Box Office: Winter Grosses Hit Alarming Lows

Cinema operators might be wishing for their own atmospheric river storms right about now, at least figuratively speaking. Heading into the new year, long-range forecasts showed the box office facing a bad drought during the first two months of 2024, and they were unfortunately spot-on. The culprit? A sparse crop of new Hollywood studio titles as a result of production delays caused by last year’s strikes and a less-than-memorable class of year-end holiday holdovers to goose January’s bottom line.

Domestic box office revenue year-to-date of $581.2 million is running 43 percent behind the average haul during the same time period in 2016-19, when movie ticket sales clocked in as high as $1.08 billion, according to data provided by Comscore for Jan. 1-Feb. 4.

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Of that, January clocked in at $513.6 million, compared to $599 million in 2023 (a breakout hit last year was M3GAN, with more than $83 million in ticket sales domestically, while Avatar: The Way of Water contributed more than $210 million). Outside of the COVID-era years, $513.6 million is the lowest showing for January in more than 25 years.

There were at least two weekends in the latter part of the month when there wasn’t a new wide studio release, followed by Apple’s big-budget Argylle failing miserably when launching to $17.5 million domestic during the Feb. 2-4 weekend. Solid January successes included carryover Timothée Chalamet holiday musical Wonka, which was the month’s top contributor at $62.9 million (its total domestic earnings are north of $201 million), and Mean Girls, which earned $62 million.

February is also looking rough. Last year, there was a steady stream of new releases, including Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the octogenarian comedy 80 for Brady, Knock at the Cabin and instant cult classic Cocaine Bear. In terms of studio fare, February 2024’s lineup is largely anchored by Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day weekend. That’s when the Kingsley Ben-Adir starrer One Love: Bob Marley goes up against Sony’s superhero pic Madame Web, starring Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney. Tracking shows both films opening in the $25 million to $33 million range, which would be a sobering sum for a superhero film. (Some think One Love could even beat Madame Web, which would contribute to these upside-down times.)

“It’s understandable that the YTD numbers are ringing alarm bells for some given the comps to the pre-pandemic era, but perhaps we should give 2024 a chance to really get started before proclaiming ‘game over’ for theaters,” says Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian, noting that no one at this time last year saw Barbenheimer coming.

Analysts across the board expect the pace to pick up March 1 when Dune: Part Two finally opens, followed by Kung Fu Panda 4 (March 8), Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (March 22) and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (March 29). Notes one top studio executive, “Exhibitors will certainly continue to hold their breath for the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile

Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway in Argylle, directed by Matthew Vaughn.
Bryce Dallas Howard in Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Argylle.’

Why Does Apple Get a Break for Bad Grosses?

The mystery began after Apple Original Films skated by in the media when Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon didn’t exactly flourish at the box office. The epic opened to $23.5 million in October against a budget of roughly $200 million. If a Disney or Warner Bros. movie at that price point did that kind of business, they’d be facing “bomb’s away” headlines.

The cycle repeated when Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, also costing Apple about $200 million to acquire, opened to $20.6 million in November. Now, after Matthew Vaughn’s spy comedy Argylle — which cost Apple between $200 million and $250 million to acquire — opened to $17.5 million, the gloves seem to have come off. The difference? The film was spurned by critics and slapped with a C+ CinemaScore by audiences. (Quality has always been intertwined with the Apple brand, so the C+ may have bothered Apple higher-ups more than the gross.)

Given that Apple has seemingly unlimited resources, many hold it to a different standard as it embraces the traditional theatrical space in a bid to boost Apple TV+ subscribers and be a force in the Oscar race. (Sources close to the tech giant claim Killers, which nabbed 10 Oscar noms, and Napoleon have driven subs and performed well on premium VOD after grossing $157.6 million and $219.4 million at the global box office, respectively.) Rival studio execs don’t seem to mind the media discrepancy either, with Apple pumping money into the ecosystem during treacherous times. “And it certainly makes cinema owners happy,” says one such exec.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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