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Box Office: Can Fall Films Like ‘It: Chapter Two’ Make Up for Summer Shortfall?

As summer winds to a close, Hollywood is looking to a demonic clown to salvage the box office. After a disappointing August, Warner Bros.’ “It: Chapter Two” is the first fall release that could drive audiences to multiplexes at a time when the movie business could use some help.

The sequel arrives in theaters Sept. 6, exactly two years after the original jolted the industry with its record-setting $123 million opening weekend. Since the first film went on to become the highest-grossing horror title in history, with $700 million in global receipts, industry watchers are confident the follow-up will lead to big ticket sales. 

But the film’s success will hinge on more than just goodwill from the original. Audiences haven’t proved as hospitable to follow-ups, offshoots and remakes this year. Movies including “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “Men in Black: International” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” weren’t up to par, and moviegoers took note. For “It: Chapter Two” to live up to its predecessor, director Andy Muschietti and new cast members Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader and James McAvoy will have to deliver the goods — and the scares. “In this environment of so many things clamoring for people’s attention, you’ve got to be really smart,” says the National Assn. of Theater Owners’ Patrick Corcoran. “We’re in a transition of figuring out how to get people’s attention.”

“It: Chapter Two” is the first of several fall and winter titles the business is counting on to lift the year’s bottom line. Over the coming months, theater owners are particularly optimistic that “Jumanji: The Next Level” as well as a follow-up to 2013 sensation “Frozen” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will help alleviate pain from casualties earlier in 2019.

“The ‘Jumanjis’ and ‘Frozens’ and ‘Star Wars’ are going to have to be as big as everyone hopes to carry the year home,” says Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution.

But the movie industry will need to rely on more than just Princess Elsa and Dwayne Johnson to pack ’plexes. After a summer that lacked much spark, the year-to-date box office is down more than 6% from last year.

“Every quarter has underperformed expectations,” says Eric Handler, a media analyst with MKM Partners. “What’s happening this year is people are mostly showing up for the mega event films, so the year isn’t as deep as we thought it might be.”

“The ‘Jumanjis’ and ‘Frozens’ and ‘Star Wars’ are going to have to be as big as everyone hopes to carry the year home.”
Jim Orr, Universal

Disney has steamrolled through the first half of the year pretty much alone, but box office watchers are optimistic that the next four months will be robust for a diverse range of offerings. Even so, the upcoming crop of blockbuster hopefuls will have to bust a whole lot of blocks to offset the deficit through the first eight months of 2019. 

Disney and Paramount are among the companies hoping to put to bed the notion that there are no new ideas left in Hollywood. James Mangold’s high-octane drama “Ford v Ferrari,” which Disney inherited from Fox, could appeal to audiences across red states and blue as Matt Damon and Christian Bale portray automotive legends taking on the American dream. And moviegoers could be intrigued by Ang Lee’s sci-fi thriller “Gemini Man,” which sees Will Smith acting alongside a cloned version of his younger self.

Industry prognosticators also predict Todd Phillips’ “Joker” origin story, with Joaquin Phoenix; Focus Features’ movie adaptation of “Downton Abbey”; and Sony’s “Zombieland: Double Tap,” the sequel to a movie that saw renewed life on DVD, could become surprise breakouts. Fandango reported advance ticket sales for the “Downton Abbey” movie are outpacing those of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” based on the first day of presales, a signal of confidence in the Crawley family’s big-screen debut.

In November, Sony is enticing women with “Charlie’s Angels,” a reboot starring Kristen Stewart that puts a feminist twist on the spy series. The studio also has Greta Gerwig’s take on “Little Women,” which had fans of the classic book cheering after first footage debuted online. Likewise, Paramount’s “Terminator: Dark Fate” gives Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor her time in the limelight. The sixth “Terminator” movie will be the first in almost 30 years to have franchise creator James Cameron on board as a producer.

Just ahead of Christmas, Universal is offering Tom Hooper’s take on “Cats”; Taylor Swift’s ardent fan base, along with the curiosity to see what “digital fur technology” looks like, could work as counterprogramming against the epic culmination to “Star Wars.”

Even if a handful of titles are able to break out, the domestic box office will still struggle to achieve 2018’s record of more than $11.89 billion. Studio execs and media analysts predict 2019 will miss that mark by around 2%.

“I don’t think, at this point, we can reach last year’s record,” says Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.’ president of domestic distribution. “If it happens, it’ll be a little bit of a surprise.” 

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