It may be “back to the future” at the box office.
In the ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s, films used to debut with much lower grosses, but spending far longer in theaters. In 1977, the original Star Wars debuted in only 32 theaters before gradually expanding nationwide, a phenomenon unthinkable for a blockbuster today.
In the ’90s and 21st century, the takeover of the multiplex meant films could debut nationwide starting on day one. The rise of the gargantuan opening weekend meant films’ box office became far more front-loaded. The first $100 million opening weekend belonged to Spider-Man in 2002. The feat now occurs regularly, including six times last year alone.
Those ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s titles traded lower debuts for lengthier theatrical runs, at a level that would be unfathomable today. E.T. spent 44 weekends in the box office top 10. Other unstoppable films of that era included Top Gun (27 weekends in the top 10), Titanic (26), Forrest Gump (26), Home Alone (25), and Back to the Future (24).
It seemed nothing would stop the 21st century’s era of monster openings paired with faster dropoffs — until now.
Once cinemas return nationwide, a combination of social distancing measures and enforced auditorium seating limits will likely result in lower opening weekends. Simultaneously, studios’ sparser release calendars for months to come — due to postponements, reschedulings, and a few films getting removed from theatrical release entirely in favor of streaming exclusivity — will likely result in longer theatrical runs. These two factors in combination seem poised to return the box office to an old-fashioned path to profitability: debuting low but remaining in cinemas for months.
Though spending months in the top ten is a phenomenon mostly reserved for films of the 20th century, a few releases from the past decade also managed long stays in the top tier. What tends to set these films apart is positive word of mouth. Audiences will only turn out for a movie two and a half months after release if buzz remains strong, regardless of blockbuster opening weekends; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, for example, are two films with massive openings that dropped relatively quickly.
Below are the 17 films from the past decade which spent “11 in 10”: at least 11 weekends in the box office top 10.
Sci-fi and Fantasy Blockbusters
Sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters, like Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, will be among the first major studio releases to debut on the big screen once movie theaters open their doors, making the following box office champs apt comparisons for the initial wave of post-pandemic releases.
- Inception. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is currently scheduled as the first major release post-pandemic, on July 17. Nolan’s 2010 mindbender benefited from repeat viewings, as many went back to see the film a second or third time in order to fully grasp the famously complicated plot.
- Avatar. James Cameron knows how to direct films that last in theaters. His Titanic tied Forrest Gump for the most top-10 weekends of the ’90s, with 26. Then his follow-up Avatar spent 14 weekends in the top 10.
- Black Panther. Released so soon before Marvel’s next installment, Avengers: Infinity War, would Panther get cannibalized? Actually, the opposite occurred, as the MCU installment declined -4% on Infinity War‘s opening weekend. Panther continued to hold strong thanks in part to double features, whether held by cinemas or more “unofficially” by fans just choosing to see both films back-to-back.
- Spider-Man: Homecoming. The superhero kept swinging throughout the summer and into the fall of 2017. Sequel Spider-Man: Far From Home didn’t last as long in theaters, with eight weeks in the top 10.
- Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. No wonder its opening was depressed: it debuted against Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Yet during Jungle‘s second weekend, which included New Year’s Eve, it increased +38%, while its Star Wars competitor dropped -26%.
- Jumanji: The Next Level. While the aforementioned Spider-Man: Homecoming was unable to replicate its box office longevity with its sequel, Jumanji did just that. As of this writing, it’s the most recent film to spend at least 11 weekends in the top 10.
Musicals often experience theatrical longevity, with audiences wanting to hear their favorite songs multiple times. 2002’s Chicago spent 16 weekends in the top 10, the second-most of any 2000s film, behind only My Big Fat Greek Wedding with 19.
- Frozen. The unstoppable animated juggernaut spent 16 weekends in the top 10, the most of any film of the past decade. Sequel Frozen II traded in a far higher opening for a steeper fall, spending nine weekends in the top 10.
- La La Land. Audiences kept wanting “another day of sun,” as the opening number sang, for 13 top 10 weekends.
- The Greatest Showman. Despite never ranking higher than fourth place in a given weekend, the film rode on the success of its songs and huge soundtrack, which became the top-selling album of 2018.
- Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), The Lion King (2019). These three titles were all live-action or GGI remakes of classic Disney animated films, propelled by a combination of audience nostalgia while also creating a new generation of fans.
Awards Contender Dramas
With the awards season lasting for months, these films are often ripe for theatrical longevity.
- Green Book. The feel-good movie initially only spent three weekends in the top 10, then dropped out for almost two months. It remained in theaters, hovering around the #11 to #20 spots, appearing to indicate that its best box office days were behind it. Then the weekend after Academy Award nominations were announced, it more than doubled its theater count and re-entered the top 10, where it remained for months, including for several frames after winning Best Picture.
- Silver Linings Playbook. A similar trajectory: the film ascended to the top 10 on Thanksgiving weekend, dropped out for a bit, made the top 10 again for one weekend in mid-December, then dropped out again. Like Green Book, it ascended the weekend after Academy Award nominations came out and stayed in the top ten for months, peaking in third place.
- Hidden Figures. The true story of African-American women who made critical contributions to NASA’s 1960s space program was one of the big box office hits during the early months of the Trump administration, perhaps owing its longevity partly to the political environment at the time.
- The King’s Speech. The inspirational drama proves “slow and steady wins the race.” It never reached the top three on any weekend, peaking at #4. Yet it rode its award season buzz, including an Academy Award win for Best Picture, for months.
Last but not least, there’s one more film from the past decade which qualifies, but didn’t quite fit any of the three above categories. Spending 13 weekends in the top 10: Disney’s animated Zootopia.