When Avengers: Endgame debuts in theaters Thursday night, it promises to resolve the devastation caused at the end of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, when half the population of the universe was vaporized in a single snap.
Hollywood, meanwhile, is counting on Endgame to rescue the movie business from an equally vexing calamity: The steepest decline in domestic box office revenues in nearly a decade.
As of April 21, the domestic box office has dropped a shocking 16.4% from the same point in 2018, according to figures from Comscore. It’s the steepest year-on-year decline since 2011; all told, theaters in the US and Canada have grossed $2.9 billion in 2019, the lowest overall totals at this point in the year since 2013.
The main culprit is pretty simple.
“It’s essentially product supply,” said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners. As Corcoran explained, Hollywood hasn’t released nearly enough hit movies this year, and there weren’t as many hit movies at the end of last year that held over into January and February.
By late April 2018, audiences had gorged themselves on a parade of outright blockbusters: The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi from the end of 2017, and Ready Player One, A Quiet Place, and, of course, the outright phenomenon of Black Panther in 2018 — those six films alone grossed $1.5 billion in 2018.
In comparison, Aquaman was the only late-2018 release to earn over $100 million in 2019. This year, Us, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Shazam!, and Glass have all been strong-to-decent hits, and Captain Marvel has been a bona fide sensation. All told, these films have made $1.1 billion in 2019. Basically, Hollywood is running at a one-to-two blockbuster deficit this year.
Avengers: Endgame will, by all accounts, reverse that trend. The film has already shattered pre-sales records, and despite its 3-hour runtime (which generally limits the number of times a film can be shown in a single day), it’s widely expected to equal or surpass the record-setting $257.7 million domestic debut of Avengers: Infinity War.
In the immediate future, that will be good news only for Disney, the studio releasing Endgame — especially since many theaters are devoting most or all of their screens to the film for its opening weekend. But true blockbusters, especially the ones that draw in fans willing to see the film multiple times, can lift the box office fortunes of other movies also playing at the multiplex, getting people back into the habit of leaving their homes and going to a theater.
“When you have a movie like Avengers, you going to have tens of millions of people seeing trailers for other movies, and posters, and standees,” Corcoran said. “When they’re having a good experience, they’re going to want to do it again.”
It used to be normal for the beginning of the year to be bereft of hit movies, but then in March 2007, the R-rated action spectacle 300 opened with $70.8 million domestically (or roughly $93 million when adjusting for ticket price inflation), shattering the conventional wisdom that adult movies couldn’t earn blockbuster money in winter and spring.
Since then, the major studios have kept pushing summer blockbuster season earlier and earlier. The Hunger Games made $408 million and Beauty and the Beast made $504 million after opening in March 2012 and March 2017, respectively. Deadpool made $363 million after opening in February 2016. American Sniper made $346.7 million after its wide release in January 2015. And in 2018, Black Panther, another February release, was the top grossing film domestically of the entire year.
Of course, now Hollywood needs major hit movies in the early months of the year. Without a steady supply of movies that people want to see, audiences could fall back into the habit of staying home in the cold winter months — now with the added enticement of just Netflix and chilling.
As Corcoran put it, “There shouldn’t be a week where you tell the audience, ‘There’s nothing here for you.’”