US box office starts 2020 strong, but this year's movie slate makes toppling 2018's record seem impossible

Key Points
  • U.S. box offices brought in $886.1 million in ticket sales in January, up 8.7% from 2019's gross during that same month.
  • The 2020 box office so far falls 7.7% short of 2018's record haul during the same period.
  • A recent estimate from Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter suggests that 2020 box office sales will fall 1.6% to $11.2 billion this year.
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star in "Bad Boys For Life."

The North American box office is off to a strong start thanks to "Bad Boys For Life" and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," but ticket sales still lag the pace of the record-setting year 2018.

The box office garnered $886.1 million in January, up 8.7% from 2019's gross during that same month, according to data from Comscore.

In the first 31 days of this year, three films topped $100 million in domestic receipts: "Bad Boys For Life" ($130.3 million), "Rise of Skywalker" ($113 million) and "1917" ($108.2 million).

"Jumanji: The Next Level" contributed $93.1 million, "Little Women" added $58.1 million and "Dolittle" took in $47.5 million.

While the January 2020 box office outshines the haul a year earlier, it falls 7.7% short of the January 2018 haul.

Despite the strong showing in January, a recent estimate from Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter projects ticket sales this year will fall 1.6% to $11.2 billion.

"The gloom and doom talk for 2020 is based on the notion that there aren't any obvious blockbusters on paper," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. "And if we were to rewind a year, simply because there are more obvious blockbusters doesn't mean it's going to be a slam-dunk."

Studios stacked the deck in 2019 with epic franchise-capping blockbusters, big family films and R-rated drama and horror flicks. Much of this was done by Disney, which had seven films released last year that reached more than $1 billion in sales worldwide, as it prepared to launch its streaming service Disney+.

Disney's Marvel brand even broke the record for highest-grossing movie of all time with "Avengers: Endgame." Still, the domestic box office struggled.

Source: Marvel

For every "Endgame," there was a "Godzilla: King of Monsters," a film that had the potential for a box office breakout but ultimately fizzled with audiences. "Men in Black: International," "Charlies' Angels," "Terminator: Dark Fate," "Hellboy," "Child's Play" and "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part" all had disappointing ticket sales.

"If one or two movies underperformed, that's your game changer right there," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.

While films like "Mulan," "Black Widow" and "Wonder Woman 1984" seem destined for box office success, "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," "Jungle Cruise" and "Fantastic Beasts 3" are all question marks.

Other titles like "Fast and Furious 9" and "Minions: Rise of Gru," are franchises that have seen massive interest internationally, and may perform better overseas than domestically.

For example, "The Fate of the Furious," the previous film in the franchise, hauled in $226 million in North America and $1 billion from foreign markets.

"This really is a quality driven business," Robbins said.

Even Disney, which hauled in a record $11.1 billion globally for its 2019 film slate ($3.7 billion domestically), has set lower expectations for 2020.

"2020 is not going to be the same as 2019 for the studio," Disney CEO Bob Iger said during an earnings call Tuesday.

"But we still expect a very strong year," he said. "And given the franchises and the talent that we both work with, and have working for us, we are confident that the studios are going to continue to be a strong driver of operating income for the company, both on the movie front but also as a great supplier of product both original and secondary markets for Disney+. And for Hulu, by the way."

Watch CNBC's full interview with Bob Iger on Disney's Q4 earnings
Watch CNBC's full interview with Bob Iger on Disney's Q4 earnings