What is the Lowest-Grossing Pre-COVID Weekend at the 21st Century Box Office?

An enraptured movie theater audience at the "Dovbush" Film Premiere In Odesa
An enraptured movie theater audience at the "Dovbush" Film Premiere In Odesa / Global Images Ukraine/GettyImages

If you’ve seen any news pieces about recent domestic box office developments, chances are you’ve been confronted by some grim headlines. The 2024 Memorial Day weekend was especially a brutal time for theatrical moviegoing. With Furiosa and The Garfield Movie each coming up short of expectations at the North American box office, Memorial Day 2024 was the lowest-grossing Memorial Day frame in 30 years (save for the holiday weekend in 2020). The box office blues of 2024 have been intensified by last year's biggest events. In 2023, the major studios refused to give actors and writers livable wages. This problem resulted in a pair of massive lengthy strikes that the studios refused to solve in a timely manner. 

Because of these conglomerates and executives, a slew of 2024 movies were delayed. This left the year's calendar barren. The result has been some truly dismal weekends at the domestic box office. This includes the first two weekends of February 2024 where Argylle topped all other titles for two consecutive frames. The $29.1 million haul from the February 9-11, 2024 weekend (comprised of that weekend’s top 10 biggest earners) wasn’t just atrocious in its own terms. It was somehow even worse than even worse than the lowest-grossing domestic box office weekend of the 21st century before the COVID pandemic. Yes, that’s a big mouthful! Just think of it as the biggest modern box office weekend before we all started wearing masks.

In the first 20 years of the 21st century, the theatrical exhibition industry hit some seriously impressive highs. 2018 delivered the biggest single yearly gross of all time ($11.8 billion) without adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, the years from 2002-2004 delivered the three biggest years of the century so far in terms of tickets sold.. But even in these brighter eras (compared to 2024 at least), dismal weekends could drag down the marketplace. Take the September 15-17, 2000 frame, for instance. Over this particular weekend, the James Spader/Marisa Tomei thriller The Watcher ruled over the weekend with just $5.8 million. Only two other movies (newcomer Bait and holdover Bring It On) cracked $5 million each for the weekend. The top 10’s total that fateful frame? An anemic $34.7 million. Not even Montgomery Gentry would think that hauls “something to be proud of”!

The Watcher was a bit of a cursed movie in the 2000 box office landscape. It also ruled over the second-lowest-grossing weekend of 2000, the September 8-10 frame. Here, The Watcher opened to $9 million and dominated a top 10 that could only amass $41.6 million. Even that gross was better than the following weekend’s $34.7 million sum, though. The obvious question, then, is why? What led to the September 15-17, 2000 weekend coming in beneath all other 21st-century pre-2020 box office frames?

The clearest answer is the lack of movies in the marketplace. Over this frame, Bait was the only new movie to open in wide release (or over 600 theaters). A dearth of fresh movies alone would keep people away from the multiples. Meanwhile, nothing the previous weekend had cleared $10+ million on its own. Not even The Watcher, which topped the box office for two straight weekends, ever drummed up eight digits worth of business in one weekend. If you’ve got a holdover as big as Top Gun: Maverick in the marketplace, one weekend with minimal new releases is fine. In an already struggling cinematic landscape, though, a lack of fresh features can be deadly. Unsurprisingly, Bait being the only new movie in sight solidified September 16-17, 2000’s box office fate.

It doesn’t help that Hollywood often views September as a dumping ground. That’s changed in recent years thanks to hits like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the It movies. Before 2017, though, September had never housed a movie that opened to $50+ million domestically. This month didn’t house any big lengthy holiday weekends and wasn’t famous for launching pre-2017 blockbusters. September was even since een as a risky time to launch movies because this was the month many broadcast network shows returned. Did you want to have your new movie get lost in the hubbub over the newest season premiere of Friends? These traits led to Hollywood using September as a launchpad for either award-season hopefuls or low-budget genre fare. 

The Watcher fits into the latter category nicely, but titles like that can’t carry the entire box office marketplace. Hollywood’s typically dismissive attitude towards September has resulted in many historically low 21st-century box office frames existing in this month. The September 15-17, 2000 frame was unquestionably the nadir of pre-2020 21st-century domestic box office weekends. However, it was emblematic of Hollywood never taking this month very seriously. Just take a gander at how many infamously low 21st century domestic box office frames have occurred in September! Those three frames alone were all topped by dismal newcomers and holdovers that couldn’t clear $10 million. This doomed the entire weekend to atrocious figures.

This trend of Hollywood abandoning September even continued into the late 2010s. Just look at the September 1-3, 2017 frame dominated by the third weekend of The Hitman’s Bodyguard. That three-day frame only grossed $48 million for the entire weekend. The only new wide release in the marketplace was the box office bomb Tulip Fever (it barely grossed over $1.15 million over the weekend). Ironically, that frame directly preceded the weekend where the first It installment premiered.

That scary feature became the first ever September release to open to over $100 million. The disparity between those two September 2017 frames showed that this month could be a big moneymaker for Hollywood. The must-see movies just had to exist! If you don’t release major movies in a certain month, the box office numbers won't explode. It’s like not watering a certain plant in your garden and then wondering why it’s so wilted compared to your other flowers!

It wasn't just the type of movies typically released in September that plagued this weekend. One must also consider how the year 2000 was, in one critical way, bound to house the lowest-grossing pre-2020 weekend of the 21st century. The average ticket price in 2000 was $5.39. Prices steadily increased every year since (2023's $10.78 average ticket price doubled that 2000 figure!) With the lowest ticket prices of the century, 2000 could inevitably house lower than-average grosses than subsequent years. This was reflected in the year generating a total domestic haul of $7.5 billion.

That was easily the lowest pre-2020 yearly domestic gross of the 21st century. Even 2022, a year riddled with COVID flare-ups and months devoid of new releases, came within $120-ish million of overtaking 2000's domestic total. A weaker year dragged down by lower ticket prices inevitably would feature some noticeably weak frames like that infamous mid-September weekend.

The September 15-17, 2000 frame unquestionably reflects a larger box office trend for the year 2000. However, the shortcomings in this weekend also unfortunately crystallize Hollywood's problems with post-2020 theatrical cinema. Even if we only focus on the domestic box office from January 1, 2022, onward (since that's when studios began releasing theatrical-exclusive movies regularly again), there have been several dismal frames that sank below that infamous September 15-17, 2000 frame. This is in spite of decades of ticket price inflation! The final weekend of January 2022, for instance, only grossed $30.7 million. The second weekend of September 2022 only grossed $33.9 million, proving Hollywood still hadn't learned its lesson about September's value.

Worst of all, the post-March 2020 domestic box office keeps finding new lows in terms of overall weekend hauls. The $29.1 million haul of February 9-11, 2024 was the smallest weekend gross since 2021. These dreadful weekends echoed the same problems that plagued that dismal September 2000 box office frame. Hollywood won’t release enough movies theatrically. Back in 2000, this was a byproduct of the studios holding things off until the holiday season. Now, studios have tons of finished titles (Distant at Universal, Coyote vs. Acme at Warner Bros., Apartment 7A at Paramount Pictures, etc.) sitting on their respective shelves just waiting for either streaming premieres or tax write-offs. Theaters of all sizes need movies to fill their screens. The biggest conglomerates that prolonged the dual 2023 labor strikes won’t listen to that demand.

A barren marketplace leads to the weakest box office weekends. A lack of variety in theatrical features similarly leads to financial doldrums. We need romantic comedies, thrillers, courtroom dramas, and all kinds of genres inhabiting theaters. Inevitably, this will get audiences of all kinds back to the big screen. People want and love to go to the movies! However, when studios don’t supply theaters with new features, audiences won’t show up. It’s always been true, as seen by that historically bad September 2000 weekend. However, weekends as bad as the frames where The Watcher ruled over the box office are especially egregious in the modern volatile theatrical landscape. Hollywood should have learned the lessons of the September 2000's box office's nadir. Instead, decades later, the film industry is compounding the same problems that plagued September 2000 just when movie theaters are at their most vulnerable. It's hard to believe this sentence could ever be written, but Hollywood really could stand to learn some valuable lessons from The Watcher.

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