‘Star Wars’ and ‘Little Women’ Can Help the Box Office More Than Last December’s Hits

Unlike last year, 2019’s Christmas films are showing signs of longevity that movie theaters need

Star Wars Rise Of Skywalker Aquaman
Walt Disney Studios/Warner Bros. Pictures

The 2019 box office is set to finish well behind last year’s record $11.88 billion domestic total, but it is outperforming last year in an important way: this year’s holiday releases, led by “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” are showing signs of longevity that last year’s films, including the billion-dollar “Aquaman,” did not.

While Disney was the only Hollywood studio this year that matched 2018’s record success, another reason 2019’s overall totals are only now crossing the $11 billion mark is because 2018’s holiday films mostly ran out of gas by Jan. 1. Films like “Aquaman,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Bumblebee” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” did a great job of covering for the absence of “Star Wars” on the December charts, but they also made most of their millions early in their theatrical runs.

Let’s start “Aquaman,” which was a massive success for Warner Bros. but made 70% of its $1.14 billion total overseas. The film, which was released Dec. 21, 2018, legged well into January, earning $236 million of its $335 million domestic total after New Year’s Day. But beneath that, other December 2018 releases “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Bumblebee” and “Spider-Verse” combined to only contribute $203 million to the 2019 total. Consequently, calendar grosses for January fell 15% year over year, with that month failing to rank among the top 10 highest January totals in box office history. 

Analysts who spoke to TheWrap say that the films in theaters now have a better chance of providing a more robust January. “The Rise of Skywalker,” which has grossed $361 million so far, is expected to contribute $200-250 million to January’s total, while “Jumanji: The Next Level” will add $100-150 million. And farther down the charts, potential Oscar nominees are likely to play a major factor next month.

This weekend, Sony’s “Little Women” opened to $29 million and widespread critical and audience acclaim, putting it in a major position to gross $100 million in January if word of mouth continues to spread. And while Universal didn’t provide a holiday musical hit after “Cats” bombed last weekend, it could have its own $100 million-plus hit with “1917,” which is building word of mouth from its $1 million platform release this weekend and will go wide on Jan. 10.

Studios have been known to release awards season films in select cities on Christmas Day in hopes of building interest for a wide January release. “American Sniper” pulled this off with a $350 million theatrical run in January 2015, but with so many wide releases in December 2018, no studio made a serious attempt at that strategy last year.

The result was an early year slate lacking in films that could draw large moviegoer interest and which led to a year-to-year deficit that the box office spent the rest of the year trying to climb out of. ComScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian says that while the 2020 slate does not have a guaranteed $500 million-plus domestic hit, there’s reason to believe that the year won’t start with such deep doldrums again.

“There’s way more goodwill with moviegoers now than there was this time last year, and that should carry over into January so we’re not waiting for February blockbusters like ‘Birds of Prey’ to bail us out,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of headlines about how we’re down 4% from last year, but that’s cyclical. The better news is that with awards hopefuls and new films like ‘Bad Boys for Life,’ Q1 of 2020 looks like it’s going to be a lot healthier than what we saw 11 months ago.”