In recent years, the domestic box office has followed a cyclical pattern of ups and downs that probably keeps Hollywood executives awake at night. 2016 saw a record-setting $11.4 billion at the box office, but that was followed by a three-year low in 2017, accentuated by a weak (well, by Disney’s high standards) showing from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. “Why are fewer people going to the movies?” many wondered at the time. Was it the rise of streaming services like Netflix? There was barely enough time—or need—to answer, because that slump quickly reversed in 2018: With $11.9 billion in ticket sales, the box office bested 2016 and became the biggest North American year on record. Just as soon as it was in decline, the domestic box office—thanks to the likes of Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—was back. Again.
Given this recent pattern, are you willing to guess how the box office is faring in 2019 so far? Yep, it’s not great. January is typically a cold month for movies, a dumping ground for films that are too terrible or too weird—or, in the case of this year’s Serenity, both—to make the critical or commercial impact that studios were initially hoping for. There are, of course, January surprises, like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split in 2017 or Cloverfield in 2008, but generally, things get off to a slow start; it’s been the worst month at the box office every year since 2010.
But January 2019 was cause for concern because of just how off pace it was from 2018. The domestic box office gross was over 15 percent behind January of last year, according to Box Office Mojo. Last month had its modest successes: Shyamalan dropped Glass, which might’ve irked critics but did enough to gain almost $90 million domestically in January off a $20 million budget and have the fourth-highest January opening weekend of all time, and STX dramedy The Upside has made just over $85 million stateside. (Plus, Aquaman continued to feast, totaling $167.5 million through January.) Even with a tepid start to the year, there were small signs that the box office would jolt itself back into life in February, as it often does.
And yet, things remain bleak at the start of the month. This weekend’s release of The Lego Movie 2 was intended to reinvigorate the domestic box office—which usually comes to life post–Super Bowl—with analysts projecting a debut in the $55 million to $60 million range, slightly off the first Lego Movie’s nice $69 million total. The sequel won the box office this past weekend, but did so with a paltry $34.4 million—way off projections and roughly half as much as its predecessor. That the film still won the box office in a crowded release weekend paints a bleak picture: Every other new wide release netted under $20 million, with What Women Want ($19 million), Cold Pursuit ($10.8 million), and The Prodigy ($6 million) all having mediocre-to-terrible debuts.
The Lego Movie 2’s failure is especially disappointing, since the sequel remarkably lives up to its critically acclaimed predecessor and even drops some scathing takes about Chris Pratt’s post-2014, action-centric career in Hollywood. It’s sitting pretty with an 85 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. But the franchise seems to have shot itself in the foot by oversaturating the market. Warner Bros. released two Lego Movie spinoffs within seven months of each other in 2017, the first of which was excellent (The Lego Batman Movie) and the second of which was wholly forgettable (The Lego Ninjago Movie). Ninjago was the last impression the Lego Movie franchise made at the box office; perhaps the sequel, despite good reviews, suffered because of it.
The Lego Movie 2’s weak opening weekend isn’t the sole reason the domestic box office has had a slow start to the year, but it’s emblematic of what’s become a disconcerting trend. (Hollywood executives may be lying awake at night again.) Is the 2019 box office doomed to repeat the recent cycle and suffer another decline? There are reasons to be optimistic in the months ahead—but the concerns are legitimate.
Let’s start with the good news: It’s only February. We’ve got virtually all the biggest blockbuster releases from the calendar year still to come, including but not limited to: Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Detective Pikachu, Men in Black: International, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, It: Chapter 2, Joker, Frozen 2—and, oh yeah, another Star Wars movie at Christmas. These are highly anticipated releases that, more importantly, are tied to preexisting IP. Of the top 20 grossing domestic films of 2018, only two weren’t tied to some kind of existing property, and one of those movies was Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. The other? A Quiet Place. John Krasinski’s quasi-silent horror film was one of 2018’s biggest box office sensations, taking a simple premise—shut the hell up and plug in those noise-canceling headphones or CGI monsters will tear you limb from limb—to satisfying and highly lucrative returns in April.
A Quiet Place 2 isn’t happening this year (though, seriously, they are making a sequel), but there’s an obvious contender to take the Breakout Original Horror Hit throne in 2019: Us. Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Get Out checks all the boxes, and its arrival in March is sure to elicit a lot of buzz—if only because the comedian turned horror auteur has already amassed so much audience goodwill. There’s a decent chance that we’ll forget about February’s box office woes next month, thanks to films like Captain Marvel and Us.
Time for the bad news: The difference in box office gross between 2018 and 2019 is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Even though it seems like we’ve been talking about how awesome Black Panther is for years, it was only last February when it became one of the biggest box office phenomenons in North America ever. Ryan Coogler’s film made over $700 million and was the third-highest-grossing domestic movie of all time. While the rest of February 2019 isn’t entirely deprived of big releases, it’s impossible to expect my googly-eyed queen Alita: Battle Angel or How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World to make anywhere near the impact Black Panther did last year. These are not must-see movies; neither, it seems, is The Lego Movie 2.
Another reason to be concerned? The decline of MoviePass—even if its top brass is trying to Frankenstein it back to life as I type this out. The Hollywood Reporter gathered data last year that showed MoviePass subscriptions changed consumers’ moviegoing habits; people were more willing to go to the theater. (If you had MoviePass, you probably know what I’m talking about; I certainly wouldn’t have watched The Commuter otherwise.) That MoviePass has all but evaporated from the public consciousness—and that other subscription-style services haven’t garnered as much fanfare—might make a trip to the multiplex a bigger financial consideration for most people. MoviePass or not, a lot of folks were probably going to go see Black Panther and Infinity War; it’s the smaller to mid-budget movies—something like, say, Game Night—that might now get lost in the shuffle.
But this is a lot of conjecture. The domestic box office of 2019 could continue this recent, fickle pattern and produce another down year, or it could just take a little longer for everything to kick into high gear. It’s safe to say that nothing in the early months will live up to Black Panther; it’s also safe to say that once we get Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: Episode IX, the numbers will look very different. There is one constant, though: However the financial tides of the box office shift, IP-related content remains king.