So what did millions of Americans do? They went to the movies.
And not just any movie — the kind of movie that’s not supposed to work in the streaming age.
“Ford v Ferrari,” a throwback sports film, drew large numbers at the box office. More than 3 million people came out to see the picture, which stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale in a fact-based epic about a Le Mans race from the 1960s.
That was good enough for $31 million in ticket sales — about 30 percent more than pundits predicted — and an easy box-office win among all films in theaters, including a reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,” which grossed about $9 million.
The development was surprising not because it showed there are still theatrical hits but because of the kind of hit this was. Pretty much the only studio films supposed to work in theaters these days are franchise releases — big-budget intellectual properties that continue comic-book mythology or reboots with known names. Movies that motivate us to leave Netflix and the couch behind. Movies such as “Charlie’s Angels.”
In fact, the top three movies at the domestic box office this year are “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King” and “Toy Story: 4” — all Disney extensions of established brands. (“Ford” was released by Disney but it’s fundamentally a Fox movie; it was developed and produced by the studio before Disney acquired it.)
Everything else? It’s supposed to flourish only on streaming.
Yet “Ford” worked well despite being everything else — based on no known property, well-reviewed, not looking to launch a franchise or be true to anything but itself. Its main virtue is simply its old-school value of smart entertainment.
“I think the message is this kind of magic still works,” said Bruce Nash, a distribution expert who runs a box-office site called the Numbers. “For all the talk about the popularity of streaming services and all the talk about [theatrical] reboots, people still want to see big movie stars tell an original story on the screen.”
Nor is “Ford” an exception. Seven times since the beginning of spring a movie like this — not based on any piece of big-budget intellectual property — has won the weekend, including films including the horror parable “Us,” or the period costume drama “Downton Abbey,” spun off a boutique PBS hit. That’s up from four just two years ago.
And that doesn’t include “Hustlers” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” neither of which won their opening weekend (defeated by branded competition) but became big hits just the same. Thanks to similar virtues as “Ford,” both films opened strong and rode sharp word of mouth to gross more than $100 million in the United States, topping the industry expectation that films will make 2½ times their opening weekend total.
“Hustlers” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” did far better, with “Once Upon a Time’s” $140 million in the United States and $371 million around the world, becoming one of the biggest original hits in years.
The gold standard for popularity is $100 million grosser. As recently as 2016, there were just three live-action movies not based on a massively known property to hit that mark. Yet this year, despite all the rapidly proliferating original films on streaming, there are already five. And a number of others candidates, including “1917,” “Richard Jewell,” “Knives Out” and “Little Women,” are waiting in the wings to try to join them (along, possibly, with “Ford”).
All this picks up on a strong 2018, during which movies such as “A Quiet Place” and “Crazy Rich Asians” — also studio releases not based on massively popular pieces of intellectual property — did big business.
Movie-industry insiders are trying to figure out what this means. After all, weren’t all these original movies supposed to disappear from theaters and migrate to Netflix? In fact, as “Ford” was raking in the dollars, “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s original mob epic produced by Netflix, is playing only in limited theaters as Netflix holds it back for a home release.
But with the box-office success of all these other original films, the picture looks a lot different. Rather than “Irishman” reinforcing fears that streaming is killing the original theatrical picture, it’s prompting a different question: With the original theatrical picture thriving, why is Netflix hurting itself?
Experts say this may be the early shape of a new era, one in which Disney comes along every month or so with a megahit (it’s about to happen again with “Stars Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in December) but also in which, in between that, theaters need to show movies, other studios need to make movies and, most important, consumers need to see movies.
“It’s not necessary to depend on established franchises to succeed theatrically,” said John Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theatre Owners, when asked about the lesson of “Ford” this weekend. “We’re headed for a massive holiday season at the box office, and there’s plenty of room for films that aren’t part of an established franchise to do well alongside the tent poles.”
It’s important to note that the top of the heap is not shrinking.
If “Skywalker” somehow manages to land a domestic box office total of $750 million, the total take for the top five films in the United States this year will exceed $3 billion — a record. For the first time in the modern era, the top five grossing movies also will come from just one studio (Disney).
But the question is what happens beneath that, where all the other studios must play. And that’s where, as Nash says, “the smart ones see an opportunity.”
On Monday, Disney released its schedule for the years beyond 2019. On tap are a number of huge movies. At least 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe films in 3½ years beginning with “Black Widow” in 2020. Four “Avatar” sequels. Three “Star Wars” installments. The studio listed 49 movies between now and the end of 2021. That sounds pretty daunting.
But there are 110 weekends during that time. Which means more than 60 without a big release. And people won’t be sitting at home watching their tablets on all of them.