4 Reasons Why the Memorial Day Box Office Was So Awful and What it Means for a Struggling Theatrical Business | Analysis

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A mix of underperforming films and the impact of the strikes have led to the worst start to the summer theaters have seen in decades

furiosa-the-fall-guy
Anya Taylor Joy in "Furiosa" and Ryan Gosling in "The Fall Guy" (Warner Bros. Pictures/Universal Pictures)

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, it was already expected that the box office would see the lowest totals from this holiday since the turn of the century. The final results have fallen even below that.

The No. 1 film for this weekend, “Furiosa,” made just $32 million over the four-day period, making it the lowest No. 1 Memorial Day release since 1995, when the family film “Casper” opened to $22 million before inflation adjustment.

Box office analysis company Nash Information Systems, operator of The Numbers, had projected a $160 million 4-day total prior to the start of the weekend. That would have been enough to make it the lowest Memorial Day weekend since at least 1999. But the final total has clocked in at $128 million, down 37% from last year and the lowest in 26 years.

This dramatic a low could suggest a real tipping point for the theatrical movie business. What are the implications for the future of a theatrical business when Memorial Day, with well-reviewed movies, hit a 26-year low? And having chosen to embrace streaming while producing movies for theaters, what changes might studios need to make to adjust to the new reality?

Industry insiders told TheWrap that the long-term implications of such a poor weekend are still difficult to discern, given that the 2024 box office data is muddled by last year’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. The strike-induced production lag has prolonged inconsistent grosses caused by inconsistent output of films for theaters since they reopened.

“I don’t think this is an inflection point where we say, ‘Oh, if the pandemic didn’t finish it off, the strikes will,’” said Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “This is a slump that I think everyone in Hollywood saw coming when the strikes went on for weeks on end. So many factors came together to disassemble any hope of a really strong Memorial Day weekend.”

The disappointing performances of “Furiosa” and “The Garfield Movie” compared to past Memorial Day releases were certainly one of those factors, but the box office conundrum is bigger than any single film.

It was only on Memorial Day that the monthly domestic total for May crossed $500 million, compared to $774 million for the entire month in May 2023 and $785 million in 2022. From 2009 to 2019, the lowest May total was $835 million in 2017 while crossing $1 billion eight times.

The question is: does a historically poor May signal a crisis for the box office as a whole?

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Domestic box office totals for May

The reasons behind this miserable May are myriad, but here are the big ones:

Strikes slash the slate

Since the start of 2024, exhibitors and studio executives alike knew that the first half of the year would be rough. With films like Pixar’s “Elio,” “Mission: Impossible 8” and “Deadpool & Wolverine” getting moved due to production delays caused by last year’s 191-day double strike, theaters would not have anywhere near a full allotment of movies to keep business humming.

With the exception of a solid March fueled by Warner Bros./Legendary’s “Dune: Part Two” and “Godzilla x Kong” as well as Universal/DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda 4,” the box office has been left bruised from that lack of consistent releases.

Once the box office grosses from those March films subsided, theaters were left with an April slate that was quite depleted. Thanks in part to the strikes, there was no massive tentpole hit like last year’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” or even a more modest success like April 2022’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.” Instead, the highest grossing film released in April 2024 was A24’s “Civil War” with just $68.1 million domestic.

“Theatrical is a very fragile ecosystem. Anything that disrupts it has a ripple effect down the line,” said Dergarabedian. “It took a long time to get here, and it’s going to take a longer time to get out of it, and that goes beyond any big hit that makes us think ‘everything’s great again’ or a film that doesn’t work and keeps the numbers down.”

With no films performing strongly at the end of April, the box office was already on the back foot to start the summer season, and that slump only compounded given that there was…

No Marvel

Heading into its final week, the May domestic box office is set to post the worst total for the month since at least 2006, which happens to be the last non-pandemic year that did not have a Marvel movie to kick off the summer season.

With Marvel Studios moving “Deadpool & Wolverine” from early May to late July due to strike-induced production delays, theaters were left with “The Fall Guy,” which has flopped with $143 million grossed and counting worldwide against a $125 million budget before marketing.

With the exception of the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the May box office has yielded a $100 million-plus opening every year since 2015. This year, there’s been only one film since the start of April to even open to more than $35 million: Disney/20th Century’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” with a $58.4 million launch.

Without Marvel boosting the numbers throughout May, theaters did not have a major pillar of the early summer season. And the domino effect of that absence continued to Memorial Day weekend, as the market had one less franchise to provide major holdover support.

“Furiosa” and “Garfield” are not 4-quadrant tentpoles

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is shaping up to be a big-budget bust for Warner Bros. after months of big hits from various genres. Projected for a $40 million extended domestic launch and $80-85 million worldwide, the film is instead opening to $32 million domestic and $65 million global against a $168 million budget — all in spite of a strong reception from critics and audiences.

But it’s worth noting that even if it had matched the start of “Mad Max: Fury Road” — a film that opened to $45 million in 2015 and made $379 million worldwide — “Furiosa” wasn’t ever expected to be a “Fast & Furious” or Disney remake-level moneymaker for theaters, skewing more towards male audiences and to longtime “Mad Max” fans.

Nor was “The Garfield Movie,” which met projections with its $31.1 million start. The film should turn a profit for Sony Pictures with $91 million grossed so far against a $60 million production budget financed by Alcon, before marketing. Based on a comic book strip that has been relatively dormant in pop culture recently, “Garfield” was set to be more of a family play than a four-quadrant title like the upcoming “Inside Out 2” or “Despicable Me 4” and performed accordingly.

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“The Garfield Movie” and cast (Sony Pictures Releasing/Getty Images)

In a healthier box office, these two films could have provided secondary support to the theatrical market while franchise films with bigger buzz did more of the heavy lifting. Instead, they’re the top films at a box office that has gone more than two months without a film that has grossed more than $200 million in North America.

Audiences are more selective

Finally, there’s the ongoing trend that exhibitors and studio execs alike have been well aware of in this post-COVID shutdown market: the threshold for widespread audience attention is higher.

Granted, a major box office success can still come from anywhere, as films like “Dune: Part Two,” “Sound of Freedom” and the “Barbenheimer” duo can attest. But underperforming films like “Furiosa” and “The Fall Guy” also show that even when a major movie gets strong reviews and word-of-mouth, it’s not always enough.

There’s never an exact recipe to get widespread cultural attention. Sometimes it’s a killer trailer like “Barbie,” placed before another cultural hit like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” that gets the ball rolling. Other times it’s something about the film that goes viral organically like the “M3GAN” dance or Javier Bardem shouting “Lisan al-Gaib!” Sometimes it’s just pure nostalgia like having Hugh Jackman play Wolverine for the 10th time but in a comic book-accurate costume.

But after the pandemic permanently altered the public’s entertainment viewing habits, there is a widening category for many people between “skip this one” and “see it in theaters” that films can be classified into: the “wait until home release” category, where people are intrigued by a film’s strong reviews, but decide to wait until they can digitally rent or stream the film rather than spend money on premium format movie tickets and concessions (not to mention a babysitter).

With “The Fall Guy” just beginning its premium on-demand run (Universal released it on digital on May 21, less than three weeks after it hit theaters), it’s still to be seen whether it will perform well enough in digital rental or on Peacock to have brought a return on investment for Universal. Perhaps “Furiosa” will see a similar post-theatrical rebound like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which according to The Numbers made $56.4 million from North American physical media sales back in 2015.

But even if PVOD helps these films save face financially, that’s no comfort to movie theaters, which are still riding the rollercoaster of astonishing highs and extended slumps that has defined the post-COVID box office.

As for the rest of the summer, Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” is currently tracking for an $80 million opening weekend in mid-June. Adult-skewing franchise films like “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” and “A Quiet Place: Day One” may not lift the market to the heights usually seen in June, but should provide more sustainable numbers than we’ve seen in May.

That will lead into a July highlighted by “Despicable Me 4” and “Deadpool & Wolverine,” both of which are expected to be the first $100 million-plus openings theaters have seen in a year and will kick off a second half of 2024 that industry insiders say has better potential for strong box office performance.

A frame that can dodge the months-long slumps that have been recurrent going back to 2021 would be more than welcome.

Comments

25 responses to “4 Reasons Why the Memorial Day Box Office Was So Awful and What it Means for a Struggling Theatrical Business | Analysis”

  1. Jack Avatar
    Jack

    The Mad Max franchise skews male, as noted in this article and as is evident by the 72% male audience percentage over the holiday weekend. The problem is, most older male fans of the franchise didn’t want a prequel film about a young female character with no Mad Max (and for whom they already know the outcome as it’s a prequel). They’re not going to pay for a theater ticket to see a film they didn’t want. This is not a “must watch” for older fans. That 72% of males making up the opening weekend are going to be younger skewing, newer male fans who don’t mind an action film centered on a female protagonist, hence the “B+” Cinescore. But the film will be a loss for the studio with mostly millennial and gen-z males and a small percentage of women attending in theaters while the bigger portion of the franchise fan base stays away.

    George Miller is a great filmmaker but he made the mistake of not giving the fans what they want (Mad Max) and instead giving critics what they wanted (more Furiosa).

    1. TC Avatar
      TC

      You just nailed this!

  2. Gina S Avatar
    Gina S

    One of the biggest issues is the price to go to a movie. My husband and I went to see the latest Ghostbuster movie. What a waste. It costed us $50 to go and a medium Icee was almost $10. And this was in Queens, not Manhattan. How do families afford that? It used to be a cheap way to entertain your children. Now the movies a bad and you need a mortgage to take your family.

    1. Steven G Kramer Avatar
      Steven G Kramer

      Exactly. Spot on. Who wants to spend this kind of money on mediocre.

  3. jbspry Avatar
    jbspry

    There’s a guy in my neighborhood who sells narcotics and he’s doing a land office business.
    He works a lot in front of a boarded-up New Age bookstore that recently went out of business because it couldn’t pay the rent or the payroll.
    Maybe selling something people want to buy instead of selling something you want to sell is a better idea than Hollywood gives it credit for being…
    FJB
    TRUMP2024!

    1. Steven Avatar
      Steven

      And actually being able to afford going.

    2. s0ul Avatar
      s0ul

      Ah a Trump Cultist.

  4. Rand Avatar
    Rand

    We got tired of the progressive slant and incessant gay/trans/anti-white messaging. We quit buying pop and popcorn when it cost $15. No reason for us to return.

    Close it down and stop whining from the problems you created.

  5. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    Trump weighs in on “Furiosa” flopping:
    https://youtu.be/USM0U4MBjRY?si=pt5GQs_Un-YQfMpj

  6. Ola Avatar
    Ola

    The main problem this article didn’t mention is the price of tickets and concessions. It’s insanely expensive to go watch a movie and given that there’s general inflation, people are going to be more selective with their money. Add to that the poor quality of cinemas now. The seats are generally worn down, cleanliness is hit or miss and a lot of people are badly behaved, talking during the show or getting mad and shouting at those who are talking during the movie lol. Basically, the cinema experience these days isn’t very wonderful. 

  7. Dishwa Brown Avatar
    Dishwa Brown

    I personally boycott you if your stand on your soapbox about liberal ideals. Go woke and go broke ! You planted this seed so be careful the chickens have come home to roost!

  8. Ralph E Hughes Avatar
    Ralph E Hughes

    Why would I support an industry that wants to destroy the established successful American way of life? Congrats Hollywood. You are reaping what you have sown!

  9. D3F1ANT Avatar
    D3F1ANT

    Oh good…they “fixed” Mad Max by (effectively) making him a girl; a small girl who beats all the brutish men! Yaaaay! Except we’re all tired of this Woke nonsense. Proof is in the ticket sales. We like female leads…just stop using them to replacing beloved male characters.

  10. T. Crow Avatar
    T. Crow

    How about new fresh ideas for movies? Why is it always the same Marvel universe or or remake of old movies? As it goes for the Wokeness there early isn’t a large group of people that want or like that and so the pubic has a backlash of not wanting that shoved down their throats all the time. What is it that $20-$30 a seat and $10 soda or popcorn makes it attractive to go out and see a movie? Plus people talking and cell phones being used do not help. Hollywood has always been a fantasy/trash world and they still live in that fantasy world in their minds. 
    New movie ideas, new writers and no more Woke !

  11. PC Avatar
    PC

    Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the films suck. But self-obsessed Hollyweird would never point the finger at themselves.

    1. PC Avatar
      PC

      Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the films suck. But self-obsessed Hollyweird would never point the finger at themselves.

      Let’s use “Barbie” as an example of how far the mainstream film business has fallen. An absolutely awful film. Nominated for EIGHT Academy Awards. You have to have an IQ under 70 to like this movie. There are THOUSANDS OF MOVIES better than “Barbie” almost all are available to watch with a 50cent cola and a 25cent bag of microwave popcorn.
      It will not be long before the “theatrical release” goes the way of Blockbuster. Good riddance.

  12. M. Rokatansky Avatar
    M. Rokatansky

    Conglomerates and Private Equity destroying small businesses and stripping America for parts: “We’re crushing it!”

    Same groups when no one goes to see the movies their subsidiaries make: “Why aren’t the plebs spending any money?”

  13. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    This is Hollywoods transition into social and political propaganda over creativity and trying to normalize emasculated women acting like men in movies made famous by men is ridiculous and a failing trend in Hollywood as per the numbers. Imagine if we take the greatest female acting role films and replace them with over feminized men; it would also be rejected and be the opposite of original as it’s just now becoming a copy iteration of a well known loved movie and offending its audience with strange gender magnification of minority audiences and any executive that green lights this un original gender replacement films should be fired. You can’t force the marketplace to only accept your social views as that’s propaganda and that’s what Hollywood has become. A one party political propaganda machine in the vein of ww2 Germany magnifying fake academics pushing gender supremacy which is as absurd as the whites are getting pseudoscience that Germany pushed prior to the ethnic cleansing of the Jews and ww2. It’s a dangerous path and the laws which made Hollywood open to domestic propaganda need to go as it hasn’t worked and is starting to resemble other catastrophic failures in history.

  14. Thom Lopes Avatar

    The people currently running the movie business are not as smart as their predecessors, back in the 50s thru the 80s. Currently, they lard up their projects with “progressive” themes, lectures, characters, and scolds.

    They forgot, or never knew, or resisted the fact that views want entertainment, not lectures or social instruction.

    Movies that emulated Giant, Midnight Cowboy, Klute, Three Days of The Condor, Ghost, 3 Men And A Baby, The Godfather, or Casino Royale (2006) would bring great revenue and make customers return.

    The dreck offered this year will only continue to kill the business by killing the desire of the customer base to buy the offered products.

  15. J T Avatar
    J T

    Woke-Infested, terror-supporting, pervert loving  Hollywood cannot get it through their thick, Woke-Infested Skulls that when you go WOKE ….. You go BROKE ! …  EVERY TIME !

    1. s0ul Avatar
      s0ul

      Take your meds for woke derangement syndrome.

  16. Evil Mr M Avatar
    Evil Mr M

    There’s also the matter of a lot less screens around since Covid, although theatres have been in decline further than that. In my admittedly small sample size, there were 2 multiplex theatres within 10 mile of my home several years back, today there are none. I know of no movies in the theatres now or in the recent past that make me want to drive a half-hour or longer each way to view.

  17. JeffC Avatar
    JeffC

    Tired remakes and woke garbage are to blame. Stop blaming covid and the strike. I cancelled my Paramount+ subscription this week for the same reason. It won’t improve until the industry recognizes what the real problems are and changes.

  18. jack mccready Avatar
    jack mccready

    Roger Ebert once said, “Hollywood makes about 95 movies a year. Of those only 2 or 3 will be remembered next year.” Who wants to pay to see a movie with only a one in a hundred chance of being good!

  19. Cranky Boomer Avatar

    If the Turner Classic Movies video channel was streamed to a local movie theatre near me, I’d make the drive to sit in their recliner seats, pay to watch a classic well-made movie (or two), and occasionally splurge on their overpriced popcorn. The garbage Hollywood turns out today just isn’t worth my time.

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