Worry, Darling: September Box Office Plummets to Worst Levels in 25 Years

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Despite modestly budgeted successes like Sony’s “The Woman King” and Warner Bros.’ “Don’t Worry Darling,” this September’s box office has sunk to the lowest levels in a quarter-century.

The overall total for the month is set to sink to 25-year lows, not counting 2020, when Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” accounted for nearly half the $86 million box office as most theaters remained shut down at the height of the pandemic.

With just $275 million grossed in North America to date, this will be the first September since 1997 with a monthly total of less than $350 million. To date, the running total for September 2022 is 20% behind last year’s pace and 52% behind the pace set this month in 2019.

Even last year, when theaters were still in a relatively early stage of their pandemic reopening process, September grosses reached $367.1 million.

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And with Warner Bros. reporting a final opening weekend total of $19.3 million for “Don’t Worry Darling,” this month will be the first September since 2001 — when the September 11 attacks crippled interest in moviegoing — that has failed to produce a film with an opening weekend of over $20 million.

Last year, Disney/Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” earned a Labor Day record $94 million four-day weekend opening. Before the pandemic, Warner Bros. and New Line set a September record with $123 million opening for “It,” with a sequel opening to $92 million two years later.

But the $19 million openings for “The Woman King” and “Don’t Worry Darling” this month are also below the rather pedestrian openings for September releases in the early-to-mid-2000s, even before inflation. Films with higher openings include Tim Story’s cult comedy “Barbershop” ($20.6 million in 2002), Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” ($23.4 million in 2003) and Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” ($23 million in 2004).

Theatrical success for studios and cinemas aren’t always intertwined. “Don’t Worry Darling,” With a $35 million budget before marketing, could turn a decent profit theatrically despite all the scandalous headlines surrounding director Olivia Wilde’s thriller. This weekend’s newcomers, Universal’s LGBTQ rom-com “Bros” and Paramount’s horror film “Smile” could also find low-budget success.

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But theaters, still in a deep financial hole because of the pandemic, need to post big ticket sales regardless of the film’s budget. Unfortunately, the only films that could provide those sorts of numbers are tentpole blockbusters and family films, and there’s a very finite number of those set to be released before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the box office recovery didn’t happen fast enough for Cineworld’s Regal Cinemas, which is now in bankruptcy proceedings while closing some of its theaters. AMC Theatres is also continuing its fight to stay afloat financially, announcing that it will sell up to 425 million of its new APE shares to help pay off its $5 billion debt load. The theatrical landscape is rapidly changing under this unrelenting financial strain, and any significant relief with a return to pre-pandemic moviegoing isn’t expected until at least well into 2023, if at all.

October films like Warner Bros/DC’s “Black Adam,” Sony’s “Lyle Lyle Crocodile” and Universal/Blumhouse’s “Halloween Ends” could boost box office — but none seem likely to bring the numbers that October 2021 films like “Dune,” “No Time to Die” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” did last year. Several analysts and distribution execs project that October 2022 ticket sales will be down 20-30% from last year’s $623 million.

The hope is that November and December will outperform 2021, with Disney/Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and 20th Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” leading a slew of holiday offerings to a stronger winter than last year, when Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was deadlifting the box office all on its own. Ideally, a holiday box office boom will lead into a somewhat improved market in January and an early-year slate led by films such as Paramount’s “Babylon” and Disney’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

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