After Record 2018 Box Office, 2019 Is Off to Sluggish Start

January’s monthly gross hits a six-year low

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Universal Pictures

With several major films coming down the pike, 2019 could still be as big a year for the box office as 2018 was. But first, it’s going to have to get out of this sluggish start.

While Super Bowl weekend typically sees a drop in ticket sales, this weekend’s $67 million combined total was the weakest the box office has seen since August 2017, and the worst Super Bowl weekend since 2000. That comes after a January in which monthly grosses only reached $814.9 million. That’s the lowest since 2013 and ranks outside the top 10 among all January monthly totals.

“We were celebrating an incredibly strong finish to a record 2018, and then a big breeze came in,” said comScore’s Paul Dergarabedian.

Several factors are to blame for this weak start, the main one being, as always, the movies that are being offered. December was a far busier year than recent holidays, as every studio had a major release to take advantage of the absence of a “Star Wars” in the marketplace.

With so many films released in December, there was a bigger incentive for most studios to keep most of their early-year releases away from January to both allow their December films to leg out and to stay away from competition like “Aquaman,” which grossed $119 million last month.

In fact, the highest grossing new release in January was “Glass,” grossing $88 million through this weekend. That was a film that came from Universal, which needed a rebound from December after “Mortal Engines” and “Welcome to Marwen” bombed.

“If you put out all your big products in December, it generates a lot of foot traffic and a big end-of-year boost,” said Dergarabedian. “But when you don’t have a big, $100 million-plus hit film coming out in January or one that expands well like ‘American Sniper,’ the market just ends up treading water until Valentine’s Day.”

For the films that were in theaters, some external factors also kept audiences away. Some analysts and distribution chiefs who spoke with TheWrap pointed to the government shutdown, which forced a lot of wallet tightening not just among furloughed government workers, but also for employees of businesses that rely on government work and employees for revenue.

Dergarabedian notes that severe winter storms in large regions of the country also slowed down cinema business, particularly this weekend, as the polar vortex slammed into the U.S. from the Northeast to the Dakotas.

“Usually when studios blame weather for a slowdown, I see it as a ‘dog ate my homework’ excuse, but this time it’s perfectly valid,” he said. “When it’s just six degrees Fahrenheit outside, you’re not going to go out of your house for anything, let alone to go to the movies.”

Business should pick up next week, starting with the release of “The Lego Movie 2,” which is expected to open to at least $45 million and as much as $60 million. Other films like “Happy Death Day 2U” and “How to Train Your Dragon 3” will also stem the tide. However, 2019’s year-to-date total will continue to fall behind last year’s pace, as there are no films that will come close to the record-shattering performance of “Black Panther.”

Still, one distribution chief who asked to remain anonymous says there’s no reason for concern. With superhero films ready to dominate the market with the likes of “Shazam” and “Avengers: Endgame,” the big boom is still coming… just a bit later than it did last year.

“When you’re in distribution and you have a slow release period like this, it just comes down to the production schedule and when films are ready to be put out,” he said.

“As I projected out the year both for our studio and overall, I still see 2019 being just as strong as 2018, with a big summer slate and a lot of interesting movies in Q4. ‘Lego Movie 2’ will be the start of a return to business as usual and lead into what should be a great March.”