August 23, 2020

The Return of Box Office – 8.23.2020


What are we to make of the first meaningful box office numbers to come our way since March?  The area is a landscape of spin in the best of times, and these of course are not those.  Other than drive-ins, heatres remain closed in several major US markets (including both NY and LA), and where open, they’re limited to 30-50% of capacity.  In addition, although studios and theatre owners don’t agree on much right now, the one area where they unite is in the desire to sound as encouraging as possible about the ticket-buying experience, an objective that extends as well to producers, agents, managers and other sources for pundits whose sites rely on movie ad-buys for revenue.

UNHINGED (Solstice) positioned itself months ago as the “canary in the coal mine” that would be the first wide release once enough theatres were open for a release to be wide.  This bought the film tens of millions of dollars in free publicity, ironically enough for a title that in a pre-virus world might well have gone straight to video.  (It’s been a decade since Russell Crowe anchored a hit action movie, or for that matter any hit other than the oddities Les Miserables and Noah.)

Unhinged gathered 1823 theatres across the US and Canada (this was its 2nd weekend in Canada), and emerged with a $4.1M weekend, a per-theatre average of $2200.  In normal terms, those aren’t good numbers.  By way of comparison, before the shutdown, The Invisible Man opened with a $7800 per-theatre average, and The Gentlemen averaged $4900.  While it’s true that Unhinged wasn’t able to open in some major cities, the flip side is that it faced literally almost no competition, and the limited seating capacity was offset by the fact that it could occupy as many screens as it wanted in open multiplexes.  In addition, 7 of its top 10 venues were drive-ins, suggesting that audiences are still wary of sharing enclosed space with strangers (especially since every major theatre chain is keeping its concession stands open, meaning that many audience members won’t have masks on while they eat and drink).

On the other hand, it was a positive sign that Unhinged reported a 10% Friday-to-Saturday rise, despite terrible reviews.  However, this too was less decisive than it might have been because the film had a disproportionately high audience of older ticket-buyers, and they’re typically less frontloaded than the young.  The studio thinks Unhinged will retain strong business all week, and plans to expand by about 25% next weekend, so we’ll see how it holds up.

The weekend’s other (and less wide) openings were more downbeat.  WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS (Roadside) managed $462K at 925 theatres, a $500 average.  CUT THROAT CITY (WellGo) averaged $600 at 395 for a $240K total.  The arthouse TESLA (IFC) averaged $400 at 108 (that one was also available via VOD) and totaled $42K.

It’s worth noting that while things remain uncertain at best in the US, moviegoing has come roaring back in China, here the pandemic is far more under control  THE 800 launched there with a huge $116M opening week (including several nights of previews), a major relief for studios that rely on that market for a big chunk of their revenue.

Here, things will remain a work in progress, even assuming that no health events force theatres to close again.  Next weekend, THE NEW MUTANTS (20th/Disney) will finally limp into theatres after years of postponments, and there will also be a limited release for THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (Searchlight/Disney).  The following week, of course, is the one everyone has been waiting for, as TENET (Warners) becomes the first tentpole opening in months–but even that film’s results will be blurry, because Warners is preceding the official opening with three nights of “early access” screenings, effectively giving Tenet a 6-day opening “weekend”.  After that, there isn’t another major title on the schedule until WONDER WOMAN 1984 (Warners) on October 2.  Of course, in a year marked so far by shocking world events, anything could happen by then.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."