This Year in Box Office History: 2018 Retrospective.
All of the numbers are in, so we look back at 2018 to find the good, bad, and interesting trends.
2018 saw a lot of records shatter, and a wild reorganization of the calendar. One of the fun aspects of looking at 30 years of box office numbers is spotting phase transitions – that moment when an old trend fades and a new normal emerges. For years a certain type of film dominates a specific time of year, and then suddenly a new genre ascends, usually in time of year that was considered a waste of effort. It’s box office evolution! Leave the nonthreatening upstart alone in the “dump months” with enough time to build a following, and suddenly it explodes in popularity and the former apex films die out.
Do the Evolution.
2018 is exciting because we’re seeing both the culmination of that trend and the hints of the trends that may supplant it. Superhero movies ate their vegetables for a while, with Marvel biding its time in phase 1 with solo films that premiered in the off-peak seasons of April and May. What was a weakness became a strength as the big splashy summer movies started to fail and audiences shifted to Beuna Vista’s timetable of “one big movie before summer, one after.”
Now we see the biggest months of the year are almost all traditionally off-peak. February and September were considered dump months. The last 3-4 years have seen record shattering numbers in those months. It’s also seen record lows for July and August, former prime locations. Evolution in action.
The superhero movie has become the default, dominant film…but two other genres are starting to solidify as competitors, and much in the same manner. The indie/art-house horror film has started to clear out its orbit, making big splashes in Spring with films like Get Out, A Quiet Place, and Split. In Fall, the artsy flick’s big brother rolls into town: the big budget horror remake. Halloween and IT both crushed big numbers in the Fall. In similar fashion, big hard science fiction is staking out claims in off peak months. Look at the clout and revenue behind films like Arrival, Gravity, and Interstellar. These films are getting summer blockbuster money while still being beloved by critics.
Beyond the shifting of popular release months and genres, 2018 had a wealth of intriguing data to sift. We’ll break them down here, and give our impressions of which trends are good, which are bad, and which could develop into something totally new in the near future.
The Good: Spreading the Love.
Last year saw Hollywood grow its base. Records were broken in February, April, June, and October. Additionally, 2018 placed in the top three for November, December, and May. That means that more than half of the year saw growth, and usually staggering growth.
Looking seasonally, the highest grossing films released in Spring and Winter were both released in 2018. Winter 2018 was 300 million dollars better than the closest competitor, thanks to Black Panther. Spring was snapped into existence by Avengers Infinity War, eclipsing the nearest rival by 200 million. Fall barely missed being number one, thanks to help from Venom and Halloween. The Holiday season managed a top 7 finish despite not having a big Star Wars film.
Not only was the money being spent, it was being spread around. 2018 saw the highest gross of all time (11.8 billion) being spent on the most movie releases of all time (871 films). Every category of film rating saw increases except NC-17 and PG-13, which were essentially static. While Buena Vista grew its share of the money pie, it actually released less films in 2018. Same with Warner Brothers. Huge gains were made by art-house studios like Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, and A24.
The Bad: Disney Dominance.
Disney’s parent company of Buena Vista continued its expansion in 2018. BV owned 26% of the box office, despite releasing only ten movies. (Number two, Warner, released nearly 40 movies yet only captured 16% of the box office.) The big news was the acquisition of many of Fox’s properties. Previous deals had brought Spider-Man back into the fold for Disney from Sony, and now its primed to get the X-Men and Fantastic 4 as well. This substantially shrinks the competition, just when Fox had seemed to get its footing back with hits like Deadpool, Logan, and X-Men Days of Future Past.
The less obvious downside to consolidating all of the biggest franchises under one company is that Buena Vista now has market dominance on multiple fronts. Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm means that BV has so much clout, they can throw their weight around to harm distributors and theaters. That’s exactly what they did with Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast. Worse news, BV now has a controlling share in Hulu, on the eve of launching its own streaming platform in Disney+. It’s not a hard lift to envision Disney strangling streaming TV like they’ve strangled theaters.
The Interesting: That’s the Ticket?
The money was certainly good in 2018, but the figure insiders have been watching is actual ticket sales and ticket prices. 2018 was a mixed report on that front. Ticket prices rose again, from 8.97 in 2017 to 9.11, averaged nationally. That’s a dollar higher than 2014, and about 1.50 higher than a decade ago. This rate isn’t sustainable. The system has been able to vent some steam with programs like MoviePass, Sinemia, and AMC’s in house program, but when a single movie costs more than many of these plans charge a month, they’re not going to be around for long.
On the plus side, ticket sales rebounded last year. A steady decline since 2015 reversed itself, with 2018 adding 5% more sales, almost cancelling out 2017’s slide of 6%. An encouraging stat, but we’re still nowhere near where the numbers were back a decade ago. 2018 held on to being in the top twenty of annual ticket sales. If we see another solid increase next year, we may have something to celebrate.
Next Year in Box Office History?
Those were the big developments in 2018. It will be interesting to see if Disney’s saturation of Star Wars and Live-Action adaptations continues to grow their share in 2019, or if fatigue will actually set in. I’d wager that we see another big March/April frame, with Marvel and Disney teeing up three movies and Jordan Peele looking to repeat his freshman success with another early year horror gem. The final installment of both the current Avengers and Star Wars story lines may make 2019 another recording breaking year. We’ll be there to cover the trends when it is all said and done.