World Cup and Sun Hurt European Box Office

Unseasonably warm weather and a month of World Cup matches combined to knock out European theatrical returns.

Scorching hot temperatures plus four weeks of World Cup soccer action combined to lay waste to Europe’s box office this past month. Theatrical returns were down across the board with some of the steepest drops seen in the territories with the tournament’s strongest teams.

Newly crowned champion France ignited World Cup fever across the country, and an accompanying heat wave also kept audiences out of cinemas. Preliminary figures released by the CNC ahead of the final showed admissions dropped 15.6 percent in June, down by nearly 2 million compared with June 2017. Overall, admissions are down 1.3 percent for the first six months of the year compared with 2017.

It’s not hard to see what those spectators were watching instead: TV ratings for World Cup matches have hit new records, with upward of 22 million French fans tuning in when Les Bleus were on the field.

Officially, 22.2 million French viewers caught Sunday’s final on TF1, the largest television audience of the year in France (an 82.2 percent share) and the seventh highest of all time. But ratings agency Mediametrie was quick to note that figure is a low estimate, as it does not include the millions who watched the match in bars and on other public screens. At least 90,000 caught the game at the Eiffel Tower alone, a further 80,000 at the Stade de France soccer stadium, where Beyonce and Jay-Z aired the game ahead of their concert. Those not watching soccer were more likely to be catching the latest leg of the Tour de France — the cycling race drew 3.74 million viewers for a 29.1 percent share ahead of the World Cup final’s kickoff — than to be buying movie tickets.

England, which had its most successful World Cup run since 1990, reaching the semifinal (where the team lost in extra time to Croatia), saw a similar combination of sun and soccer wreak havoc on the box office. June started off strong, tracking ahead of comparable figures from 2017, but nosedived as temperatures soared and England started winning. The weekend of July 7, when England beat Sweden 2-0 to advance to its first World Cup semifinal in 18 years, was the worst weekend of the year at the British box office, with comScore recording an alarming 65 percent drop compared with the equivalent session in 2017.

Meanwhile, according to the BBC, some 19.64 million Brits, 87.7 percent of the total TV audience, were watching the Three Lions on the tele. Another 3.8 million caught the match via live stream on the BBC’s  iPlayer and millions more watched in pubs across the country. For the England-less final, however, interest had waned significantly. Eight million Brits (a 46 percent share) tuned in to watch the game on the BBC on Sunday, while 2.5 million (14.6 percent) saw it on ITV. 

For hosts Russia, the World Cup turned into a nationwide street party, and Russian fans were loath to stop the celebration to go to the movies. Box-office returns were sharply down against comparable months from last year, even after the home team was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Even Germany, which saw Die Mannschaft knocked out in the first round of the tournament, gave way to World Cup fever. Or maybe it was the unusually warm and sunny weather, which lured Germans out of cinemas and to beer gardens around the country. In any case, the box office suffered. German theatrical returns for the World Cup month paced well behind comparable weeks from last year and contributed to a 17 percent drop in box-office performance for the first half of 2018.

Dwayne Johnson’s actioner Skyscraper didn’t bring much relief. On the final World Cup weekend, Skyscraper landed at number one in Germany, but did so by drawing fewer than 100,000 spectators, or a measly $1.17 million in box office. For comparison, more than 21 million Germans watched the World Cup final Sunday on public broadcaster ZDF. That’s sharply down from the record 34.57 million German viewers who caught the 2014 final, which saw Germany defeat Argentina 1-0, but still impressive: The 76.1 percent market share for ZDF was the best result ever for a World Cup final without a German team in the running.

Much of this was expected. Previous World Cups have shown box-office dips of 50 percent or more in major European markets like Germany, France or Spain when the home team is playing. But precisely quantifying the impact can be tricky due to the complexity of the tournament, including what days the games are played, the timing of the match broadcasts and the on-field performance of the home team, all of which can have an impact on cinema admissions.

Because the studios knew the World Cup was coming, many cleared their schedules for the key weeks of the tournament. Universal rolled out Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in key European territories well ahead of the soccer matches, a clever scheduling move that appears to have paid off, with box-office takes of $50 million in the U.K. and $25 million-plus in both France and Germany. 

Others tried for counterprogramming, including Universal/Blumhouse, which bowed The First Purge in several European territories mid-tournament, Sony, which did the same for R-rated drug drama Sicario 2, and Disney, which began staggered starts for Marvel action comedy Ant-Man and the Wasp in early July.

For those titles at least, the tactical move appeared to work. Ant-Man and the Wasp swatted away the competition to a $161 million global start, soccer or not, 45 percent ahead of the first Ant-Man feature. It probably didn’t hurt that the film played strongly to female audiences as well.

Universal’s July 4 release of The First Purge in the U.K. might have looked initially like a clever move, with most pundits assuming the England team would be knocked out of the World Cup by then. As it happened, sunny weather and World Cup fever took their toll, but The First Purge still performed within expectations, earning more than $1.5 million on its first weekend, above the British bow for 2016’s The Purge: Election Year and the original 2014’s The Purge (though below the $1.97 million The Purge: Anarchy earned on its first weekend in the U.K.).

But with the World Cup over, studios and distributors across Europe can look forward to a return to normal business. And they can take solace in the fact that it will be another two years before the next soccer onslaught, when the European Championships kick off in 2020. The tournament will be held in 12 cities in 12 European countries.

Alex Ritman in London, Rhonda Richford in Paris and Vladimir Kozlov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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