'Onward' Stalls At The Box Office But Coronavirus Probably Isn't To Blame

As far as the world’s population goes, coronavirus has been on people’s minds for weeks now. But over the last two weeks, in particular, it’s felt that the outbreak of the illness has gained more headlines in the world of film and TV due to cancellations of festivals (RIP SXSW) and the threat of cinemas shutting down around the world (obviously, this has already happened en masse in China). So, with the debut of Pixar’s Onward,” the first major worldwide tentpole debut since coronavirus has really become headline news, how would the illness affect the box office? Well, that’s a complicated issue.

For Pixar (and thus, parent company Disney), the box office debut of “Onward” is a mixed bag. Sure, it’s a worldwide #1 debut and probably well on its way to profitability, but it’s not as if any of those issues were ever in question. But the numbers? Those aren’t too hot.

READ MORE: ‘Onward’: Pixar Takes A Step Backward In A Film Rife With Fantasy Clichés [Review]

Domestically, “Onward” scored a three-day total of $40 million, which is on the lower end of expectations from the studio, as many saw this film as a potential overperformer. I mean, Pixar is Pixar, after all. But before we get to the worldwide discussion, it’s important to note that the domestic total, despite being low for a Pixar film, isn’t as easily chalked up to pandemic fear or anything like that. We could be looking at a film just having a case of old fashioned underperforming, and the stats back up this hypothesis.

Sure, scoring an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes is a great feat for any major film looking to become a box office smash hit. But when you take “Onward’s” Tomatometer score and compare it to the ghosts of Pixar past, it’s not such a great number. Of the 21 movies that Pixar has released, 86% puts “Onward” in the lower half of the bunch, beating the likes of films such as “Brave,” “Monsters University,” “The Good Dinosaur,” and the three “Cars” films. Films such as the “Toy Story” franchise, “Finding Nemo/Dory,” and standalone pictures like “Up” routinely are in the mid-to-high 90’s on Rotten Tomatoes. So, the critics’ aggregate score does indicate that “Onward” isn’t a film that is likely going to go down as a true Pixar classic.

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When we look at audience surveying, “Onward” earned an ‘A-’ CinemaScore. Again, a pretty solid number for sure. But let’s bring it back to Pixar’s past. Of the 21 films in the studio’s filmography, an ‘A-’ ties it for dead last with “Cars 2.” The other 19 films earned an ‘A’ or ‘A+.’ This shows some sort of disconnect, though small, between “Onward” and its audience.

So, taking that into consideration, combined with the fact that American audiences aren’t dealing with theater closures and mass bans on public gatherings (as are affecting other parts of the world), there is a strong case to show that “Onward” coming in on the extreme low side of expectations has more to do with the film and less to do with any sort of coronavirus fear.

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Internationally? That’s a different proposition.

Worldwide, “Onward” only grossed $68 million, meaning that’s only another $28 million from its international rollout. Granted, this film isn’t being released on the same day throughout the world, as animated films tend to stagger the releases based more on when children and families are more able to go to the cinema. However, $28 million is a startlingly low number. And there is the very real situation where cinemas are closed in certain territories and China is completely closed for business as far as theaters go. So, it would be silly to completely chalk this number up to the film not being Pixar’s best. That being said, we’ll have to see the debut of Disney’s “Mulan” and other blockbusters this season to see if there is a real coronavirus impact that is quantifiable.

The other major debut at the domestic box office, “The Way Back,” doesn’t have nearly the intrigue as “Onward,” though those people wanting to see the best new film of the weekend might have wanted to skip the animated flick and went to see Ben Affleck turn in a solid comeback performance. But I digress. This weekend, “The Way Back” came in a bit lower than expected, with only an $8.5 million domestic debut. However, unlike “Onward,” Affleck’s film is a case of the marketing maybe not translating to more butts in seats instead of the film not living up to expectations.

The good news for Warner Bros. is that an $8.5 million debut doesn’t mean the film will flop. “The Way Back” was reportedly produced for $23 million and will likely turn a nice little profit after everything is all said and done, no matter what. However, with a basketball drama earning great reviews (87% on Rotten Tomatoes) and solid audience reception (‘B+’ CinemaScore), you would expect that “The Way Back” would have been able to really earn a bit more at the box office.

READ MORE: ‘The Way Back’: Ben Affleck Clinches The Win With A Terrifically Honest Comeback [Review]

Personally, I can’t help but wonder if marketing played a role in this. Sure, the trailers don’t shy away from the personal story of addiction and recovery (which Affleck has a very public relationship with and has talked about very openly during the publicity phase), but the footage really did paint “The Way Back” as one of those underdog sports films which will have audiences cheering. And again, that is a part of the film, but reviews seem to paint a film that is much more interested in the personal, intimate story at its heart than the sports aspect. Obviously, Ben Affleck’s career won’t be hurt by “The Way Back,” as he is leaving this film a winner in the eyes of critics and fans, but WB isn’t going to crack open the champagne bottles, either.

As for returning films, “Emma” probably had the best weekend, expanding wide and earning a respectable $5 million. Not a bad expansion for a film that has done remarkably well in its limited run and is yet another adaptation of a Jane Austen classic story.

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But perhaps the most surprising/refreshing story is with “The Invisible Man.” The Blumhouse horror overperformed last weekend, with its $28.2 million debut. And in its second weekend, the film only dropped -46% to earn another $15 million. Normally, a film drops, in its second weekend, around -50% regardless of its debut, which shows that “The Invisible Man” is doing really well. But horror? That’s a different story. Those films tend to fall closer to -60%, with some dropping as much as -70% or more, if they debut with such a high number. In that regard, “The Invisible Man” is doing incredibly well.

Next weekend, we’ll have to keep an eye on coronavirus and how it’s affecting the box office with the debuts of films such as Vin Diesel’sBloodshot” superhero franchise-starter (though does anyone honestly think that film is going to do huge business?), Blumhouse’s controversial thriller, “The Hunt,” and the faith-based film, “I Still Believe.”

Here’s the full domestic top 10 for March 6 to March 8:

  1. Onward – $40M (Debut)
  2. The Invisible Man – $15M ($53M Overall)
  3. The Way Back – $8.5M (Debut)
  4. Sonic the Hedgehog – $8M ($141M)
  5. The Call of the Wild – $7M ($58M)
  6. Emma – $5M ($6.9M)
  7. Bad Boys for Life – $3M ($202M)
  8. Birds of Prey – $2.2M ($83M)
  9. My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising – $1.5M ($12.7M)
  10. 1917 – $1.4M ($158M)