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US box office on track to have worst Memorial Day weekend since 1995

Memorial Day weekend movie ticket sales are estimated at $128.3 million, according to Comscore data provided to CNN.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures via CNN Newsource
Memorial Day weekend movie ticket sales are estimated at $128.3 million, according to Comscore data provided to CNN.

By Eva Rothenberg and Alicia Wallace, CNN

(CNN) — The summer movie season typically starts with a bang during the month of May and, particularly, during Memorial Day weekend.

This year, it’s a whimper.

Memorial Day weekend (Friday through Monday) movie ticket sales are estimated at $128.3 million, according to Comscore data provided to CNN. That’s down from last year’s Memorial Day weekend, which recorded just shy of $205 million gross revenue, and it lands well under the record holiday in 2013, when “Fast & Furious 6” drove the weekend to $314.3 million in revenue.

In fact, the US box office is on track to have its lowest-grossing Memorial Day weekend since the $117.1 million seen in 1995, when “Casper” haunted the screens — and that’s not even adjusting for inflation.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it, the numbers that are coming out this weekend are nothing to write home about,” Paul Degarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore, told CNN in an interview.

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” was estimated to be the No. 1 movie with $32 million in sales for the weekend.

The tepid Memorial Day weekend continues what’s been a lukewarm start to the summer box office, a movie-going season that’s still reeling from the effects of last year’s Hollywood strikes.

Coupled with production delays — the aftershocks of the multi-month-long Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes that are still reverberating across studios — the season that has historically drawn the biggest movie theater audiences is off to a rocky start, potentially hurting the yearly box office totals for 2024.

“Summer is the most important moviegoing season of the year, accounting on average for nearly 40% of the total domestic annual revenue, so as goes the summer so goes the year,” Dergarabedian said.

Last summer, blockbusters “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” combined added nearly a billion dollars to the domestic box office, according to Comscore data. But this year, studios are betting on a large slate of mid-range sequels and prequels, as well as family-focused animated films to fill the Barbenheimer-shaped hole, including “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” and “Inside Out 2.”

“Barring some major overperformances, this summer looks like it’ll be down 20% to 25% in box office grosses between May and August from last year,” said analyst Shawn Robbins, founder and owner of Box Office Theory.

While there was no Marvel movie to kick off this May and no mega-blockbuster for Memorial Day, there’s still potentially a solid pipeline of movies to come this year, Degarabarian said.

“We just now have to count on the films coming out in June and July to really perform — and there’s some big ones on the horizon,” he said, noting “Despicable Me 4,” “Inside-Out 2,” and “Deadpool & Wolverine.”

The elusive $100-million opening weekend

Until 2020, the period between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day Monday could be counted on to bring in upwards of $4 billion in domestic revenue, according to Comscore data. Summer 2023 saw the first post-pandemic $4-billion summer.

Propelled by the success of “Sound of Freedom,” “Oppenheimer,” and the record-breaking $155 million “Barbie” opening weekend, summer 2023 grossed $4.09 billion, a 19.2% jump from the year prior.

“Barbie” was distributed by Warner Bros., which is owned by CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.

An opening weekend north of $100 million is typically only seen in intellectual property-driven action films like Star Wars movies and superhero flicks, as well as animated family fare like “The Incredibles 2” and “Finding Dory.” So far this year, no movie has crossed that threshold.

“Sans a Marvel movie to provide a $100-million-plus opening weekend to get the momentum going, this summer will have to make up ground in June and July,” said Dergarabedian, adding that this summer has so far been a “late bloomer.”

Disney offerings could make or break the summer box office

Two movies that analysts say could cross the $100 million threshold this summer are “Deadpool & Wolverine” and “Inside Out 2,” both of which are distributed by Walt Disney Studios.

The studio’s first wide release of 2024 under its flagship “Disney” banner is set to be “Inside Out 2,” an anomaly for the company and the movie business, according to Daniel Loria, editorial director at Box Office Pro, which collects sales and showtimes data from thousands of movie theaters across the United States. (Disney-owned 20th Century Entertainment released its first movie of the year, “The First Omen,” in April.)

“I can’t think of any other year where a studio as vital to this industry sits out the entire first half of the year,” Loria told CNN, adding that this is in large part due to production delays and schedule shifts caused by months of back and forth between studios, the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union. “We tend to overemphasize the effect of Hollywood’s 2023 labor strikes at the box office, but it’s hard not to cite it when you look at the number of releases to have hit theaters from major studios in the first half of the year.”

Disney has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

Loria also emphasized that Disney’s summer offerings, both from its Pixar and Marvel divisions, will be critical to how the 2024 box office performs overall.

“Inside Out 2” is forecast to open anywhere between $80 million and $100 million, according to Box Office Pro pre-sales data. Pixar’s offerings in recent years have fallen flat; 2022’s “Lightyear” debuted at $50.5 million domestically, while 2023’s “Elemental” made $29.6 million its opening weekend.

Meanwhile, “Deadpool & Wolverine,” the only Marvel property release this summer, is expected to reinvigorate audience enthusiasm after “The Marvels” disappointed last November with a $47 million opening weekend.

Last week, ticket seller Fandango announced that “Deadpool & Wolverine” had broken the company’s 2024 record for best first-day ticket presales, beating out “Dune: Part Two.” The film also had the best first day of ticket sales for an R-rated film in Fandango’s 24-year history, the company told CNN.

“Deadpool & Wolverine has the potential to be the second movie (after 2021’s “Spiderman: No Way Home”) to earn a $200 million opening weekend of the post-pandemic era,” said Loria. “We are still two months out, but if pre-sales and awareness continue at this pace, we believe the film can open between $170 million and $210 million.”

“Despicable Me 4” and “Inside Out 2” “look particularly strong, and ‘Deadpool & Wolverine’ will hands down be the top film of the summer,” said Dergarabedian.

Studios still trying to find their footing

Industry experts agree that the 2024 box office has been sluggish so far, but remain hopeful that the box office can rebound by the end of the year and beyond.

“Box office earnings have been down largely because of staggered gaps between widely appealing releases in the first half of the year,” said Robbins. “That’s been the status quo in the post-pandemic era for many reasons, mostly outside the control of theatrical exhibition. The industry had only a brief period between the impact of COVID production delays followed by the writers’ and actors’ strikes last year.”

Robbins added that there’s still time for strong titles in the second half of the year to fill the gap, including September’s “Beetlejuice Beetlejuice” and “Transformers One,” and October’s “Joker: Folie à Deux.”

“Moviegoing habits have changed drastically since the pandemic, but we continue to see significant enthusiasm when it comes to the theatrical experience,” said Loria. “The data clearly shows that audiences can still support the studio tentpole model — but identifying the movies that will become those blockbuster hits continues to be as difficult to predict as ever before.”

Box Office Pro projects that the 2024 box office will gross $8.2 billion, about 10% lower than last year’s $9 billion. The domestic earnings for 2023 were the highest since the pandemic, but still fell roughly $2 billion short of pre-pandemic yearly sales, according to Comscore.

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