With an estimated $12.4B in global grosses, $10.2B of which came from the international box office, 2020 was off overall by 71% and 67%, respectively, from 2019 according to Gower Street Analytics. It’s a year the world at large would like to forget, but in industry terms it provided interesting phenomena to reflect upon even as we look ahead to 2021.
A stealthy yet ubiquitous spore, cinema stops and starts, streaming solace, Sino-strength and the stunning performance of a Demon Slayer were among the dominant forces affecting the global and international box office in 2020.
Within that, one of the key takeaways for industry executives we spoke with was the power of overseas markets — and their local titles — which demonstrated that if people feel safe and the product is there, they will enthusiastically return to multiplexes. Grosses outside North America repped 82% of worldwide takings in 2020 versus 73% in 2019. While studios may have collectively been down by about 81% both on a worldwide and overseas basis, folks are encouraged that Covid won’t kill the theatrical business.
The full economic effect of Covid has yet to be fully assessed, however studios — forced to jockey during ever-shifting cinema closures, reopenings and re-closures around the world — should recoup what they lost on shelved 2020 releases (minus interest) a finance source tells us. “When the pictures are released, revenue will come in, offsetting expenses from pics sitting in limbo,” this person says, adding, “Many of the pictures that were pushed are event product, so I expect robust box office, revenue, and profits.” Beware, however, “There is so much unreleased product that studios cannot cannibalize each other’s pictures.”
But in 2021, to what degree studios and overseas markets bounce back depends on what happens to release schedules amid ongoing uncertainty surrounding the Covid pandemic and as key majors in Europe and elsewhere extend lockdowns.
This is a major issue on the minds of international distribution executives. Add to that, concerns over piracy given shortened (or shattered) domestic windows, the impact of streaming and the need for films that encourage people out of their homes as well as a potentially increased focus on local-language productions, and we end up with a snapshot of what’s to come in the next 12 months.
Below we take a look in the rear-view on an unprecedented year, and a look ahead to the next 12 months as well as separate dives on individual markets and the studios whose global ranking chart comes with a very big asterisk.
2020: A LOOK BACK
Last year saw studios and exhibition suffer their worst returns of the modern era while local films nevertheless proved that audiences are ready and willing to share auditorium space, as long as they feel safe. That will bode well for studios when they are ready to release new product.
Five of the Top 10 movies overseas in 2020 were local pictures that made the bulk of their money from one market. The year before, there were two. Clearly 2020 experienced a lack of Hollywood product, but the post-lockdown resurgence of hubs like China, Japan and others was notable.
The majors’ in-house international vs worldwide ratios remained relatively flat from 2019 to 2020, based primarily on films that released in the first quarter of last year, before the lockdowns began. Only Warner Bros among the majors saw an uptick in its international vs worldwide total, largely because of the Tenet summer effect. (Click here for reference to our 2019/2020 year-end/year-ahead story.)
Clearly in 2020, no studios saw increases versus 2019. Rankings moved, however, with Disney still in the lead globally, but in second place by a hair internationally under No. 1 Warner Bros. Sony topped WB in the global category to land at No. 2, and was No. 3 overseas. The Culver City studio saw the softest drops overall from 2019 (-66% overseas/-65% globally), thanks largely to the performance of Bad Boys For Life, the worldwide No. 2 film which grossed $430.5M after releasing early in the year.
Last year was never expected to be the sort of 2019 bonanza that saw nine studio pictures gross over $1B worldwide, but there were hopes for several big movies. Ultimately in 2020, only one studio picture (BBFL) grossed over $400M globally.
Chief among the stories of 2020 for the theatrical business as a whole were local-language pictures, and that is seen as encouraging. When Chinese cinemas shut down in January 2020, thus kiboshing the lucrative Lunar New Year period, it began a domino effect that few predicted as the virus spread and cinemas shuttered around the world. At the time, it would not have seemed likely that the Middle Kingdom could in 2020 become the world’s biggest market, for the first time outpacing domestic. But it did just that with an estimated $3.12B vs $2.28B for North America.
China demonstrated remarkable buoyancy after cinemas reopened in July and never looked back. Its war epic The Eight Hundred was the highest-grossing film worldwide in 2020.
But while China was already poised to take over No. 1 global market status at some point, local phenomena were also breaking out elsewhere. In a year absent Marvel movies, there was certainly something to marvel at in Japan. Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train became the biggest movie ever in the market after just 73 days. That it achieved this feat 19 years after the last record breaker (2001’s Spirited Away) and did so in a pandemic has had Hollywood stunned and impressed.
Says one international distribution exec, “Japan is easily the most mature market in the world in some ways, and yet there was a film that did not have hype a year in advance and it didn’t just break a record, it destroyed records. That tells you when people feel safe and comfortable and want to socialize, they will continue to flock to cinemas.”
Indeed, across the Top 10 offshore markets, China, Japan, Korea, Russia, Italy and Spain all had local movies leading their charts. Says another international exec, “Markets that have a strong local industry bounced back. It really highlighted the difference in the markets where there isn’t a strong local industry because there just wasn’t enough content to justify keeping cinemas open.”
Local films typically help all boats to rise, providing increased foot traffic, trailer viewings and the knock-on effects of moviegoers enjoying themselves and wanting to return to cinemas. Unfortunately, there was scant studio product to be propped up in 2020. (See more on local-language pics and markets below.)
Meanwhile, streaming took on a new life in 2020, providing distraction for folks stuck under lockdown. International rollout on the majors’ proprietary platforms began in earnest in 2020 with Disney+. HBO Max is eyeing some offshore hubs this year, but we understand that there are currently no plans for day-and-date theatrical/streaming releases in those markets. There are also still long-term output deals (for everyone) that require untangling, and windowing comes with its own different set of issues outside the U.S.
Although everybody took a hit in 2020, one finance source opines that studios learned a valuable lesson and were “better about identifying” what to sell off and not, “that’s part of what changed.” They were “able to offload a lot of product without losing the marketing money. Covid gave them an excuse to save money long-term.”
The two major theatrical studio releases post the initial pandemic lockdowns, Warner Bros’ Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, both benefited from cinemas being back in operation to varying degrees outside North America. Tenet grossed 84% of its total overseas versus the average 67% of Christopher Nolan’s last three films. WW84 is currently running to 76% foreign compared to 50% for the original in 2017. (See studio snapshots below.)
2021: A LOOK AHEAD
With Europe currently closed, and North American cinemas largely dark, it is possible that release dates continue to shift. A key film to keep an eye on is MGM’s James Bond movie No Time To Die which is slated for late March/early April (Universal has offshore rights). If that moves, it would deprive the first part of 2021 of a major tentpole, but if markets are still shaky, it may just not make sense to unleash 007.
One exec not affiliated with Bond notes that Europe’s cinemas could remain shuttered longer than anticipated. “Now that they’re closed, governments will have a hard time justifying opening until the vaccine (takes effect), there’s nice weather and people can spend time outside… I hope Bond stays where it is for the industry’s sake, hopefully that is the catalyst.”
In the short term, sources expect Q1 and Q2 2021 to be quite soft, while China will be the focus of much attention given all signs point to a robust Lunar New Year period beginning on February 12 with presumed blockbuster Detective Chinatown 3. For Hollywood, one exec tells us, “I expect the second half to be better and the first half to be horrible.” Either way, this person predicts 2021 is “not going to be a massive recovery year.”
And if many films do stick their dates, there is concern that so much big product may be difficult to swallow for a lot of consumers who typically only go to the cinema once or twice a year. Some people we spoke with think releases need to be further spread out. Although there is likely pressure on studios to start monetizing their investments, they should be wary of “irrational decisions,” one exec cautioned.
Still and overall, one finance source is bullish, saying, “It will be a tough six-to-eight months and then moviegoing will explode because of pent-up demand.” Theatrical business obituaries have been written for nearly 75 years and there’s “no reason to believe” that OTT, despite its rise in popularity during 2020 lockdowns, will kill the movies. “It will just give us a different market to make more money in,” says the source who believes studios “will make more event-sized movies for theatrical and mid-level for streaming” going forward.
That doesn’t mean that mid-level movies go away, they just need to give people a reason to leave their homes. As one international distribution exec tells me, “There are many ways to cross the bar of theatricality, there has always been room for ‘event’ films of all sizes. It’s not about just being something for everybody, you can also have movies that are everything for somebody.”
And there is still growth to be seen offshore. In a lot of markets, reminds another executive, “this is the first generation that grew up seeing movies.”
A particular beneficiary of 2021 is expected to be premium formats. IMAX is already coming off of a banner 2020 in terms of local product which typically represents around 10% of its global total. In 2020, that figure was an astounding 35%+. A report from Barron’s in late December suggested 2021 could boost the format further given so many 2020 releases were pushed into this year. “We believe 2021 could bring the most IMAX-friendly film slate to the company in decades,” said B. Riley analyst Eric Wold.
IMAX has increasingly worked with local movies over the past few years while studios like Warner Bros and Sony have long been in the game. Observers believe they and others will look to put more emphasis on these films in the coming year. Studios getting deeper into local-language productions also has the knock-on effect of helping to feed streaming platforms.
Sony is aggressive locally. The company had a big hit in Spain in 2020 with Padre No Hay Mas Que Uno 2 which became the market’s top movie of the year. The company is also active in markets like Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Russia, France, China and Japan. Indeed, Sony Corp owns Aniplex which produced and released Demon Slayer locally. That company’s Funimation will take Demon Slayer to the U.S. this year.
Local titles are lucrative when they work, otherwise there is not always the opportunity to exploit them like a U.S. film around the world while also incurring all the costs for a market. Investments are lower, but so are returns unless a film really breaks out.
Speaking of hot, another key issue on execs’ minds for 2021 is the impact of piracy. WarnerMedia’s move to put WB’s entire 2021 roster in North American theaters simultaneously with HBO Max means those movies will be available for illegal download in the rest of the world in whiplash time. There was a copy of Wonder Woman 1984 available on December 25 as the movie bowed domestically and earlier, DreamWorks Animation/Universal’s Trolls World Tour was out within 24 hours of its PVOD debut.
Now, it’s hard to quantify just how much booty is deprived to the studios by pirates — does your average Joe moviegoer know these titles are available for free? One executive suggests that piracy affects all studios even if the focus is currently on Warner Bros because of the domestic day-and-date strategy: “It could promote a piracy trigger that wasn’t there before.” Another counters that even though copies are now cleaner, “I don’t think people who aren’t buying pirated stuff already are going to start. It depends on their economic situation, if people are hurting there may be more piracy because of that.”
Piracy remains “a real factor” in some markets, says a studio distribution maven, but family films appear to get more of a pass as they remain an event for people to go to cinemas. Instead, conventional wisdom is that piracy is more of a threat to fanboy and action films.
The 2019 champion had a much slighter 2020 with movies pulled from the schedule and a misstep with Mulan. The long-gestating project did not reap the intended rewards in China where it was hit with low social scores and a blackout on local media. Ultimately, it only cumed $67M overseas. In a reversal, Pixar’s Soul, which like Mulan went to Disney+ in markets where the service is available, has been a late-breaking, slow burn hit in the Middle Kingdom where it is expected to do over $50M throughout the run. That has the potential to make it the No. 2 Pixar movie ever in the market. Although Disney was the No. 1 global studio again in 2020, it also suffered the steepest drops: -91% overseas and -90% worldwide. Then again, it was coming off of the biggest year in industry history in 2019.
This year’s roster includes such notables as Raya And The Last Dragon in March, which may be day-and-date in Disney+ markets, followed by The King’s Man in March, and the first Marvel movie in quite a while, Black Widow, in May as well as Free Guy. July will see Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings and Jungle Cruise, followed by 20th’s Death On The Nile in September and West Side Story in December.
Warner Bros, the No. 1 studio internationally in 2020 (-71% from 2019), boldly took Tenet out to market in August, reaping far more rewards offshore than domestically with about $305M vs $58M in North America. As the first major film to return to cinemas, it became an event in itself, but didn’t have enough cinemas open to support it Stateside. The studio then stumbled with Wonder Woman 1984 ($90M offshore to date/76% of WW) which hasn’t gained significant overseas traction outside of Australia. It suffered in China from a lack of global buzz, something that can often boost movies in the Middle Kingdom. And of course it came after WarnerMedia’s bombshell HBO Max announcement. While the service is not yet available overseas, it’s nevertheless impactful. In order to limit piracy, Warner will release movies internationally ahead of domestic when it makes sense to do so (ie taking into consideration local holidays, competition, etc).
Coming up this year the calendar currently includes Denzel Washington-starrer The Little Things which is due to start up in late January internationally, Tom And Jerry in February, Mortal Kombat in April, Godzilla Vs Kong in May, In The Heights in June, Space Jam: A New Legacy in July, Dune in late September and The Matrix 4 in December.
Sony had seen three consecutive years of growth when the pandemic hit, having turned a corner in terms of profitability and was coming strongly into 2020 with Bad Boys For Life which ultimately became the top Hollywood movie of the year globally at $430.5M. The domestic/international split is about even while the movie didn’t get to China until many months after its domestic release. Likewise, the studio’s Little Women made equal amounts overseas and in North America, with an impressive worldwide total of $216.6M. Although it released in late 2019, the bulk of grosses came from 2020. Overall, Sony is at No. 2 worldwide, down 65% from 2019 and No. 3 internationally, off 66% year-on-year.
The Culver City studio pivoted early on during the pandemic, shifting much of its 2020 slate into 2021, seeing an opportunity to create an insurance policy against an anticipated dearth of Q1 and Q2 product amid production shutdowns across the industry. Anticipated titles coming up include February’s Cinderella, March’s Morbius, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway which gets some early dates overseas in February and March, June’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (potential Euro Cup counterprogramming should that sporting event still take place as scheduled), Uncharted in July, Hotel Transylvania 4 in August and the untitled Spider-Man pic in December.
Last year at this time, many industry players expected Universal to have a banner 2020 and then, well, Covid. Although the studio upset exhibition with its move to put Trolls World Tour on PVOD domestically and later crafted a 17-day window with AMC in North America, it was aided by the family nature of some of its biggest 2020 titles — those are less likely to be pirated. Dolittle did $173M overseas and solid business in China where it was the first new Hollywood movie in the market post-reopening and was boosted by the popularity of Robert Downey Jr, doing nearly $20M there. In total, 69% of Dolittle’s moolah came from overseas.The Croods: A New Age crossed $100M in early January 2021 with 70% of grosses from overseas. Blumhouse’s Invisible Man was a pretty even split domestically and offshore with a solid worldwide cume of $143M making it the biggest horror thriller of the year. Overall, Uni was off by 75% internationally and 72% worldwide.
Currently, all eyes are on the studio and whether it sticks with the late March/early April release date of MGM’s No Time To Die which it is handling overseas. The film has the potential to kickstart global moviegoing, but the ongoing crisis could see it moved again. Also on the docket are Bob Odenkirk comedy Nobody, Tom Hanks-starrer Bios in April and a return to the Toretto family with F9 in May, followed by Illumination’s Minions: The Rise Of Gru in late June overseas, The Boss Baby: Family Business in September and Sing 2 in December.
Says President of Distribution for Universal Pictures International Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, “A lot of people are seeing headlines and seeing market fluctuations that spell doom and gloom for movie theaters, but we strongly believe that you shouldn’t believe every thing that you see. Moviegoing is a global business and one of North America’s most powerful exports is quality studio-backed films.” She touts Uni’s “institutional knowledge about how to make movies and how through marketing and distribution strategies turn them into cultural events — and this is something that you don’t really have with a streaming option. We look at every film as a small business… each movie has a different release strategy depending on the title and the market and we’ve had to innovate and adapt to be able to maximize the grosses. Internationally, 2020 has shown us that the theatrical business can be strong if the conditions are right.”
The No. 5 studio globally in 2020, Paramount had a strong run with Sonic The Hedgehog which benefited from releasing before the world went haywire, save for later dates in China and Japan. The final gross was $311M worldwide, 53% of which came from overseas. The studio ended the year -73% internationally and -71% worldwide. This year, as long as things stay on course, could be a big one for the Melrose Avenue studio, with A Quiet Place: Part II due in April, followed by Top Gun: Maverick flying in this summer and Tom Cruise back in action with November’s Mission: Impossible 7.
Lionsgate in 2020 was off 62% at the international box office and 85% worldwide from 2019, the latter a strong year that included John Wick Chapter 3. In 2020, the studio was able to further capitalize on late-2019 release Knives Out ($37.2M in 2020) as it headed towards a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Also working in LG’s favor was Bombshell with $28.3M offshore in 2020. The mini-major operates a hybrid model of self distributing in a handful of markets and then working with long term third party partners. It recently completed a restructure of the motion picture group under Joe Drake.
Currently on deck in 2021 are Doug Liman’s Tom Holland-starrer Chaos Walking in March, Spiral in May, the Bridesmaids reteam of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo with Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar in July and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard in August.
Before we get to some market breakdowns, here’s a chart outlining studios’ international box office from 2012-2020
INDIVIDUAL MARKET SNAPSHOTS
China ranked as the No. 1 global market in 2020, grossing $3.12B according to local data. Cinema reopenings were well-handled with safety protocols and re-released legacy product that helped warm up moviegoers and get them back into the practice of seeing films in cinemas. The Top 5 movies are all local: The Eight Hundred ($460M), My People My Homeland ($422M), Legend Of Deification ($240M), The Sacrifice ($161M) and Leap ($129.6M). The market was down overall by an estimated 70% versus 2019. Fortunes for Hollywood were lackluster save for Tenet’s $67M, and the late-breaking Soul, but there just wasn’t that much available. As the first MPA title in the market post-reopening, Universal’s Dolittle, derided in some corners, made a solid $20M thanks in part to the phenomenon that is Robert Downey Jr in the market.
Chinese films are estimated to have accounted for 84% of the total box office for 2020. The market now has over 75.5K screens and national cinema resumption rate reached 94.8% by the end of 2020, China’s ticket platform Maoyan said.
But there’s a question some are unsure of: Will Chinese audiences have become so used to seeing local product that they respond less to Hollywood titles? “The big tentpole event films are going to do okay. But I think your average Hollywood movie is going to struggle,” cautions one exec. Still, it’s important to really eventize those bigger films which attract local audiences based in some part on buzz from outside the market. Says one source, “If you’re not going to create an event, don’t release your movie in China.” Look for Detective Chinatown 3 to do smashing business in February and for the market to maintain its dominance across 2021.
Japan is the No. 2 offshore market and No. 3 globally, rankings it has held for some time. The Demon Slayer effect ($337M+) helped Japan dip by just 41% versus 2019 (the best drop of all comScore-tracked markets) with $1.27B in receipts, according to Gower Street. The anime adaptation became a cultural touchstone and distributors Toho and Aniplex were smart about in-cinema giveaways which encouraged repeat viewings.
Behind Demon Slayer were From Today, It’s My Turn ($49.8M), Parasite ($43M), Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker ($36.9M) and local crime comedy The Confidence Man JP: Episode Of The Princess ($35.6M).
France jumped to No. 3 on the overseas charts with about $438M for a 68% drop from 2019 when it was ranked 5th. While the market is one of the most avid about the theatrical experience, there were no local titles in the Top 5 which was led by the holdover performance of Rise Of Skywalker and followed by Tenet. Cinemas are still closed in the Hexagon with no clear timetable for reopening. There are some potential local winners on deck in 2021 including Les Tuche 4 (providing cinemas are open in February) and OSS 117: Red Alert In Black Africa starring Jean Dujardin in April.
The UK, previously the No. 3 international market, landed at No. 4 on the 2020 chart with a 76% drop to $454M. Sam Mendes’ 1917 was the top title at $57.4M, having released in early January. Prior to cinemas being ordered shut in March, the market was up 7.6% year-on-year, according to Gower Street. Almost all films in the Top 5 were released pre-lockdown, leaving just Tenet as a summer entry with $23M locally. Cinemas are again closed — Cineworld made that move early, in October given the lack of studio releases — as a new lockdown has been imposed until at least mid-February.
Then there’s Korea at No. 5, dropping from 4th place in 2019. The market was down overall by 72% on the previous year with $466M. But it was also coming off a record that included Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite. Still, four of the Top 5 releases were local films, led by The Man Standing Next ($38M) which released pre-closures. The rest of the top chart includes Deliver Us From Evil and Train To Busan sequel Peninsula which came out roaring in July after theaters were back in operation. They are currently open, but with restricted capacity.
Other markets led by local pics include Spain with a total $211M (-72%) and Padre No Hay Mas Que Uno 2 at No. 1 ($15.3M) which took advantage of a smart late summer corridor. Russia’s Peasant and Ice 2 were that market’s top pics with an overall drop of 57% to $306M. Italy was led by Tolo Tolo from hitmaker Checco Zalone; the full market which had bounced back nicely in 2019, was off by 69% to $222M. In Denmark, audiences were drunk on Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round which sold over 800K tickets at No. 1 for 2020.
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