Hurricane Joaquin is strengthening in intensity, raising the possibility that parts of the East Coast could be battered by rains and harsh winds, and making the prospect of going to the movies very remote indeed for many Americans.
It’s not clear if the storm will make landfall or will remain offshore, but as of Thursday afternoon it has now reached Category 4 levels. Should it hit New York City or other major metropolises, it will significantly impact moviegoing, costing millions of dollars in lost receipts, experts and studio executives say.
“The worst case scenario is New York really gets hit and it hampers mobility for a good part of the weekend,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
New York is one of the biggest markets for film, representing as much as 7% of the weekend box office, so studios are watching intently to see if the Big Apple is in the path of the storm. If the weather isn’t catastrophic, the effect could be marginal, dampening enthusiasm, but not preventing people from venturing outside their homes. Should it worsen, theaters will close, subways will shut down, and audiences will stock up on canned goods and stay inside.
Many box office prognosticators caution that it is too early to tell where, when, and if the storm will buffet the towns and cities along the Atlantic. Hurricane Joaquin could result in winds of 140 mph, but meteorologists differ over whether or not it will reach the Eastern Seaboard. Some computer models have it remaining out at sea, while others suggest that the region from North Carolina to New York City is at risk.
“It’s always difficult to call,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “A lot will depend on how strong the storm is. If it’s just rain, people will go outside, particularly if the movie is good.”
Superstorm or toothless tempest, “The Martian” is expected to be the main attraction at multiplexes, racking up an opening weekend of $45 million or more. Reviews have been strong and pre-sales are outpacing “Gravity,” so analysts believe that even if moviegoers stay inside, many will eventually make their way to theaters to see the film.
It can be difficult to find historical examples of the impact of inclement weather on ticket sales. Hurricane Sandy, for instance, hit New York City on a Monday, which is traditionally a slow day for moviegoing. Yet Hurricane Irene, a less intense storm, resulted in theater closures along the East Coast, with estimates of lost ticket sales hitting $25 million. And when “Avatar” debuted in 2009, there was speculation that snow storms across the Northeast prevented the 3D epic from breaking records for a December release.
That final case is instructive. Snow drifts may have impeded fans from visiting Pandora the first weekend, but eventually they caught up with the film, making it the biggest blockbuster in history. A strong movie can always rebound.