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Momentum Killed: Taking Stock of a Rough Two-Month Stretch of Movies

The first months of 2019 have been defined by tepid reviews and unmet expectations. Is it too late to turn things around and regain the form of last year?

Stills of Alita: Battle Angel,’ ‘The Lego Movie 2,’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ Dreamworks/20th Century Fox/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

While we celebrated the best that 2018 had to offer in cinema—and also Green Book—at the Oscars on Sunday night, the box office is still waiting to come to life in 2019. As CBS reported Monday, the domestic box office is down nearly 28 percent from where it was at this point last year. If the February box office were to close today, the total domestic gross would sit at a paltry $596 million, the lowest for the month since 2002. By comparison, February 2018 brought in over a billion dollars, led by the record-breaking success of Black Panther, which wound up netting the third-highest domestic gross of all time.

No disrespect to Alita: Battle Angel, The Lego Movie 2, or How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, but none of the major studio releases from this month are Black Panther levels of big. The Lego Movie 2 opened to nearly half its initial weekend projection ($34 million compared with an expected $69 million) and has yet to surpass $100 million domestically. (Its beloved predecessor made over $250 million in 2014.) And while Alita is thriving in China—enough so that we might be blessed with the Edward Norton: Battle Angel sequel that was promised—it’s made only $61 million domestically. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has been the best of the trio, having gained a franchise-best $55 million opening this past weekend, which was also the best opening of the year so far. However, the fact that a gross of $55 million is worth applauding speaks to how much the 2019 box office has sputtered thus far. Black Panther made over three times that amount in its first weekend.

There are still a ton of exciting releases that should eventually spark a box office resurgence, beginning with Captain Marvel in March. But what can we glean from a weak start to the new year, and how, exactly, can things finally turn around? Here are three key lessons from the first two months of 2019 to consider.

January Lead-ins Matter

January is historically the weakest box office month of the year, a time when people return from their post-holidays haze and studios dump their worst and weirdest movies (see: Serenity) with the faint hope of turning a marginal profit. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t go the movies—just that the films sought out by the moviegoing public during this time are often ones that were already released.

For people who missed out on a big Christmas weekend drop, January is the perfect time to play catch-up. There’s a reason the new Star Wars films from Disney—as well as projects that had longer shelf lives in recent years, such as Jumanji and The Greatest Showman—are among the highest historical earners in January. End-of-year blockbusters are solid lead-ins to the new year, allowing the domestic box office to subsist despite Hollywood using the month of January as a dumping ground.

What changed this year? Well, for one, there was no new Star Wars movie out at Christmas, and while Aquaman feasted this January to a total of $119 million, that total was far lower than what The Force Awakens ($243 million) and Jumanji ($171 million) tallied in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Rogue One made just $112 million in January 2017—and incidentally (or not), that was a year that produced a three-year low at the domestic box office and threw some Hollywood executives into a tailspin. Even with so many big movies on the horizon, having a great financial start to a new year is just as important as finishing strong, which then ultimately leads to a new year with new blockbuster lead-ins. It’s the circle of life, box office edition.

The Early Months Need a Breakout Hit

While Black Panther was a special case—not every month will be blessed with one of the biggest box office successes in history—other recent February domestic grosses have also been buoyed by a big commercial hit. The top domestic February earner has made at least $100 million in the past five years: Black Panther in 2018 ($428 million), The Lego Batman Movie in 2017 ($135 million), Deadpool in 2016 ($287 million), Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015 ($145 million), and The Lego Movie in 2014 ($192 million). Barring some preposterous, last-minute weekday grosses for The Lego Movie 2—it currently has $83 million—no movie will surpass the $100 million mark this year.

While the success of a given month isn’t necessarily dependent on giant hits, having a big earner at the beginning of the new year prevents the box office from falling into a rut. Combining the lack of a strong Star Wars–type lead-in to the new year and the absence of a Black Panther–level hit—or for that matter, a Lego Batman–level hit—has only made the contrast between the box office grosses of 2018 and 2019 that much more glaring.

What will help close the gap is a contender that makes a ton of money in March, and thankfully, the month is stacked with potential box office saviors. Captain Marvel opens March 8—very early projections have first-weekend numbers as high as $150 million—followed by Jordan Peele’s newest horror film, Us, on March 22 and Tim Burton’s tear-jerking Dumbo remake on March 29. The breakout hits should be coming; they’re just coming later than usual, at the detriment of the opening months.

Superheroes (and Disney) Remain King

Another thing you might’ve noticed about the early movies of 2019: None of them are Disney projects. Which is not to say that the company is expected to have a quiet year—Captain Marvel, Dumbo, Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Frozen 2, and Star Wars: Episode IX are all on the horizon—just that the biggest studio on the planet hasn’t been a factor yet. Considering Disney surpassed $7 billion at the global box office and $3 billion domestically last year, it’s not shocking that the box office has suffered with the company on the sidelines. That effect will be felt even more when Disney officially completes its acquisition of 21st Century Fox and owns an even bigger piece of Hollywood moviemaking.

But it’s not just the lack of Disney that’s hurt 2019: Glass notwithstanding, we’ve been deprived of superheroes. While audiences are generally flocking toward projects they have some kind of familiarity with—18 of the top 20 films last year were tied to pre-existing IP—superheroes have become the surest non–Star Wars bet at the box office. Superhero movies made up six of the top 10 grossing movies of 2018. And in the past three years, we’ve had at least one big superhero release before the end of February to invigorate the box office (yes, The Lego Batman Movie counts; he may be composed of tiny bricks, but he’s still Batman).

Glass wasn’t able to do that in January—M. Night Shyamalan’s film turned a profit off a small budget but received a tepid critical and commercial reaction—and until Captain Marvel debuts, movie theaters are superhero-less. The Lego Movie 2 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World have both been well received but are perhaps burdened by the fact that they’re targeting children. Alita, meanwhile, with its futuristic roller derby and enthusiasm for severed robo-limbs, was probably a little too weird to have broader, Marvelesque appeal.

The good news is Disney is going to enter the fray very soon and help narrow the wide gap between the early success of 2018 and the weak returns from the first two months of 2019. (Per CBS’s report, box office analysts expect this year to balance itself out and end somewhere between 0.5 to 1.5 percent down from 2018.) While it may not bode well for other studios if the box office suffers when Disney isn’t dropping its biggest releases, well, at least it’s better than everyone staying home and watching Netflix.