exception to the release slate of 2020, as most major releases saw their openings pushed back to the end of the year or even to mid-2021. A few titles even became streaming exclusives as a result, including Disney’s $125 million adaptation of Artemis Fowl (although I think we all know that the decision to shove this movie onto Disney+ was probably somewhat welcome for them given the flop-in-waiting aura surrounding the film since that first trailer.)
Box Office Mojo stopped reporting numbers in March after theaters saw disastrous drops in attendance that hadn’t been witnessed in over 25 years. By now, we should have seen the release of major tentpole titles like Black Widow, Mulan, and No Time to Die. If the season had gone as intended for the big studios, we would have had at least two or three billion dollar grosses in the bag for Hollywood. Instead, we have a deeply curious top ten list of the highest-grossing movies of 2020 so far, one that merits some discussion.
As of the writing of this post, the highest-grossing movie of 2020 so far is Bad Boys for Life, a Sony title with over $419 million to its name. That’s a solid $13 million more than the second highest-grossing film, Sonic the Hedgehog. Robert Downey Jr. may have become a minor laughing stock with his gargantuan critical and commercial flop Dolittle (reported budget: $175 million) but with no real competition in its corner, it still takes third place, followed by Birds of Prey. Universal’s surprise hit reboot of The Invisible Man is arguably the biggest hit here in terms of return on investment thanks to its $125.8 million gross compared to its $7 million budget. Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen did solid business, outgrossing the nine-figure flop of Harrison Ford’s The Call of the Wild at number seven. Disney-Pixar’s Onward managed to bring in a solid $104 million before the company made it available on VOD and Disney+.
The most interesting additions to this list lay at numbers nine and ten. Tanhaji is a Hindi-language Indian drama about the life of Maratha warrior Tanaji Malusare that had next to no distribution outside of its homeland. Tolo Tolo is an Italian comedy by the actor-comedian Checco Zalone, the man behind the three highest-grossing Italian films in Italy. Neither of these films made over $55 million worldwide and they are more representative of local success than anything international. Still, they make the list. This is what happens when there are simply fewer titles to choose from but it remains a fascinating reminder of the world of cinema outside of the lend of Hollywood.
Of course, Hollywood is still very well represented here. Seven of the eight titles from the American studios are courtesy of the major industry power players, with Miramax proving to be an unusual exception. Yes, Miramax are back, and they’re currently out-grossing Disney! The House of Mouse saw record-breaking numbers last year thanks to their ultimate display of muscle-flexing that saw them claim 70% of the top ten of 2019. All of those movies grossed over $1 billion, not least the new highest-grossing movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame. They were never going to be able to top that triumph in 2020, but the contrast now seems ever more staggering. The Call of the Wild, released under the 20th Century banner (the removal of ‘Fox’ remains silly), was dumped in February and quickly written off as a flop. Many film fans were already curious as to how Disney would prioritize all these shiny new titles they acquired during the big Fox sale, and so far it seems like these movies are clearly playing second fiddle to Disney’s own IPs.
The problem with looking at box office numbers during lockdown is that the months we have to dissect aren’t especially representative of the theatrical release mold as a whole. January and February are notoriously the dumping ground of major studios, a few notable exceptions like Black Panther aside. No studio wants their film to flop but a January/February release date still signals a level of pessimism in its potential success, especially when the movie in question has a nine-figure budget. Dolittle may seem like a hit sitting at number three of the year’s highest-grossing movies but taking in $223 million on an alleged budget of $175 million is as big a failure as they come in Hollywood.
Mostly, what this peculiar top ten list does is remind me of how Hollywood has become too big to fail. We’ve entered this odd stage of entertainment where some movies must gross at least a billion dollars just to break even, and making anything less than $500 million isn’t worth bothering with. It’s not enough to make some of the money — you have to bring in all of the money, no questions asked. Even when there isn’t a literal pandemic going on, it’s a terrifying and deeply risky strategy, one that even some of the biggest power players in the industry can’t participate in. There’s little room for non-franchise fare in this model, another reason that the current top ten is so fascinating. Even with lower numbers and lower stakes, familiar titles, sequels, and big-name IPs still dominate.
It’s not impossible to imagine a world where there are no new theatrical releases in 2020, but it currently seems unlikely that Hollywood will be so cautious. If the fall season arrives with no roadblocks then the list will drastically change as audiences finally get a chance to see titles like Black Widow and No Time to Die. Still, billions of dollars will be lost this year and that will greatly impact the film industry in the long-term. When Hollywood is too big to fail, what happens next?
Header Image Source: YouTube // Sony