North American box office revenues in 2020 hit a 40-year low, struggling to reach $2.2 billion in total amid the coronavirus crisis. Movie theaters were forced to stay closed for a significant portion of the year beginning in late March and struggled to recover when some cinemas were able to reopen months later in August.
That resulted in an 80% year-over-year decline from 2019, according to Comscore. Box office returns from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2019 brought in a near-record $11.39 billion, thanks to the smash success of “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
Worldwide returns suffered a similar drop, with global ticket sales totaling $12.4 billion — a 71% slide from the year prior. In 2019, the global box office cemented a new industry high as worldwide receipts surpassed $42.5 billion.
The bulk of international earnings in 2020 came from China. For the first time, the Middle Kingdom was the world’s biggest moviegoing market. The country, whose theatrical business was also devastated by the pandemic, collected $2.7 billion overall. Local war epic “The Eight Hundred” was the highest-grossing movie, not just in China, but worldwide with $461 million in ticket sales.
In the U.S., “Bad Boys for Life” — the third entry in the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence-led action series — was the top earner at the box office. The Sony movie was released in mid-January, before coronavirus arrived in the country, and generated $204 million from domestic theaters. To compare, 2019’s highest grossing movie, “Avengers: Endgame,” produced $848 million in ticket sales from North American cinemas alone.
Ranking in second place was World War I drama “1917,” which debuted in limited release in 2019 and was a major Oscar contender. The film, from Universal Pictures, opened nationwide in January and ultimately generated $157 million in North America. Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog,” the third-highest grossing movie of the year, was an unexpected breakout, even by pre-pandemic standards. After a much-needed redesign of the title character, the family film set an opening weekend record for video game adaptations ($58 million) and ended its theatrical run with $146 million.
Capping off an unusual 12 months, it’s the first time since 2015 that Disney didn’t produce the highest-grossing film of the year. Though the studio released “X-Men” superhero thriller “The New Mutants” and Pixar’s “Onward” theatrically, the year’s biggest movie from the House of Mouse was “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” which launched on Christmas Day in 2019 and added another $100 million in ticket sales this year.
It’s also the first time in years that Disney didn’t dominate in terms of marketshare. In an upside-down year, Sony commanded 22.2% of the domestic market with $493 million, according to Comscore. Universal was close behind, having collected $487 million for 21.95% of Stateside marketshare. Warner Bros. and Disney landed in third and fourth place, respectively. The former generated $258 million to represent 11.66% of the market, while the latter amassed $255 million for 11.53% of the market. However, Comscore’s figures for Disney don’t include 20th Century Studios. When factoring in Fox’s former film division, the studio adds another $187 million in revenues for an additional 8.43% of the market. Paramount controlled 8.28% of the market with $183 million in sales.
Most buzzy movies that were scheduled for 2020 were postponed or sent to streaming services. Those with traditional theatrical releases, like “Tenet” and “The New Mutants,” generally got the cold shoulder from audiences, which have remained reluctant to return to the movies. Still, several new high-profile movies played in theaters and drive-in venues. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the first mega-budgeted film to release amid the pandemic, amassed a total of $46 million in the U.S. and Canada and $362 million globally. Months later, “Wonder Woman 1984” bowed on Christmas Day, when more than 60% of the country’s movie theaters were closed. The superhero sequel, which launched simultaneously on HBO Max, has made $32 million in the U.S. and $132 million globally so far.
Box office analysts look back at the uniquely unconventional year that was 2020 with measured optimism. Sure, theaters were closed for a better part of the year as anticipated titles like “Mulan” skipped U.S. theaters and other scheduled films such as “No Time to Die” were pushed far into the future. But industry experts maintain that the film exhibition industry will rebound.
“If 2020 proved anything, it’s that the movie theater experience is undeniably appealing, relevant, and indeed resistant to all challenges thrown in its path,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “2021, though, will be the true test of what the future holds for the big screen.”