LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Much of public life in the United States essentially ground to a halt this week.
In the entertainment world, theme parks shut down, Broadway went dark, studios pulled major tentpoles from their release calendar, and virtually all Hollywood movies and TV shows halted production as the coronavirus continues to rapidly spread across North America.
The exhibition industry, a sector of the film business reliant on the communal experience, has been the one institution reluctant to entirely close its doors amid the ongoing public heath crisis.
Prior to Friday, fears of coronavirus didn't appear to impact movie-going. But this weekend's box office results display that significantly fewer people are going to their local multiplex.
Ticket sales in North America hit the lowest levels in over two decades, generating roughly US$55.3 million between Friday and Sunday (March 15).
Only one movie, Disney-Pixar's "Onward," made more than US$10 million over the weekend. The last time revenues were this depressed was a weekend in mid-September of 2000 (US$54.5 million). The steep decline pushed the year-to-date box office down almost 9%, according to Comscore.
Domestic receipts were inevitably going to plummet this weekend because AMC and Regal, two of the biggest movie theater chains, and several other circuits like Alamo Drafthouse and Arclight, cut capacity in individual auditoriums by 50% to avoid crowding.
Reducing the number of tickets sold per theater helped multiplexes comply with Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for "social distancing." Theaters also kept room between rows and seats to ensure patrons had ample space.
So in all, low ticket sales were a combination of audiences staying home and theaters capping seating capacity.
"The impact of this unprecedented situation was apparent across many industries," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore.
"Of course, movie theaters, amidst reduced capacity and an ever-evolving set of circumstances, had a very challenging weekend."
Last weekend's champion, Disney-Pixar's "Onward," remained the No. 1 movie at the domestic box office, as three new films opened to varying degrees of disappointment. "Onward" pulled in US$10.5 million in its second outing, a brutal 73% decline from its inaugural weekend.
After two weeks of release, "Onward" has made US$60.8 million in North America and $101 million globally.
Faith-based drama "I Still Believe," from Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company, pulled in the biggest haul among newcomers and placed second on box office charts. The film, starring KJ Apa as Christian singer Jeremy Camp, earned $9.5 million from 3,250 theaters, slightly below expectations.
"I Still Believe" was directed by brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, whose last collaboration, 2018's "I Can Only Imagine," debuted to $17 million and ended up grossing $86 million. "I Still Believe" has an "A" CinemaScore and is performing strongest in the south and midwest. Among opening weekend audiences, 74% were female and 73% were over the age of 25.
Sony's superhero thriller "Bloodshot," starring Vin Diesel, launched at No. 3, bringing in $9.3 million from 2,861 venues. Though only slightly behind the studio's projections, it's still a disappointing result for a film that cost $45 million to produce.
"Bloodshot" - which earned a "B" CinemaScore from audiences - was co-financed by Columbia Pictures, Bona Film Group and Cross Creek Pictures. Diesel has had trouble attracting crowds to non-"Fast and Furious" endeavors, although in this case, the virus certainly didn't help draw ticket buyers.
"The Hunt," an R-rated political satire from Universal and Blumhouse, came in fifth place with US$5.3 million from 3,028 locations, about half of what was expected heading into the weekend. It carries a US$14 million price tag.
"The Hunt" had been the subject of controversy since it was initially slated for last September. But Universal scrapped its release in wake of three mass shootings, as well as intense media scrutiny after President Donald Trump criticized it on Twitter.
The film, meant to poke fun at the divide between red and blue states, follows elites who kidnap and prey on average Americans for sport. In an early trailer, those being hunted were referred to as "deplorables."
Universal turned the turmoil into a marketing play, calling it the "most talked about movie of the year that nobody has seen... yet." However, once moviegoers did watch "The Hunt," they seemed somewhat apathetic. It has a "C+" CinemaScore and a 54% average on Rotten Tomatoes.
"The Hunt" came in behind fellow studio release, "The Invisible Man," now in its third frame. The Elisabeth Moss-led sci-fi thriller generated US$6 million, enough for the No. 4 spot.
So far, "The Invisible Man" has a cumulative tally of US$64.4 million in the US and Canada and US$122 million worldwide.
Though most theaters in North America remain open to some degree, China, South Korea, Italy and other areas greatly impacted by coronavirus have either completely or partially have shuttered multiplexes for weeks. The mass closures have already resulted in billions of dollars in lost revenues.
In light of concerns over coronavirus, exhibitors in the US that stayed open for business took extra precautions to increase sanitation. That included sterilizing seats, arm rests and cup holders more frequently and disinfecting all hand-contact surfaces during peak times.
Studio executives and media analysts recognize the global box office is in uncharted territory, with crucial developments unfolding at a rapid pace.
By last Thursday, most major Hollywood films that were set to hit theaters over the next two months - including Disney's "Mulan," Paramount's "A Quiet Place Part II," Universal's "Fast 9" and MGM's "No Time to Die" - had been removed from release calendars as the virus's infection rate continues to increase.
That means even if theaters do keep the lights on, the volume of content available will have dramatically shrunk.