The Sky-Is-Falling Narrative Pops Up Again, Disappears Just as Quickly

by Patrick Corcoran, Vice President & Chief Communications Officer, NATO and Phil Contrino, Director of Media & Research, NATO

We’ve been down this road before: a few high-profile films underperform and suddenly our industry is in dire trouble once again. That’s what happened in May and June when a handful of tentpoles disappointed, causing reporters to panic about the sad state of our industry and how awful the summer box office is. Neither is true. 

Despite the pervasive belief that moviegoing is under constant threat from a shift in how entertainment is distributed and consumed, moviegoing is remarkably consistent, with weekly ups and downs almost entirely a function of the movies then in the marketplace. A flurry of headlines in June bemoaned the underperformance of high-profile sequels and lower-budget counterprogramming and worried about audiences abandoning multiplexes due to “sequel fatigue” and a premonition that comedies no longer work in movie theaters. Strange, though, that in this most excessively covered and data-drenched little industry of ours, reporters missed the most salient facts.

Q2 2018 was the highest grossing quarter in domestic box office history, grossing $3.3 billion dollars—up an incredible 22 percent year over year. And this spring and summer when box office was supposed to be languishing and tumbleweeds rolled through lobbies nationwide? $3.3 billion—the second highest quarterly box office ever and only 3.7 percent off the record. Pending results of NATO’s quarterly ticket price survey, it is likely that admissions were off by less than that and may have equaled Q2 2018.

Year to date, box office remains 9.3 percent behind 2018, causing more fainting spells and more ink spilled on behalf of the industry’s already filed obituary. This ignores the fact that box office at the end of Q1 was down 16.2 percent, due almost entirely to a far smaller carryover of titles from Q4. The real story of Q2 and the summer is a marked improvement relative to 2018. Indeed, this “disastrous” summer is a mere $180 million behind summer 2018. Even better, if we extend summer 2018 and 2019 a week earlier (to capture the opening week of Avengers titles from both years), the difference shrinks to $40 million. The expected comps for the remainder of the year favor 2019. 

In short, the narrow focus on year-over-year comps misses the long-term health and stability of the industry, but also somehow misses what those short-term comps really say.

Our industry will remain healthy as long as there are talented people who value the theatrical experience, and there’s no doubt that the most exciting and talented content creators working today create with the big screen in mind. Plenty of directors and actors continue to be vocal about their desire to have their work shown in theaters first.

In a recent interview with Vulture, The Farewell writer/director Lulu Wang talked about how she asked her mom for advice when deciding whether to go the traditional theatrical route or sell her film to Netflix: “I can buy you a house now. And you can tell all your friends,” Wang told her mother. Mom’s response: “Why would you buy me a freaking house? I already have a house. The film is your baby and you have to give it to the place that is not necessarily the wealthiest, but will give it the most love and joy and bring it into the world in the right way.” 

While promoting Yesterday, Danny Boyle talked to CinemaBlend about how the dynamic between theatrical and streaming doesn’t need to be adversarial, and also why theatrical is so important to him: “We—and by we I mean those who love cinema above all forms—are vulnerable at the moment. Long-form television, or streaming, is obviously in the ascendancy. There’s a lot of money in it and a lot of people are moving into it. For me—and I’m not speaking against long-form television because it’s very important it doesn’t become adversarial—cinema is unique because of the contract of time you have with the audience and what you are allowed to do in that very precious, exclusive time. Somebody buys a ticket and they give you two hours of their time, and what’s extraordinary about it is they give it to you exclusively. It’s very rare that they’ll leave—you have to be doing a really bad job or there has to be an emergency—and you don’t do that with long-form television when you watch it at home. Even when you love long-form television, you’re not giving your exclusive time to it. Your peripheral vision is different, and in long-form television the contract is endless. That’s the point: that it just goes on and on into the distance. There’s the joke that it’s a bit like getting married: you don’t quite know what’s going to happen down the line, but you sort of sign up for it. Then people joke that everybody knows Season 6 is going to be pretty poor, but you go along with it anyway because the finale might be good. I think in film it’s different. The uniqueness of film is that because of that undivided, exclusive time you get, you can experiment with time. That’s what cinema does more than any other art form.”

Boyle added, “As long-form television explodes and becomes more prevalent in people’s lives, it makes me realize more and more how precious those moments of time are for us in cinema, and we should protect them for as long as we can.”

While promoting Stuber, stars Kumail Nanjiani and Natalie Morales weighed in on the importance of cinema:

“I feel like now it’s becoming this thing that only big special-effects movies are for theaters, and I think all movies are better in a theater with a communal experience,” said Nanjiani. “Especially comedies, because you get the energy of people laughing. How often are you in a room with strangers all laughing at the same time?” 

“I love going to the movies. It’s a big reason why I do what I do,” said Morales. “It’s just that experience of being in a room together when it really works and everyone is laughing and everyone is into it. It’s just this release and break from your everyday world.” 

We expect more endorsements in the months and years to come as the conversation about the theatrical/streaming dynamic shows no sign of letting up. The hope is that eventually it will be seen as less of a “war” between the two and more of peaceful coexistence between two distinct platforms that provide different experiences.

As of this writing, the common media narrative for the 2019 box office is already shifting. Right before the release of The Lion King, CNN published an article about how strong the rest of 2019’s slate is and similar articles started popping up elsewhere. And around we go …

News Stories