Cold Weather and Movies: Box-Office Slumps Not So Easily Explained by Cold

But 'Frozen' puns are still O.K.

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With the animated princess film Frozen coming back to the top box-office spot on a weekend full of low temperatures and lots of snowfall, the Monday puns were everywhere: Frozen, frozen, icing competition, freezing other movies out, et cetera.

That list includes the fact that “bitter winter weather chilled receipts” in areas affected by the cold, as the Wall Street Journal put it. Figures from Box Office Mojo show that this past weekend, compared to the week before, the nation’s movie theaters pulled in about 27% less, dollars-wise. That significant drop in earnings jibes well with the traditional wisdom about weather and Hollywood: if it’s too gross outside, people will stay home.

But, looking at historical data, the movies-weather correlation is a lot less straightforward than that. Take a look at four major cold snaps from the last few decades:

  • Just last month, in early December, cold temperatures and icy conditions blanketed much of the country. The Dec. 6–8 weekend is the one this past weekend has been compared to, as Frozen, in its third weekend, took the top spot; that weekend saw a 54.6% decrease in dollars versus the previous one, with a total intake of $94.5 million…but that figure is nearly $14 million more than the movies made in the first weekend of December 2012.
  • April of 2007 saw a weird weather event dubbed the “Easter freeze” and Easter-weekend domination by Blades of Glory. The total weekend gross was about $124 million, down about 3% versus the week before but higher (by about $6 million) than the week after…and $4 million more than Easter weekend in 2006.
  • In late January of 1994, during a major cold snapPhiladelphia reigned at the box office. Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, total weekend gross was about $78.2 million; the following weekend it was $62.5. The heart of the cold struck during the week in between the two, but the weekend after that saw another $10 million drop in grosses, even though the weather had cleared up…and, while the MLK results were almost identical to 1993’s, the chilly post-MLK 1994 weekend was up about $10 million versus the prior year.
  • Jan. 21, 1985, saw record cold temperatures and, over the Jan. 18–20 weekend and the Jan. 25–27 weekend, moviegoers flocking to Beverly Hills Cop. The two weekends saw total grosses of $29.8 million and $32.2 million, respectively, down from about $40.7 the weekend before the mercury dropped…but during the matching two January weekends in 1984 total grosses were around $25 million.

This past weekend is no exception: as TIME’s Richard Corliss points out, this latest Frozen/frozen weekend is a good match to last year in terms of content offerings and ticket-sales results.

(MOREThis weekend’s full box-office report from Richard Corliss)

Overall, then, while bad weather would logically keep potential moviegoers home, it’s generally impossible to say that it can explain a low-earning weekend. Rather, yearly cycles of moviegoing — lots of big stuff comes out in the fall and winter, but not so much in January, the month that coincidentally sees the worst of winter — are far more predictable than even the weather. Earnings generally increase year to year (a $25 million weekend across all movies, as seen in early 1984, seems impossibly low nowadays) but tend to remain in the same ballpark on a given weekend.

That’s why box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told last February, in the midst of another spell of bad weather (remember Winter Storm Nemo?), that weather’s impact on the movie business is a local issue, not a national one — unless it’s needed as an excuse for a studio with a movie that flops. “The weather is a great scapegoat,” he said.

But there is one arena where bad weather can be tracked to a direct correlation with movie consumption: Netflix. Though the home-viewing hub doesn’t keep exact weekend-to-weekend tallies of streaming volume, Jenny McCabe, a spokesperson for the company, says that the company sees consistent increases in usage when the weather is newsworthy. Which means that today, with much of the country in the grips of arctic iciness, the streaming service should be feeling plenty warm.