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Box Office: 3 Key Reasons 2019 Is Off To Such A Slow Start

With Hollywood facing its worst-performing Presidents Day weekend since 2004 and its lowest cumulative gross (around six weeks into 2019) since 2011, there’s going to be a lot of finger-pointing in terms of what’s going wrong and whether the various Disney mega-movies (starting with Captain Marvel) will be enough to goose the overall domestic box office.

The films released in 2019 thus far have earned a combined $616 million in North America, not counting holdovers from 2018 and Oscar platformers. Throwing in the holdovers gives it a $1.171 billion cume thus far. Only two newbies (Glass and The Upside) are just over/under $100m domestic. I’m presuming that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World will become the third such title (and, god willing, the year’s first $150m-plus grosser) while LEGO Movie 2 should still crawl to $100m by the end. But either way, Hollywood is currently impatiently waiting for Captain Marvel to save its collective butt.

As far as “why,” there are, I would argue, three core culprits to be discussed.

First, and this applies to the overall cumulative box office (counting 2018 holdover business), the Oscar season was a relative bust. As much as we talk about January being a dump month, it is also when most moviegoers (the ones that don’t live in the major cities) get to see the year-end Oscar contenders. The overall grosses in January are almost always boosted by one or two (or three) crowd-pleasing Oscar contenders that earn rave reviews in November and December and then expand to a relatively successful domestic wide release in January and February.

Think (among many others) A Beautiful Mind ($171 million in 2001/2002),  Million Dollar Baby ($100m in 2004/2005), Slumdog Millionaire ($138m in 2008/2009), American Sniper ($350m in 2014/2015) and Hidden Figures ($169m in 2016/2017). This year was a near-total disaster for year-end Oscar movies, where only the live-action musicals (A Star Is BornBohemian Rhapsody and, relatively speaking, Mary Poppins Returns) broke out among adult moviegoers. The only successful post-nomination expansion was for Universal/Comcast’s Green Book, which will still be lucky to top $75m domestic by the end.

Vice ($45 million) and The Favourite ($31m) are the only other year-end Oscar contenders that grossed more than, believe it or not, Dragon Ball Broly: Super ($30m). Without leggy/crowd-pleasing Oscar contenders that mainstream audiences actually saw in theaters (because heaven forbid adults see grown-up cinema in theaters), one major component that usually makes up a successful winter frame was almost entirely absent.

Second, and this also applies to the overall cumulative box office, this is the first year since 2014/2015 where we didn’t have a Star Wars movie sucking up post-December grosses. For example, The Force Awakens earned an obscene $651 million in December of 2015 (the biggest December release ever not even counting whatever it made in January and February) and then earned another $244m in January (the second-biggest January earner ever behind only American Sniper‘s expansion) before nabbing another $41m over the next two months. By the time it was played out, the industry was already knee-deep in Deadpool grosses ($363m) with Zootopia ($341m), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330m) and The Jungle Book ($364m) just a few weeks away.

Sure, The Last Jedi ($620 million) earned 2/3 of what The Force Awakens ($937m) did in the domestic box office, and it only earned $102m of its cume in the start of 2018. But it was aided by Sony’s stupidly leggy Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (which earned $235m of its $404m cume in 2018) and Fox’s hilariously leggy The Greatest Showman (which earned $125m of its $175m cume in 2018). By the time those three biggies slowed down (after pumping a combined $460m into the 2018 box office), Black Panther was ready to (through no fault of its own) steamroll over every other would-be tentpole film between itself and Ready Player One (more on that in a moment).

This year, among late 2018 releases, only Aquaman ($138 million of its $332m domestic cume) has pulled in sizable grosses in 2019. The four big Christmas movies (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseBumblebeeMary Poppins Returns and Aquaman) earned a combined $328m in 2019 thus far, compared to $460m from last year’s three big holdovers. The highest-grossing Oscar holdover was Green Book, which earned just $34m since January 1.

Moreover, as a side effect of Black Panther‘s hilariously huge success, the first three months of the year are now almost entirely dependant on one or two “big” moviesBlack Panther‘s “T’Challa breaks for no one” blow-out ($700 million domestic from a $242m Fri-Mon debut) run left a bunch of would-be tentpoles (Red SparrowA Wrinkle in TimeTomb Raider and Pacific Rim: Uprising) looking like glorified counterprogramming. Hollywood (understandably) reacted this year by giving some room between the various would-be biggies in the pre-summer season.

Warner Bros. moved Godzilla: King of the Monsters from March 30 to May 30, Lionsgate moved Hellboy from January to April and Universal shifted their Robert Downey Jr. Doctor Dolittle from April to January of 2020. Glass and The Upside were the only two serious contenders in January, The LEGO Movie 2 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World were the pre-appointed biggies of February and Captain Marvel and Dumbo (along with, relatively speaking, Us) were the official mega-movies of March. But when the official tentpoles of the month falter, thanks partially to the always-present “fewer people go to the movies just to go to the movies than they did five years ago” variable, the entire month goes down with them.

If you argue that Glass slightly underperformed (or performed to realistic expectations) and The Upside overperformed, neither picture went gonzo-bananas. Even if Alita: Battle Angel “surprises” by flirting with $100 million domestic instead of $60m domestic, that still leaves The LEGO Movie 2 earning closer to $115m than $215m. With $175m overseas thus far, DreamWorks Animation and Universal/Comcast’s How To Train Your Dragon 3 is now merely hoping that it can at least approximate the $41m debut/$141m domestic finish of 2016’s Kung Fu Panda 3. It’s not like The Kid Who Would Be King, Miss Bala or Serenity were going to make up the difference.

A bummer Oscar season, a smaller-than-usual gross from late-2018 holdovers and a few key biggies underperforming by themselves might have been mitigated had they all not occurred concurrently. A busier tentpole season and a more vibrant Oscar season might have compensated for the lack of a Star Wars movie (yes, AquamanBumblebee and Mary Poppins Returns barely earned more combined, with $627m-and-counting, than The Last Jedi). Or a Star Wars movie earning Star Wars money might have compensated for underperforming tentpoles or a weak Oscar season. But all three, and well, you’ve got the slowest start, sans inflation, since 2011.



This article originally appeared on Forbes