2016 = Four Box Office Quarters = USD $11.372 billion

By Patrick Corcoran | January 31, 2017 10:26 pm PST
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Guest columnist Patrick Corcoran, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of cinema trade body NATO, reviews the North American box office year 2016 and finds that for the first time it was a year of four equal quarters, amongst other notable highlights.

As the calendar pages flipped from 2015 to 2016 and the North American cinema industry counted the receipts from a record breaking year – the first to top $11 billion – few industry analysts though 2016 could top it. Wait til 2017, they said. That will be huge. And we all turned to the movies that lay ahead, content to shrug off the expected temporary box office decline and ponder dreamily the riches that next year would bring.

But here we are in early 2017 looking back on another record year at the box office, a little confused as to how it happened. As we relentlessly compare this weekend’s box office to the week before and the equivalent weekend the year before, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening right under our noses. 2016 led 2015 in total box office from the very first day of the year and for every day after that, yet that information didn’t begin to intrude on the industry’s consciousness until very late in the year. How it did it is illuminating and encouraging.

2015 had a couple of things going it for it – Jurassic World in May, and a fully-armed and operational Death Star in December – each of which grossed over $600 million in the calendar year. The Force Awakens added $280 million in 2016. 2016 had no $600 million grossers, but it did have three $400 million grossers, six $300 million-plus films, four $200 million titles, and 15 $100 million toppers. And they were spread through the year. A $100 million-plus grossing film opened in every month of the year except October. This was also the case in 2015, when every month but January saw a $100 million title (although January 2015 gets an honorary $100 million title, as American Sniper, which opened in December 2014, went wide in January and accumulated most of its gross then).

The Holy Grail for exhibitors is a 52 week calendar, meaning there is something to attract moviegoers all year long. It does moviegoers and the movie industry no favor to essentially advertise that there are some weeks when there is no reason to look to the movie theater for entertainment. Anybody who has paid any attention to the theater industry has listened to NATO bang on about this for the last twenty years; it finally seems to be happening.

You can see it when you compare the quarterly domestic totals. Q1 pulled in $2.789 billion, Q2 $2.8 billion, Q3 $2.97 billion, and Q4 $2.8 billion. The balance is striking, with Q1 and Q3 exceeding the previous year’s by 12.7% and 12.3%, respectively. Some of that balance came with Q2 and Q4 trailing the previous year by 9.3% and 3.9%. But the upshot is 2016 passed the $10 billion mark three weeks earlier than 2015 and setting a new record by year end.

That balance also fueled a summer that equaled the previous year, despite being rather differently constructed. 2016’s summer started a week later and faced the formidable grosses of Jurassic World. Yet, 2015 and 2016 split the box office honors through the portion that occupied Q2, with four weeks up and four weeks down by comparison. The Q3 segment was different, with nine of ten of 2016’s weekly totals exceeding 2015.

To be sure, serendipity plays a role. Movies underperform and overperform; The almost customary October $100 million adult drama didn’t materialize this year, but it has become almost de rigueur to attempt it since Argo staked out that territory in 2012. That is the way of the Hollywood Calendar. What works (sometimes by accident and sometimes by experiment) will be tried again. It was not so long ago that Will Smith and 4th of July weekend were synonymous. But experiments are risky, and no one ever lost their job in Hollywood by doing what worked before. Still, there has been a steady expansion of the calendar. Summer used to begin Memorial Day weekend; it’s now the first weekend in May. Can marking the first day of summer by filing our income tax be far behind? Beware the Ides of March.

March, by the way, is also a reliable launchpad for blockbusters, prompted in part by a desire for studios to make a start of summer home release date and theater owners wanting to take the chill off an early spring. Compromises were made and the calendar expanded. The same is true of late September and the previously noted October. January has been a frequent member of the $100 million club since Paul Blart: Mall Cop took everyone by surprise in 2009.

But I suspect the recent expansion of the calendar has something to do with Marvel’s October 2014 announcement of its “Phase 3” 11-film slate with dates slotted through 2019. Add in the DC Universe of films, Pixar, the Star Wars franchise and its spin-offs, Disney animation and its live action adaptations, the Faster and Furiousers, the second wave of Harry Potter’s universe, James Bond, the unknown but metastasizing number of Avatar sequels, and we have even begun to consider how many more movies Woody Allen will make in the next three years.

My point, I hope is clear. The calendar is expanding because there is so much interrelated content planned for theatrical release over the next several years. The reality is find a space or die. And, perhaps not paradoxically, the reality means movie theaters will thrive. Year round.

Patrick Corcoran