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It’s a weird year for movies

A quick look at 2020 numbers show life hasn’t moved at all since the pandemic started

Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG from Paramount Pictures and Sega. Photo Credit: Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Sega of America.
Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG from Paramount Pictures and Sega. Photo Credit: Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Sega of America.
Paramount Pictures

The 2020 box office numbers are striking. One quick look at the list shows a weird assortment of movies that came out before the pandemic and ones that were hits in 2019 — since there were so few movies released before the pandemic hit.

Only two films released in the pandemic era — “Tenet” and “The New Mutants” — made the list, and they’re not even within the top five for the United States.

Here’s a rundown of the films. These are the top 10 grossing films for the 2020 U.S. box office, courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

  1. “Bad Boys for Life” — $206 million
  2. “Sonic the Hedgehog” — $146 million
  3. “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” — $84 million
  4. “Dolittle” — $77 million
  5. “The Invisible Man” — $64 million
  6. “The Call of the Wild” — $62 million
  7. “Onward” — $61 million
  8. “Tenet” — $50 million
  9. “Fantasy Island” — $27 million
  10. “The New Mutants” — $22 million

Many of the same films make the list when you look at total worldwide numbers. “Tenet” climbs to the third spot due to its international numbers, and “Sonic” drops down to No. 4 on the list.

A look at this list is a glimpse into a world long gone by. These are films that were hyped for months ahead of the pandemic, ones we considered seeing when we weren’t spooked about heading to the movies.

“Onward” — seventh on the list — was the last film I saw in theaters. In fact, I watched it as a part of the Pixar movie marathon, which aired a few different Pixar movies before the new film. It was definitely a good way to end my run of seeing movies for 2020, since I wouldn’t see them for so long. Though, I would have definitely soaked up all of the moments if I had known it would be the last film I saw in theaters.

Before I left for the marathon, my editor wondered if I felt safe going to the movie theater with the coronavirus hanging around. Even back then, the thought of what the virus could do was real and present.

I still remember that day. Sitting in the theater. Knowing the coronavirus was lingering throughout our country. A cough here. A sneeze there. The virus had already begun its spread into our minds and into our daily understanding of how our lives would change.

And things did change. Theaters across the country shut off their screens out of safety concerns from the coronavirus. Studios pulled the plug on new releases. “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Mulan” were all pushed back, the last of which became a Disney Plus exclusive. The other two films in that list continue to switch release dates. There’s no indication when they will run.

“Tenet” was the test case for whether or not Americans were ready to return to the movie theaters. The film did decently well, placing in the top eight for total domestic box office numbers — and near the head of the worldwide box office. And yet, the film pulled in $41 million domestically in four weeks, according to Variety. These are relatively small numbers for a major Hollywood film. Returning to theaters has become something akin to entering a haunted house. You don’t know if a nightmare lingers around the corner. If people do enter, will there be enough people to sustain the business?

Worldwide, it’s a different year, too. China recently became the leader of the worldwide box office, mostly because American movie theaters remain closed while China’s are open. And the Chinese film “The Eight Hundred” is poised to lead the worldwide box office numbers. It’s currently ahead of “Bad Boys for Life” and “Tenet.”

“So, at the moment, the overseas box office is really crucial, and we are seeing foreign companies — Chinese and, to some extent, Japanese — filling in where Hollywood would have been,” said Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University.

There’s a different version of 2020 where “Black Widow” and “Wonder Woman 1984” battle it out for the world’s top box office spot. They would be neck and neck at the top of the list. Marvel’s “The Eternals” and “Tenet” may have had an outside shot at the top spot, too.

This isn’t the first time movie theaters shut down during a pandemic. It happened in 1918 during the influenza pandemic. In fact, the Moving Picture News posted a poem about it in November 1918 about how movie theater rows were empty throughout the country.

The Moving Picture News posted a poem about the Spanish flu in November 1918, about how movie theater rows were empty throughout the country.
The Moving Picture News posted a poem about it in November 1918 about how movie theater rows were empty throughout the country.
Kendall Phillips

We’re seeing the same now. Only things are slightly different. Streaming is an option for films. Can’t release your film in theaters? Send it on demand or through a streaming service.

Most minor titles have made their way to streaming instead. “Mulan” is an example of that. We could see that more in the future as Disney has restructured to put more of an emphasis on streaming, too. Investors have called for “Black Widow” to be released on Disney Plus instead of in theaters, too.

Now, the question remains about whether people will eventually return to theaters.

“I think the jury is still out and until there is some major development on the public health front, we are likely to see the big studios biting the bullet and going the ‘Mulan’ streaming route,” Phillips said.

But this argument speaks to the now. It speaks to our modern climate. Fast forward into the future one or two years. COVID-19 is out of the air. A vaccine mitigates the risk. People sit inside theaters to see the premiere of “The Eternals” or “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.” People could rush their way back to the theaters.

The movie theater industry may be in jeopardy right now. It may be a weird year for films. But it could be a weird year for now, and only now. Maybe, in the not-too-distant future, life will return to normal and seats will be even more filled than before.

New York will soon open movie theaters, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week. And that could be a major step forward.

“The news from Gov. Cuomo on Saturday was a monumental step forward for the cinema industry,” AMC CEO Adam Aron told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“AMC has been able to open our theaters across the country,” Aron said. “Now that we can open in New York, New York state first, but that means New York City is right behind. That also means that the Christmas movies are going to hold.”