The 2020 box office was ruled by old movies, early blockbuster success

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star in “Bad Boys For Life.”

Sony

The studio with the highest box-office haul in 2020 was one that delayed most of its film slate to 2021.

After CNBC combed through data from Comscore, Sony emerged as the top earner in a year marred by a global pandemic. The studio represented 22.2% of the domestic film market, with just under $500 million in ticket sales.

“If you need a symbol of just how unusual 2020 was at the box office, you need look no further than the fact that Sony’s ‘Bad Boys For Life,’ a mid-January release, would remain at the top of the box office chart for the entire year,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

The film garnered $206.3 million, a far cry from the $858.3 million in sales that “Avengers: Endgame,” the top-grossing film in 2019, scored.

Sony’s market share was bolstered by ticket sales from “Jumanji: The Next Level” and “Little Women,” which were both released in 2019. The “Jumanji” sequel was the fourth-highest grossing film of the year, while “Little Women” was the eighth.

In fact, if you only look at the box office from when the pandemic forced theaters to close through the end of the year, Sony only garnered around $29 million after March 20.

“The box office year of 2020 had a split personality,” Dergarabedian said. “It boasted a strong performing pre-pandemic marketplace, but its trajectory was severely impacted in mid-March when theaters were sidelined. It then struggled through spring, summer and fall with a severely limited number of open theaters and a striking dearth of new movies.”

The global coronavirus pandemic has crippled the domestic box office, forcing studios to postpone blockbusters and place other major feature films on premium video on-demand or branded streaming services.

Studios that were able to release films before the pandemic shut down movie theaters in March held onto their box-office gains and remained top earners for the year, according to data from Comscore. These studios’ box-office totals were also boosted by films that had been released in 2019 but continued to play in cinemas in early 2020.

In fact, the lion’s share of the $2.2 billion 2020 box office was generated during the first three months of the year. From Jan. 1 through March 19, the U.S. and Canadian box office tallied $1.8 billion in ticket sales, Comscore data revealed. The remaining $400 million was collected between April and December.

“The pandemic profoundly changed the fortunes of studios and their films that were either cut off in midstream back in March or were rescheduled for 2021,” Dergarabedian said. “That unforeseen and unfortunate turn of events took what started off as a promising and potentially record-breaking year at the multiplex and turned it into one of the toughest ever for the business.”

A close second

Universal was the second-highest grossing studio in 2020, garnering 21.9% of the market share. The box office difference between Sony and Universal was only $5.8 million.

Universal delayed the majority of its movies until late 2020 or early 2021. However, as theaters began to reopen and it became more clear that audiences weren’t returning en masse, the studio shifted its strategy.

It struck deals with several major theater chains in the U.S. and Canada that would allow it to shorten the length of time its films needed to be in cinemas. This allowed the studio to place its films on premium video on-demand or on its streaming service Peacock sooner and monetize its film among consumers who were not willing to leave their homes.

The bulk of the Comcast-owned studio’s box-office share came from the war drama “1917,” which was released in late 2019. The film received a best picture Academy Award nod in February 2020, which lured moviegoers to see it in droves. The film collected $158 million in 2020, making it the studio’s highest-grossing film and the domestic box office’s second-highest grossing film for the year.

Universal had two major releases prior to the theater shutdown, “Dolittle,” which took in $78 million, and “The Invisible Man,” which brought in $70 million.

The company also had a handful of films come to theaters during the pandemic, including “Trolls World Tour,” “Freaky” and “The Croods: A New Age.” Together, those film garnered just under $50 million.

The studio also benefited from the rereleases of “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park,” which added around $10 million in ticket sales to the company’s total. These films, which originally debuted in 1975 and 1993, were among the top 20 highest-grossing films that were played in theaters between the end of March and December 2020.

The bronze medal

In 2019, the Walt Disney Company released seven films that surpassed $1 billion globally and held nearly 40% of the market share of the domestic box office. It had scored more than $4 billion in ticket sales between its Disney film distribution and its newly acquired 20th Century Fox properties, the most of any studio.

Just one year later, Disney’s share shrunk to 20%, taking it from the top box-office earner to third-best after bringing in just $442 million.

Disney had a packed film slate heading into 2020. Between its Disney production studios and its newly acquired Fox studio, the company was set to release around two dozen films. However, the pandemic prompted the company to make new plans.

For the most part, Disney displaced its 2020 titles, which included two major Marvel films, the Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson-led “Jungle Cruise” and an adaption of Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story.”

While the majority of Disney’s films were pushed into 2021, the company did offer up its live-action version of “Mulan” on its streaming service Disney+ for $30 in September and placed its Oscar-contender, Pixar film “Soul,” on the platform for free.

While Comscore separates Disney and 20th Century as two different distributors, CNBC has chosen to combine their ticket sales because they are both owned by Disney. Together, they have the third-largest market share, or about 20%.

According to Comscore’s data, Disney as a solo distributor garnered $255 million in ticket sales last year, while 20th Century tallied $187 million. Had these figures not been combined, Disney would have had the fourth-largest market share and 20th Century would have been fifth.

Warner Bros., which sold $258 million in ticket sales last year, would have been third. Compared with a combined Disney and 20th Century, Warner Bros. is fourth.

Rey and Kylo Ren face off in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Disney

Disney’s highest-grossing film of 2020 was “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” which was released in late December 2019. The film tallied $128 million in 2020 and was the fifth-highest grossing film at the domestic box office.

Like that of Sony, the majority of Disney’s total box office came from films released in the beginning of the year or holdovers from 2019. “Onward,” “Call of the Wild,” “Frozen 2” and “Spies in Disguise” all contributed to its haul in the early months of 2020.

“The New Mutants” was Disney’s highest-grossing theatrical release during the pandemic. The film reported around $32 million in sales.

Disney also had a number of rereleased films that contributed to its tally, including “Hocus Pocus,” “Star Wars,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Black Panther.” These titles accounted for nearly $30 million of Disney’s haul.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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