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VIRUS OUTBREAK

US box office plunges to lowest level in over two decades amid Covid-19 pandemic

Los Angeles

MUCH of public life in the United States essentially ground to a halt over the past 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 novel 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.

Before last Friday, fears of the coronavirus did not appear to impact movie-going. But the weekend's box office results show that significantly fewer people are going to the cineplex.

Ticket sales in North America hit the lowest levels in over two decades, generating roughly US$55.3 million between Friday and Sunday.

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 per cent, according to Comscore.

Domestic receipts were inevitably going to plummet this weekend because AMC and Regal, two of the biggest movie theatre chains, and several other circuitslike Alamo Drafthouse and Arclight, cut capacity in individual auditoriums by 50 per cent to avoid crowding.

Reducing the number of tickets sold per theatre helped multiplexes comply with Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for "social distancing". Theatres also kept room between rows and seats to ensure patrons had ample space.

In all, low ticket sales were a combination of audiences staying home and theatres 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 theatres, amidst reduced capacity and an ever-evolving set of circumstances, had a very challenging weekend."

Last weekend's champion, 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 per cent decline from its inaugural weekend.

Faith-based drama I Still Believe 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 US$9.5 million from 3,250 theatres, slightly below expectations.

Sony's superhero thriller Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel, launched at No 3, bringing in US$9.3 million from 2,861 venues. Although only slightly behind the studio's projections, it's still a disappointing result for a film that cost US$45 million to produce.

Diesel has had trouble attracting crowds to non-Fast and Furious endeavours 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. 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. 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 per cent 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.

Although most theatres 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. Studio executives and media analysts recognise the global box office is in uncharted territory, with crucial developments unfolding at a rapid pace.

By last Thursday, most major Hollywood films due to hit theatres over the next two months - including Mulan, A Quiet Place Part II, Fast 9 and No Time to Die - were removed from release calendars as the virus infection rates continue to increase.

That means even if theatres do keep the lights on, the volume of content available will have dramatically shrunk. REUTERS