As coronavirus spreads, is this weekend’s historically low box office Hollywood’s new normal?

March 16, 2020, 9:02 PM UTC

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Hollywood’s never quite faced a threat like coronavirus, which made itself known at the box office this past weekend as moviegoers kept away and theater chains grappled with the ever-shifting logistics—and much-debated ethics—of staying open amid the unprecedented health crisis.

As feared, U.S. movie ticket sales plummeted to a historic low this weekend, cratering out at around $55.3 million, down 44% from last weekend, this despite the arrival of three new movies—Vin Diesel vehicle Bloodshot, horror-satire The Hunt, and faith-based drama I Still Believe—in wide release. By some estimates, that’s the lowest ticket sales have been in two decades.

Onward, Disney-Pixar’s fantasy adventure, held at No. 1 but collected just $10.5 million, a grim figure that constitutes a 73% drop from the film’s opening last week. Adding $6.8 million outside the U.S. despite the widespread closure of theaters in traditionally sturdy markets such as China, the film’s made $101.7 million so far. All of this is unprecedented for Hollywood but particularly galling for Disney and Pixar, which have historically relied on a steady stream of family audiences to offset second-weekend drops. Still, no one could blame most parents for keeping their kids home with public fear escalating around this epidemic on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

In a divide that says much about differing domestic attitudes toward coronavirus, faith-based drama I Still Believe fared the best of the new releases despite a comparatively minuscule budget and ad spend. The title, a romantic drama starring Riverdale‘s KJ Apa and Girlboss lead Britt Robertson, made about $9.5 million over the weekend and can already be considered a hit by virtue of its lean $10 million budget.

Harder hit was Bloodshot, Vin Diesel’s would-be franchise starter for Sony in which he plays a bionic assassin; it earned about $9.3 million domestically and will almost certainly finish stronger overseas, where it took in a still-anemic $13 million. Worst of all, The Hunt, which Universal and Blumhouse tried to market as an “event” title after its “liberals-vs.-deplorables” premise attracted controversy last summer—struggled to find an audience, making just $5.3 million. Blumhouse is famed for keeping its budgets trim, but this result surely stings, given the wealth of social-media attention afforded to The Hunt and an extensive marketing campaign that tried and failed to capitalize upon it.

As industry folk despaired at this weekend’s dismal returns, uncertainty reigned across the film industry, one of many threatened on a practically existential level by the spread of coronavirus. Gathering strangers into a darkened theater to watch movies has never been a riskier proposition for audiences, who have the option of staying home—and in an increasing number of states have little choice in the matter.

Though the majority of cinema chains in the United States remained open as of press time, AMC and Regal have both slashed seat capacity in theaters by 50%, spacing out moviegoers in accordance with the CDC’s “social distancing” guidelines. On Monday, AMC took the additional step of limiting screenings to 50 people, but some expect such half-measures will do little to prevent a probability Hollywood is increasingly aware could be just days away: a coast-to-coast movie-theater blackout. On Sunday, closures of theaters in industry epicenters New York and Los Angeles brought this anxiety to new heights.

Amid the turmoil, NBCUniversal has beaten its competitors out of the gate in pivoting to a day-and-date streaming rollout for its next major summer title, Trolls World Tour (opening April 10). The colorful animated sequel by Dreamworks Animation was previously shifted to that April date after No Time to Die abandoned it, but dire returns for Onward likely cemented the studio’s thinking that family-targeted features are in no way immune to the panic surrounding coronavirus. And if the worst does come to pass and movie theaters are ordered to close across the country this week, on-demand viewership will become studios’ only recourse toward earning revenue on recent titles. NBCUniversal, in announcing the Trolls strategy, also noted that it will be making its currently out Universal titles, including The Invisible Man, Emma., and The Hunt, available on digital platforms starting this Friday. The titles will be available for a 48-hour rental period, at a suggested $19.99 retail price.

March is traditionally a doorway period for Hollywood, smaller titles gradually ceding ground as studios ready their summer blockbusters for April openings weekends often north of $80 million and sometimes much higher. But as theaters seemingly teeter on the edge of closing their doors nationwide, many studios have opted to yank their highest-profile releases off the schedule.

A Quiet Place II, originally due out this Friday, is now postponed to an unspecified date. That’s also the case for James Bond entry No Time to Die, rescheduled for a hopefully more stable Nov. 25 release. F9, the ninth Fast and Furious entry, has shifted the furthest of any blockbuster yet, moving an entire year to next summer. Meanwhile, The New Mutants and Antlers, both courting a slightly older demographic, have seen their releases postponed. And Mulan, Disney’s pricey live-action adaptation of the animated classic, was late to move from its opening in late March, but with movie theaters long-since-shuttered in key regions like China, its delay was perhaps always a foregone conclusion.

All eyes are now on Black Widow, Disney’s Marvel entry starring Scarlett Johannson as the titular super-spy. As of press time, it was still dated for May 1, but as the days tick on, it seems increasingly impossible to envision any studio—let alone one as crippled by coronavirus as Disney—will risk opening a film of that size.

The worst-case scenario for Hollywood, and one that seems ever more likely, is that coronavirus will usher in the summer that never was, a box-office shutdown that will not blow over—as some optimists have predicted—by as soon as next month.

As coronavirus testing becomes more widely available across the United States in the coming weeks, known cases of the virus are expected to skyrocket, particularly in major cities and densely populated areas. And as cities continue to enact measures aimed at curtailing its spread, from shuttering restaurants to banning public gatherings, it remains unclear how many Americans are already infected, and whether many of these measures were implemented too late to prevent massive outbreaks of the virus.

In China, where the coronavirus outbreak was first reported, movie theaters have remained closed for weeks, with no clear timeline for reopening. In Hollywood this week, and the barely foreseeable future, that remains perhaps the most daunting element of coronavirus and its already-seismic impact on the movie business. With the true scale and severity of the virus on the American public only expected to become visible this coming month, it’s hard to predict when its effects will stop being felt.

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