The late-summer swoon continues at the box office. Despite the premiere of the critically acclaimed horror film Barbarian, just $40.3 million in ticket sales was collected by domestic movie theaters over the weekend. Just 1% of the country made it out to the multiplex to catch a movie during the second weekend of September.
How bad is $40.3 million in box office receipts? It's the worst weekend for U.S. exhibitors since late January. It's not just a one-time fluke. The worst six weekends of ticket sales of the seasonally potent summer just happen to be the past six weekends. Audiences flocked to the silver screen in encouraging numbers earlier this summer, but now they're spending their time somewhere else and that's potentially problematic for AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC -6.28%) and its smaller peers. The stocks have also been roughed up as traffic counts dry up, but there is still time for a plot twist that leads to a Hollywood ending.
Barbarian at the gate
The back half of the summer is typically slow, so it's not a surprise that the last six weeks have been the worst of any weekend since May. The alarming thing about the recent lull is the sharp deceleration. The $467 million in domestic ticket sales last month was barely above the prior year's showing when movie studios were holding back on content and many Americans were still uneasy about heading out to the local film house. More importantly, last month's ticket sales were 44% below August in 2019, the last year before the pandemic tossed the industry's fundamentals into a blender and hit frappe.
You have to go all the way back to 1992 -- 30 years -- to find a worse pre-pandemic August showing. It gets worse. These tallies aren't even adjusted for inflation. September isn't faring any better after two uninspiring weekends, but there are some reasonable explanations for movie theaters experiencing their worst weekend in more than seven months:
- It was a holiday weekend the week before, so patrons had an extra day to catch a flick on Labor Day.
- National Cinema Day -- where folks could buy $3 tickets to any movie in any format -- on Saturday during Labor Day weekend didn't help. Folks got a cheap admission, and now they may be waiting for the next big sale before coming back.
- There's a pricing war among streaming services taking place, and studios are making sure they stock those platforms with original content or theatrical content on tighter release windows.
The good news is that time should heal all three of those wounds. No-brainer blockbusters are coming later this year. The industry likely learned its lesson with the $3 promo. There will be a shakeout among streaming services, as weaker services buckle and subscription prices start to firm up again.
You also can't write off September so soon for movie theater stocks. Barbarian doesn't have any A-list celebrities carrying the film, so it wasn't going to be a big draw its first weekend. The creepy film about a vacation rental gone horribly wrong garnered an impressive 93% approval rating from film critics tracked by Rotten Tomatoes. It wouldn't be a surprise if it has a long tail as word of mouth circulates. The next few weeks will be filled with potential horror movie blockbusters or indie sleepers. It'll then roll into the holidays with some high-profile releases. If weak box office receipts continue over the holidays, then it would be a good time to worry.