UK cinemas suffer worst ever year as ticket sales fall 76%

The UK box office plunged by more than three-quarters in 2020 as pandemic lockdowns and a lack of Hollywood blockbusters resulted in the worst year in cinema history.

Cinema ticket sales fell 76% to £323m last year, after five consecutive years of box office revenues above £1.3bn, according to Comscore’s annual report.

The year started well with revenues up 20% on 2019 as Sam Mendes war drama 1917 raked in £44m, making it the highest grossing film of the year.

From March, however, cinemas across the UK have barely been able to open due to coronavirus lockdowns, and when they have been open Hollywood studios have delayed blockbuster releases for fear they will flop as fans avoid movie-going during the pandemic. The top 5 films in 2019 brought in more than the total for 2020, at £337m.

Comscore said that while the final cinema admission numbers are still being collated the total is expected to be from 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 shut its 127 venues in the UK and Ireland since October, writing off the year when the premiere of James Bond: 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.”

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However, extra pressure is being put on theatre owners as Hollywood studios look to bypass cinemas and premiere films on digital services. Warner Bros has been the most aggressive, announcing its entire slate of 21 films this year, from Dune to The Suicide Squad, will premiere on its HBO Max streaming platform in the US at the same time as they debut in cinemas.

Top 5 films in the UK and Ireland 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

Top 5 films of 2019

Avengers: Endgame – £88.6m

The Lion King – £75.9m

Toy Story 4 – £66.1m

Joker – £57.9m

Frozen 2 – £48.4m

Source: Comscore


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