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Will Big End-of-Year Openings Push 2016 to a Box Office Record?

Variety logo Variety 11/22/2016 Brent Lang

It’s a Hollywood ending few saw coming. Somehow, despite all the naysayers, the fretting over sequel-itis, and a dearth of blue-chip franchises, 2016 is on pace to set a box office record. In order to finish the year on a high note, studios will spend the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods offering up spinoffs to the “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” series, new Disney and Illumination animated adventures, and a singing and dancing Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

“If everything pans out the way it looks like it will, I think we’re going to end up with another record year,” says Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at “It’s been such a roller-coaster year that it didn’t feel like we were setting a new record, but the high points outweighed the low.”

After a difficult fall, during which costly gambles like “Deepwater Horizon” and “Inferno” failed to pay off, moviegoers have begun to find their way back to the multiplexes. “Doctor Strange” and “Trolls” have been embraced by audiences, and revenues have been on an upward trajectory since the start of November.

Ticket sales are 4% above last year, and admissions are up 1.5%. Most analysts believe “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — the just-opened fantasy set in the world of Hogwarts — and “Moana,” the Disney family film that opens Nov. 23, will make for a killer one-two punch over Thanksgiving.

“It feels like there’s some momentum in the marketplace now, and that the turnaround will continue,” says Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief.

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December, however, could be problematic. That’s because last year benefited from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the space opera that brought back Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher while successfully introducing a new generation of moviegoers to a galaxy far, far away. It’s the highest-grossing domestic release in history, and it earned $652 million of its $936.7 million haul in the final month of 2015. Those results will be difficult to compete with this year.

“If we can make up about half of what ‘Star Wars’ did, we’ll match or exceed the record,” says James C. Goss, an analyst at Barrington Research. “If the movies out there contribute enough, we can make up some of the difference.”

Two films will likely play a critical role in filling the gap — “Star Wars: Rogue One” and “Sing” — though both are somewhat unknown commodities. Set in the same cinematic world of Jedi knights and Sith lords, “Rogue One,” which opens Dec. 16, is a prequel that exists apart from the ongoing Skywalker-clan saga. Barring a complete creative meltdown, it will be successful, but few box office sages predict it will match the haul of “The Force Awakens.” Disney, the

studio behind “Rogue One,” has made a point of downplaying expectations, with chief Bob Iger telling investors last month not to expect similar results.

“Sing,” an animated offering from Illumination, the studio behind “Despicable Me,” is an original property about a music competition with animals. Many industry observers anticipate that the film’s cute premise and soundtrack of pop favorites from the likes of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga will make it the de facto offering for families over the holidays. It opens Dec. 21.

Beyond programming, movies could serve as a tonic to a brutal election year, one that has left many Americans feeling anxious and dissatisfied with the state of the country. A recent national poll by The Washington Post/Schar School found that seven out of 10 people are angry about the election. A mere 32% of Americans said they were proud of the outcome, according to Gallup.

“People want to escape to the movies,” notes Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “The big spectacle movies will do well over the last two months [of the year], but I’d give particular attention to the movies that have a little smile to them — the ones with some warmth and humor and magic. That’s something our business can provide.”

That could be good news for “La La Land,” the critically adored musical, as well as the raunchy comedies “Why Him?” and “Office Christmas Party.” There’s also the science-fiction romance “Passengers,” which is betting on the combined star power of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to draw crowds.

Even if 2016 falls short of a record, studio executives are relieved to be within striking distance. Going into the year, conventional wisdom held that it would be impossible to match the $1.3 billion that “Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World” contributed to the 2015 domestic box office; the films slated to hit theaters this year just didn’t have the same pedigree. Those fears were exacerbated when summer ticket sales began to drift as audiences grew dissatisfied with sequels and reboots of such franchises as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Alice in Wonderland.” At the same time, feverish coverage of the election, the Olympics, and cultural phenomena such as Pokémon Go made movie- going seem something of an afterthought.

“The business is far more discriminating than it once was,” says Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution head. “You have to provide something fresh and innovative and in the zeitgeist.”

But what has emerged is a more egalitarian marketplace. Last year, two films made more than $600 million. In 2016, no movie came anywhere near that total domestically, but eight have topped $300 million (two more than hit that mark in the previous year). In other words, the wealth is being distributed more evenly. There were also a number of films this year, such as “Deadpool,” an R-rated superhero comedy, and “Zootopia,” a noirish animal adventure, that exceeded expectations, hitting theaters in the winter and spring, when ticket sales tend to be sluggish. That translated into steady revenue gains: 30 of the past 47 weekends have seen year-over-year improvements in box office results.

“There’s been a lot more breadth,” says Chris Aronson, Fox’s distribution chief. “Last year had some mega-blockbusters, but this year everything was more spread out.”

If the business can maintain that consistency through Christmas, it will really have something to celebrate.

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