Can we blame Coronavirus for Onward’s disappointing opening weekend?


This past weekend, Pixar’s Onward opened in most of its markets across the globe. But you would be forgiven for not noticing that as it caused relatively little fanfare, only bringing in $39.1 million domestic and $67.1 million worldwide in its first three days. When box office reports were released on Sunday, the film was looking at $40 million, which while one of the weaker Pixar efforts, at least had a 4 in front of it. As it stands, the debut is disappointing for the acclaimed animation studio. But why did it have such little success compared with other efforts, especially as it had relatively strong reviews (86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing).

The obvious answer (and the one that Disney will probably try and sell you) is that growing fears surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak is what caused people to stay at home and not risk sitting in a crowded room filled with strangers. Indeed, on the surface, box office numbers are down from the last couple of years. Top 10 grosses for the weekend domestically have failed to hit $100 for the last three weeks, a problem that the last few years have not had to face in February and March. Directly comparing year on year grosses confirms that the second week of March this year pales in comparison to previous. There of course has to be some link to the virus. Planned government initiatives of social distancing and delaying the spread of the virus could result in even further drop offs in box office revenue, until the outbreak can be resolved.

However, to blame Coronavirus for Onward’s underperformance solely is a little misguided. For one, while the weaker top 10 gross totals in the last few weekends is indeed stark, there are logical reasons. The months of February and March in the last few years have proven to be powerhouses for the domestic box office. The release of Black Panther in 2018 and last year’s Captain Marvel majorly boosted totals, and I have little doubt that if a tentpole release from the likes of Marvel were to be released this year, it would still do boffo business even with the lurking Coronavirus. Looking back also at the previous few years also shows that weekends with a less hyped release have similar results to this year. For instance, the first weekend of March in 2019 had a top 10 gross less than $100 million with no epidemic in sight.

While Onward should possibly be seen as a big release (all Pixar movies are), it’s an original movie following a long line of sequels from the studio, thus arguably making our expectations greater considering their recent successes. Onward’s opening actually falls much more in line with other original Pixar efforts, namely The Good Dinosaur and Coco, and they even had the benefit of opening on a long Thanksgiving weekend. With a stronger advertising campaign (the relative complexity of the plot and the world means that it’s a little bit of a harder sell than something like Toy Story or Inside Out), Onward could have been a huge success.

To further prove the sturdiness of the Domestic box office, we’ve just had a few weeks of over-performances from the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and The Invisible Man, the latter of which only dropped 46.3% in its second weekend. It’s clear that audiences are still invested in films being released despite the threat of the virus, and steady holds for wide releases are a testament to the fact that cinema-going is not suddenly experiencing a major decline.

Of course, the epidemic is only growing, so there’s no telling whether it will prove to have a greater effect as time goes on. But I expect Onward’s strong reviews and word of mouth will help it deliver a strong total, even if it takes a little longer to get there.

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