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Battlefield drama 1917 wins 2020 UK box office in pandemic-struck year

Posted at Jan 06, 2021

In a year devastated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Sam Mendes’s first world war drama 1917 has emerged as the biggest earner of 2020 at the UK cinema box office, according to the annual report by box office analyst Comscore.

Released in the UK on 10 January, 1917 was inspired by anecdotes told to the director by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who served on the western front. It starred George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as two soldiers charged with carrying a vital message across the battlefield, and won three Oscars (for cinematography, sound mixing and visual effects). Aided by its high profile on the award circuit, 1917 earned £44m in UK cinemas.

However, 2020 was a disastrous year for UK cinemas, with mass cinema closures and release cancellations that began with the first national lockdown in March resulting in a drop of 76% from the year before. In total, UK cinemas earned £322.2m in 2020, compared with £1.3bn in 2019. Ironically, the first quarter of 2020 exceeded expectations, up more than 20% on 2019. However, the lockdown saw virtually no cinema activity in April, May and June, before cautious reopenings in early July saw a modest revival, with four consecutive weeks in September and October recording over £70m in total. The second lockdown in November saw box office drop sharply, before reviving again in December as restrictions were relaxed.

A trailer for 1917

Nine out of the top 10 films were released before the pandemic took hold, including the film in second place, Sonic the Hedgehog (£19.3m), as well as Bad Boys for Life (£16.2m, 4th place), Dolittle (15.9m, 5th) and Parasite (£12.1m, 8th). Little Women (£15.3m, 6th), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (£11.3m, 9th) and Jumanji: The Next Level (£11m, 10th) were all released in 2019.

The sole title in the list released after March is Tenet, which ended the year in third place with total earnings of £17.4m, arrived in the UK in August as nearly every other Hollywood-produced film had its release date pushed back. While Tenet director Christopher Nolan was lauded for his commitment to attempting to restart audiences’ cinemagoing habits, the film’s enormous production budget meant that its modest results damaged the prospects for a widespread return to cinemas by the Hollywood studios, and contributed to its producers Warner Bros’ decision to release its upcoming blockbusters on its streaming service in the US.

Sole summer release … Elizabeth Debicki, left, and John David Washington in Tenet. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP

Smaller venues, including the majority of independent UK cinemas, fared slightly less badly than cinemas with multiple screens – single-screen venues recording a 68% drop in business, contrasted with 77% for multiplexes with six or more screens. Comscore suggest that “the continued availability of arthouse/independent British titles, event cinema, catalogue and short-windowed titles is a major factor” and that “multiplexes are more reliant on the pipeline of major Hollywood blockbusters” which all but dried up.

Comscore said that while the final cinema admission numbers are still being collated the total is expected to be in the region of 42m to 43m in the UK: the lowest total since records began in 1928, and well below the previous low of 54m in 1984. Cineworld, the UK’s biggest chain, has kept doors to its 127 theatres in the UK and Ireland shut since October, writing off the year when the premiere of No Time To Die was pushed back again to April this year.

Analysts at Omdia forecast a slow return to pre-Covid box office levels. This year the box office is currently forecast to be 40% down on 2019, at about £750m.

“The big movies [this year] start with Bond,” says Tim Richards, chief executive of Vue, the UK’s third-largest cinema chain. “Then there will be three years of [delayed] movies in an 18-month period. There will be pent up demand to go out and go to almost any movie.”

Top 10 films at the UK box office in 2020

1. 1917 – £44m
2. Sonic the Hedgehog – £19.3m
3. Tenet – £17.4m
4. Bad Boys for Life – £16.2m
5. Dolittle – £15.9m
6. Little Women – £15.3m (released 2019, £22.1m total)
7. The Gentlemen – £12.2m
8. Parasite – £12.1m
9. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – £11.3m (released 2019, £58.2m total)
10. Jumanji: The Next Level – £11m (released 2019, £36.8m total)