4 Reasons Why the Memorial Day Box Office Was So Awful and What it Means for a Struggling Theatrical Business | Analysis

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, it was already expected that the box office would see the lowest totals from this holiday since the turn of the century. The final results have fallen even below that.

The No. 1 film for this weekend, “Furiosa,” made just $32 million over the four-day period, making it the lowest No. 1 Memorial Day release since 1995, when the family film “Casper” opened to $22 million before inflation adjustment.

Box office analysis company Nash Information Systems, operator of The Numbers, had projected a $160 million 4-day total prior to the start of the weekend. That would have been enough to make it the lowest Memorial Day weekend since at least 1999. But the final total has clocked in at $128 million, down 37% from last year and the lowest in 26 years.

This dramatic a low could suggest a real tipping point for the theatrical movie business. What are the implications for the future of a theatrical business when Memorial Day, with well-reviewed movies, hit a 26-year low? And having chosen to embrace streaming while producing movies for theaters, what changes might studios need to make to adjust to the new reality?

Industry insiders told TheWrap that the long-term implications of such a poor weekend are still difficult to discern, given that the 2024 box office data is muddled by last year’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. The strike-induced production lag has prolonged inconsistent grosses caused by inconsistent output of films for theaters since they reopened.

“I don’t think this is an inflection point where we say, ‘Oh, if the pandemic didn’t finish it off, the strikes will,'” said Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “This is a slump that I think everyone in Hollywood saw coming when the strikes went on for weeks on end. So many factors came together to disassemble any hope of a really strong Memorial Day weekend.”

The disappointing performances of “Furiosa” and “The Garfield Movie” compared to past Memorial Day releases were certainly one of those factors, but the box office conundrum is bigger than any single film.

It was only on Memorial Day that the monthly domestic total for May crossed $500 million, compared to $774 million for the entire month in May 2023 and $785 million in 2022. From 2009 to 2019, the lowest May total was $835 million in 2017 while crossing $1 billion eight times.

The question is: does a historically poor May signal a crisis for the box office as a whole?

Domestic box office totals for May

The reasons behind this miserable May are myriad, but here are the big ones:

Strikes slash the slate

Since the start of 2024, exhibitors and studio executives alike knew that the first half of the year would be rough. With films like Pixar’s “Elio,” “Mission: Impossible 8” and “Deadpool & Wolverine” getting moved due to production delays caused by last year’s 191-day double strike, theaters would not have anywhere near a full allotment of movies to keep business humming.

With the exception of a solid March fueled by Warner Bros./Legendary’s “Dune: Part Two” and “Godzilla x Kong” as well as Universal/DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda 4,” the box office has been left bruised from that lack of consistent releases.

Once the box office grosses from those March films subsided, theaters were left with an April slate that was quite depleted. Thanks in part to the strikes, there was no massive tentpole hit like last year’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” or even a more modest success like April 2022’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.” Instead, the highest grossing film released in April 2024 was A24’s “Civil War” with just $68.1 million domestic.

“Theatrical is a very fragile ecosystem. Anything that disrupts it has a ripple effect down the line,” said Dergarabedian. “It took a long time to get here, and it’s going to take a longer time to get out of it, and that goes beyond any big hit that makes us think ‘everything’s great again’ or a film that doesn’t work and keeps the numbers down.”

With no films performing strongly at the end of April, the box office was already on the back foot to start the summer season, and that slump only compounded given that there was…

No Marvel

Heading into its final week, the May domestic box office is set to post the worst total for the month since at least 2006, which happens to be the last non-pandemic year that did not have a Marvel movie to kick off the summer season.

With Marvel Studios moving “Deadpool & Wolverine” from early May to late July due to strike-induced production delays, theaters were left with “The Fall Guy,” which has flopped with $143 million grossed and counting worldwide against a $125 million budget before marketing.

With the exception of the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the May box office has yielded a $100 million-plus opening every year since 2015. This year, there’s been only one film since the start of April to even open to more than $35 million: Disney/20th Century’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” with a $58.4 million launch.

Without Marvel boosting the numbers throughout May, theaters did not have a major pillar of the early summer season. And the domino effect of that absence continued to Memorial Day weekend, as the market had one less franchise to provide major holdover support.

“Furiosa” and “Garfield” are not 4-quadrant tentpoles

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is shaping up to be a big-budget bust for Warner Bros. after months of big hits from various genres. Projected for a $40 million extended domestic launch and $80-85 million worldwide, the film is instead opening to $32 million domestic and $65 million global against a $168 million budget — all in spite of a strong reception from critics and audiences.

But it’s worth noting that even if it had matched the start of “Mad Max: Fury Road” — a film that opened to $45 million in 2015 and made $379 million worldwide — “Furiosa” wasn’t ever expected to be a “Fast & Furious” or Disney remake-level moneymaker for theaters, skewing more towards male audiences and to longtime “Mad Max” fans.

Nor was “The Garfield Movie,” which met projections with its $31.1 million start. The film should turn a profit for Sony Pictures with $91 million grossed so far against a $60 million production budget financed by Alcon, before marketing. Based on a comic book strip that has been relatively dormant in pop culture recently, “Garfield” was set to be more of a family play than a four-quadrant title like the upcoming “Inside Out 2” or “Despicable Me 4” and performed accordingly.

“The Garfield Movie” and cast (Sony Pictures Releasing/Getty Images)

In a healthier box office, these two films could have provided secondary support to the theatrical market while franchise films with bigger buzz did more of the heavy lifting. Instead, they’re the top films at a box office that has gone more than two months without a film that has grossed more than $200 million in North America.

Audiences are more selective

Finally, there’s the ongoing trend that exhibitors and studio execs alike have been well aware of in this post-COVID shutdown market: the threshold for widespread audience attention is higher.

Granted, a major box office success can still come from anywhere, as films like “Dune: Part Two,” “Sound of Freedom” and the “Barbenheimer” duo can attest. But underperforming films like “Furiosa” and “The Fall Guy” also show that even when a major movie gets strong reviews and word-of-mouth, it’s not always enough.

There’s never an exact recipe to get widespread cultural attention. Sometimes it’s a killer trailer like “Barbie,” placed before another cultural hit like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” that gets the ball rolling. Other times it’s something about the film that goes viral organically like the “M3GAN” dance or Javier Bardem shouting “Lisan al-Gaib!” Sometimes it’s just pure nostalgia like having Hugh Jackman play Wolverine for the 10th time but in a comic book-accurate costume.

But after the pandemic permanently altered the public’s entertainment viewing habits, there is a widening category for many people between “skip this one” and “see it in theaters” that films can be classified into: the “wait until home release” category, where people are intrigued by a film’s strong reviews, but decide to wait until they can digitally rent or stream the film rather than spend money on premium format movie tickets and concessions (not to mention a babysitter).

With “The Fall Guy” just beginning its premium on-demand run (Universal released it on digital on May 21, less than three weeks after it hit theaters), it’s still to be seen whether it will perform well enough in digital rental or on Peacock to have brought a return on investment for Universal. Perhaps “Furiosa” will see a similar post-theatrical rebound like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which according to The Numbers made $56.4 million from North American physical media sales back in 2015.

But even if PVOD helps these films save face financially, that’s no comfort to movie theaters, which are still riding the rollercoaster of astonishing highs and extended slumps that has defined the post-COVID box office.

As for the rest of the summer, Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” is currently tracking for an $80 million opening weekend in mid-June. Adult-skewing franchise films like “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” and “A Quiet Place: Day One” may not lift the market to the heights usually seen in June, but should provide more sustainable numbers than we’ve seen in May.

That will lead into a July highlighted by “Despicable Me 4” and “Deadpool & Wolverine,” both of which are expected to be the first $100 million-plus openings theaters have seen in a year and will kick off a second half of 2024 that industry insiders say has better potential for strong box office performance.

A frame that can dodge the months-long slumps that have been recurrent going back to 2021 would be more than welcome.

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