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Are coronavirus fears hurting box office for movies like ‘Onward?’ We look at the numbers

A scene from Pixar’s “Onward”
A scene from Pixar’s “Onward.”
(Disney/Pixar)

As fears of a coronavirus pandemic spread, Hollywood is feeling the effects at the international box office, especially in China and Italy, where theaters are closed.

But in the U.S., it’s unclear how much of a damper the virus will put on moviegoing.

Last weekend’s box office returns suggest that Americans are still largely willing to go out to cinemas, despite increasing numbers of cases in states including California, New York and Washington. Movies in the U.S. and Canada generated $103.4 million from Friday through Sunday, up 4% from the previous weekend, according to data firm Comscore.

“When we look at the numbers in the U.S., we’re not seeing an impact as of yet,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst for Comscore.

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Of course, that is likely to change. Studio executives are still bracing for at least some drop-off domestically, depending on how long and how severe the outbreak gets.

In a sign of broader rising concerns, the California Department of Public Health on Monday issued guidelines for how event organizers should handle mass gatherings amid the growing number of cases of the coronavirus infections.

The highly anticipated annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, was canceled last week, and the fate of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April remains unclear.

However, a close look at box office data creates a blurry picture of how consumers are reacting.

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In the hard-hit Seattle area, box office was down 4% last weekend from a week ago, indicating a potential slowdown there, according to distribution executives who did not want to be named commenting publicly on the situation. New York, which has also suffered from the outbreak, was down 13%. Additionally, Washington D.C., saw a 9% drop compared with last week.

On the other hand, the Los Angeles box office was up 5%, despite multiple coronovirus cases here. In San Francisco, where multiple tech companies pulled out of the Game Developers Conference over coronavirus panic, the box office rose 8%. Meanwhile, Austin experienced a 13% jump over a year ago.

“I don’t see any clear correlation at all,” said the executive, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “It’s really reflective of the pictures in the marketplace and how they’re doing.”

Analysts were similarly hesitant to draw any conclusions from Pixar Animation Studios’ new film “Onward,” which grossed a relatively soft $40 million in the U.S. and Canada this past weekend. Reviews for the film, while mostly positive, were less enthusiastic than they have been for Pixar’s greatest hits.

The computer-animated comedy adventure scored $28 million abroad from countries including Britain and France. The film has not yet been released in the heavily affected countries of South Korea, Italy, Japan and China. Disney on Sunday said “most regions with the exception of Asia-Pacific have not seen a material impact at this point.”

In another sign of resilience in moviegoing, returning releases have held up well at theaters. Universal Pictures’ horror movie “The Invisible Man,” starring Elisabeth Moss, declined only 46% in its second weekend, a strong hold for a genre that tends to see steeper drops.

Attendance is clearly taking a hit in some other countries. In China, the world’s second-largest box office market behind the U.S. and Canada, theaters have been shuttered for weeks as that country’s government tries to get the situation under control.

Home to 70,000 screens, China is a key market for Hollywood movies. Studios have had to hit pause on their plans to release movies there, and there’s no indication of when multiplex doors will reopen. Movies including Disney’s “Mulan,” for which China is an important market, have been delayed. (“Mulan,” set for a March 27 U.S. debut, had not yet been given a release date in China.)

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Italy this week shut down cinemas to help prevent further spread. Other public places such as museums, pubs, discos and bingo halls have also been closed. In France, theaters that were closed recently in some places have since reopened, but with restrictions to keep every other row of seats empty. South Korean theaters have remained open for business, but attendance there has taken a big hit.

Other countries, including Australia and Britain, have remained stable, according to analyst Bruce Nash, who runs the box office data website The-Numbers.com.

“For now, the effects seem to be localized,” Nash said.

MGM and Universal last week postponed the global release of the new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” until November. Small indie distributor Magnolia Pictures on Monday pushed back the debut of its gerrymandering documentary “Slay the Dragon.” On Tuesday, Sony Pictures moved the release of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” from April 3 to Aug. 7.

So far, though, other studios are standing firm on their release plans.

Disney has shown no signs of holding off on the releases of “Mulan” or Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow,” which hits theaters April 24. Universal Pictures is sticking with a May 22 release of the ninth “Fast and the Furious” movie, “F9.”

Last week, the National Assn. of Theatre Owners told CinemaCon attendees that the annual trade show in Las Vegas starting March 30 would continue as planned and that the event would take additional precautions, such as providing extra hand sanitizers and trash bins.

“The safety and productivity of our attendees remains our highest priority,” the theater group said in an email. “As of today, the CDC maintains the risk for the majority of the public remains low.”

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The next box office test comes this weekend with “Bloodshot,” Sony Pictures’ new comic book action film starring Vin Diesel. The $45-million movie is expected to open with about $10 million in its first weekend, which is lower than earlier industry projections for the film. Also debuting are Lionsgate’s faith-based film “I Still Believe” and Universal’s satirical thriller “The Hunt.”

In an interview with USA Today, Diesel, who stars in both “Bloodshot” and “F9,” responded to a question about the coronavirus’ potential effect on release plans for the new “Fast and the Furious” film by channeling the title character of his other movie.

“Let me put it to you this way: ‘Bloodshot’ at the end of the day is a soldier, and a soldier doesn’t decide or pick when or where he’s deployed,” he said. “We’re going to go in.”


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