In 2019, the box office belonged to Disney

Toy Story 4 was one of Disney’s top films last year.
Toy Story 4 was one of Disney’s top films last year. PHOTO: DISNEY

NEW YORK • Every movie year offers up a parade of hits and flops.

But last year, no winner was in the same galaxy as Walt Disney. And the biggest loser might have been anyone less thrilled about the box-office domination of franchise films.

When 2019 closed out on Tuesday, the top 10 films in American and Canadian theatres would all be intellectual property-backed movies. That, in itself, is not new. It was the third year in a row that the year's 10 biggest ticket-sellers had all been sequels, remakes and superhero films.

But in today's IP-driven movie world, one studio is in a league of its own. Last year, Disney dominated American moviegoing more than any studio ever has before - roughly 38 per cent of all domestic moviegoing.

Last year's top five films were all Disney movies and it played a hand in the sixth. Disney's Marvel Studios produced the Sony Pictures release Spider-Man: Far From Home. Disney banked about US$13 billion (S$17.5 billion) in worldwide box office last year, including a record number of US$1-billion releases.

Once Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (US$724.8 million through Sunday) inevitably reaches that milestone, it will mark the studio's seventh such US$1-billion movie last year. The others were: Avengers: Endgame (the highest grossing release ever, not accounting for inflation, with US$2.8 billion); The Lion King; Captain Marvel; Aladdin; Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2.

Disney's unprecedented market share includes films from 20th Century Fox, the 84-year-old studio that Disney gobbled up in March in a US$71.3-billion acquisition.

Despite Disney's considerable firepower, overall ticket sales in American and Canadian theatres were down 4.4 per cent from the year before through Sunday, according to data firm Comscore.

The upper echelons of the box office may be stratospheric, but the lower realms - where critics' scores are rotten and word of mouth is faster than opening weekend - are dismal.

The movies are increasingly a zero-sum game. You are either The Lion King or you are Cats.

"There's plenty of capacity to bring people to the movie screen," says Ms Cathleen Taff, distribution chief for Disney. "What I think we're doing is competing for their time. If it's not great, they do have other options. But when it is great, people show up. And we've seen that this year with seven US$1-billion movies."

Disney's considerable role in today's moviegoing has not been without critics. They have lamented its mega-blockbusters as products, not cinema.

Before director Martin Scorsese's criticisms of Disney's Marvel movies sparked headlines, he lamented the monopolising of the multiplex, disturbed by the sight of Avengers: Endgame playing on 11 of a theatre's 12 screens.

The box office in 2018, which followed a two-decade low in 2017, set a record with US$11.9 billion in ticket sales. Disney, the market leader for the last five years, again led the way with Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Incredibles 2. Revenues have largely been on the rise, thanks to increasing ticket prices.

Last year's estimated US$11.4 billion in ticket sales rank second all time, not accounting for inflation. But admissions have been gradually declining since 2005. Factors like last year's rare alignment of Disney juggernauts and the proliferation of streaming services mean a potentially dimmer outlook for this year.

Many in the industry expect this year's ticket sales to drop a few percentage points again. No one forecasts a similar year from Disney. The studio will still have a strong slate, but one without an Avengers or Star Wars movie.

"2020 is going to be a more typical year, where the wealth will be spread quite a bit more," says Mr Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.

"The sky is not falling but we're definitely going to have to change our expectations for 2020. It's not going to be just about one studio dominating, but it's going to be about all the studios bringing some of their biggest brands."

James Bond, Wonder Woman and The Rock are coming this year. But greater volatility may be on the way too.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2020, with the headline 'In 2019, the box office belonged to Disney'. Subscribe