If you’ve been tracking the box office this summer, then you know it’s been a tad…um, well, exhausting. Avengers: Endgame became the top-grossing film of all time; Spider-Man: Far From Home showed that Marvel’s ubiquity isn’t diminishing anytime soon as its heads into Phase 4 of the MCU; Disney absolutely dominated theaters worldwide with The Lion King and Aladdin and Toy Story 4.
But on top of all those record-setting performances, there’s been a string of sequels and reboots that haven’t struck anyone’s fancy. With the exception of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, it’s been horrific for most franchises, like Godzilla, The Secret Life of Pets and X-Men. Even Hobbs & Shaw—which scored $60 million on opening weekend—couldn’t strike gold like the last five Fast and Furious movies were able to.
Even with four movies achieving over $1 billion at the global box office, domestic ticket sales are down approximately $500 million in 2019 compared to last year and down over $50 million compared to 2016. And when we account for ticket price inflation, the figures get even worse for 2019, which is $250 million behind 2015′s box office sales.
So while it’s fun to track how much further The Lion King will crawl up the all-time earnings list…at some point, you realize that there’s nothing original dominating the headlines. We’ve got almost nothing but live action remakes, comic book adaptations and tired reboots of forgotten franchises—and, despite how great everything seems, the box office is suffering for it.
But there’s one box office record nobody has really talked about, and it may be the most important, eye-opening milestone film studios need to take note of: on July 14, The Farewell broke the 2019 record for per-theater average on its opening weekend with $88,916.
That average topped even Avengers: Endgame, which only averaged $76,601 per theater on opening weekend. Sure, Avengers appeared in 4,662 theaters to The Farewell‘s four showings, but that average tells us something so key about people’s appetite for original movies. Endgame felt like the cinematic event of the century, and even that movie couldn’t muster the kind of crowds that sold out The Farewell‘s first available showings.
As you crawl down the list of opening weekend averages, you won’t find The Lion King or Spider-Man: Far From Home or Aladdin or Toy Story 4. In other years, huge Disney movies like Pocahontas and Frozen and Toy Story 2 have dominated that category—but in 2019, The Farewell stands above them all.
With just four theaters on its opening weekend from July 12-14, The Farewell was able to rank 19th at the box office with $355,662. The next weekend, it spread to 31 more theaters and increased its box office total to $1.145 million. From July 26-28, it showed in 135 theaters and grew its lifetime earnings to $3.651 million. And finally, this past weekend The Farewell ranked in the top seven at the box office with $2.413 million, increasing its grand total to $6.821 million.
This week, The Farewell is still only showing in 409 theaters, but it’ll easily rank in the top seven (possibly the top six) at the box office. The blockbusters that The Farewell trails behind have a theater count that nearly dectuples this independent film’s. On average per theater, The Farewell is making more than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Toy Story 4 and Yesterday.
The top film from last weekend, Hobbs & Shaw, averaged $14,117 per theater for its debut—which is dwarfed by The Farewell‘s $88,916. Imagine if The Farewell‘s theater count grew to a Hobbs & Shaw level?
When it comes down to it, people are simply responding to a down-to-earth, homegrown story about real people dealing with real problems. No faceless villains, no explosions, no threats to the human race—just a story about a Chinese family that’s learned of its matriarch’s impending death. With all of the larger-than-life films flooding theaters, this is the kind of story that moves people, that captures their attention, that’s worth building an entire night at the theater around.
So hopefully studios take note of The Farewell‘s astounding success in the select communities it’s showing. Each year seems to give us a Lady Bird, an Inside Llewyn Davis, a Moonlight that goes viral and shows the potential of homegrown stories…and nothing changes. Real change will require some courage from studios to invest more in movies people can actually see themselves in.