In mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic put an immediate halt to the theatrical business, shuttering movie theaters from coast to coast as COVID-19 infections skyrocketed in North America. Though theaters in many areas began slowly opening their doors again, capacity restrictions and widespread uncertainty about the relative safety of the theatrical environment continued to dampen revenue. As a result, our annual look back at the top 10 highest-earning new releases is unusual, to say the least.
For comparison’s sake, last year’s top-grossing title, Avengers: Endgame, topped off 2019 with over $858 million in domestic receipts. By contrast, this year’s No. 1, Sony’s Bad Boys for Life, earned less than a quarter of that total. Indeed, only two films – Bad Boys and Sonic the Hedgehog, both released prior to the nationwide shutdown of movie theaters – grossed north of $100 million in 2020, pointing to the devastation wrought by a once-in-a-century pandemic. With widespread vaccinations now on the horizon, we look ahead to a better year as we count down the top 10 box office performers of 2020.
Bad Boys for Life
Only in 2020 would a film released in mid-January finish at the top of our yearly ranking. After a nearly 17-year hiatus (Bad Boys II came out way back in July 2003), the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence buddy threequel Bad Boys for Life proved there was still plenty of juice left in the series when it debuted with a franchise-best $62.5 million 3-day gross over MLK weekend. The leggy title went on to gross $206.31 million domestically and was still in wide release when the pandemic hit. It may have been able to squeeze out a few million more were it not for COVID-19, but Bad Boys for Life had already made the majority of its money by that point, marking it as a rare bright spot in an all-around dismal year at the box office.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Another film released just early enough in the year to qualify as a theatrical success story was Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the long-in-the-works video game adaptation based on the Sega series of the same name. Released over President’s Day weekend, the $85 million-budgeted film grossed a fantastic $58.02 million over the 3-day period and $70 million over the 4-day span before zooming to $146.07 million by the end of its pandemic-shortened run. Still in over 3,000 locations when the shutdown began, Sonic the Hedgehog was lucky enough to play for a full month before COVID-19 brought moviegoing to an abrupt halt across North America.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Considered a box office disappointment when it opened to just $33 million in early February, Birds of Prey (later renamed Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey in a futile attempt to salvage the film’s domestic performance) nonetheless lands as the third highest-grossing film in an unprecedented, catastrophic year for North American exhibitors. Truthfully, there wasn’t much gas left in the box office tank for the Suicide Squad spinoff when the pandemic shuttered movie theaters, so its $84.16 million final gross is pretty close to where it would have ended up even without the virus.
Universal’s ultra-expensive reimagining of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle book series was D.O.A. in North American multiplexes, grossing just $21.84/$28.3 million over MLK weekend against the box office behemoth that was Bad Boys for Life (in what can best be described as a failed bid at counter-programming). Beset by withering reviews, the film tapped out with just $77.05 million in North America and became star Robert Downey Jr.’s latest misfire outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Invisible Man
Debuting to a robust $28.21 million over the final weekend of February, Leigh Whannell’s acclaimed reimagining of the nearly century-old horror franchise seemed a good bet to join the $100 million club (or at least close to it) before COVID-19 brought its theatrical run to an abrupt end two weeks later. Produced on a budget of just $7 million, The Invisible Man was nevertheless a highly-profitable runaway hit right out of the gate, taking at least some of the sting out of its abbreviated box office reign and injecting new life into Universal’s monster-movie reboot strategy.
The Call of the Wild
The year’s second bona fide mega-flop after Dolittle was this Harrison Ford vehicle, based on the Jack London novel about an elderly recluse’s relationship with a kidnapped dog. Produced on a bloated $135 million budget, the FX-heavy action-drama debuted in second place with $24.79 million (against the sophomore weekend of Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog) and ended its pandemic-abbreviated theatrical run with just $62.34 million in North America. Not that more time at the multiplex would have helped much; it was clear from Call of the Wild’s debut frame that profitability wasn’t in the cards for the 20th Century Studios leftover.
Pixar’s first movie of 2020 (to be followed in December by Soul, which was released directly to Disney Plus in North America), Onward was released on March 6, just two weekends before the pandemic shuttered theaters across North America. It’s likely that news of the coronavirus’ spread in the U.S. dampened turnout over its opening frame in early March — when it grossed a so-so $39.12 million – though it’s impossible to say how much. Whatever the case, by Onward’s second weekend of release a national panic had officially set in, and its sophomore frame plummeted nearly 73% before theaters closed their doors altogether. Due to the climate in which it was released, it’s difficult to know how Onward would have performed in normal times — though it’s worth noting that the film’s mixed reception made it a likely underachiever in the historical scheme of Pixar releases.
By the time Christopher Nolan’s heady action-sci-fi finally reached theaters over Labor Day weekend, the pandemic was on the wane in the U.S., leading to a momentary sense of relative calm during a brutal year. But analyzing Tenet‘s performance was complicated by Warner Bros.’ cryptic box office reports. Though the film brought in $20.2 million through end of day Monday of its opening weekend, the studio remained mum on how much of that total came in prior to the traditional Friday-Monday holiday frame (the film played in extensive “sneak previews” the week before Labor Day). Our own estimates pegged the film’s true four-day opening at somewhere between $10 and $12 million and its three-day opening at between $7.8 and $9.5 million, making it the highest opening weekend of the pandemic by far (at least before Wonder Woman 1984 came on the scene). In normal times, that kind of debut for a Christopher Nolan tentpole would be viewed as a bona fide disaster, but the pandemic inevitably complicated analysis of Tenet’s theatrical performance. Though the film continued to hold well over subsequent weeks (not a surprise given the limited competition), the diminished theatrical audience left it with just $57.91 million through the end of the year.
Released in late January – early enough to largely skirt the effects of theatrical shutdowns – STX’s star-studded action-comedy was a modest performer domestically, opening with a decent $10.65 million against the second weekend of the blockbuster Bad Boys for Life. By the time theaters were shuttered in mid-March, the film had already made the majority of its money, though due to a lack of new content it continued quietly playing in a handful of theaters through August.
The Croods: A New Age
A rare theatrical bright spot during the pandemic, The Croods: A New Age boasted the best debut frame since March when it opened with $14.27 million over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend and $9.72 million over the Friday-Sunday period. Though it was a far cry from the first Croods’ opening weekend gross, the film’s performance offered a glimpse into a brighter future for the exhibition industry, just as vaccines from multiple pharmaceutical companies were on the cusp of emergency use authorizations in the U.S. Over a month later, A New Age continues to perform relatively strongly in North America, marking it as the family equivalent to the adult-oriented Tenet in terms of box office performance during the pandemic.
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