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U.S. box office down 28 percent this year, but not because of streaming

Americans frequented the box office in far fewer numbers in the first couple months of 2019 compared to the same period a year ago, but don't blame it on Netflix -- streaming services had no effect on the decline in ticket sales, according to analysts.

North American box office sales topped out at $1.4 billion through Feb. 25, down 27.7 percent year-over-year, according to Wedbush Securities. 

Analysts attribute the sharp decline in part to "Black Panther's" unprecedented success at the box office during the first quarter of 2018. The film, which premiered on Feb. 16 of last year, had the fifth-biggest opening weekend of all time -- raking in $202 million from that Friday to Sunday, according to Box Office Mojo.

"It has zero to do with streaming, it's all about the release schedule and unfortunately we have a calendar that has nothing to do with which movies came out last year versus this year," said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. 

He compared the superhero film to "The Lego Movie 2," which was released on Feb. 8, and grossed just $34 million during its opening weekend -- half of what it was expected to take in. 

"Captain Marvel," which is slated for release on March 8, will likely pick up some of the slack in this year's ticket sales so far, helping to end the first quarter down 15.5 percent, according to Pachter. 

But competition will remain stiff throughout the year. "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "A Star Is Born," both of which beat box office expectations last year, will make for more tough year-over-year comparisons in the fourth quarter.

Accounting for what many analysts see as a strong slate of movies throughout 2019, including the Captain Marvel installment in March, the year is expected to end down just 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent. 

Theaters are in fine shape, but Netflix faces turbulence ahead, according to Pachter, as Disney and other studios plan to launch their own streaming services, and yank lucrative franchises from the platform. 

By year's end, all Disney properties -- which account for roughly 25 percent of the box office -- will be removed from Netflix to be made available exclusively through Disney's streaming service, called Disney Plus. 

"Netflix can't compete with theatrical," Pachter said. "People are always going to go to the movies. It's just a cheap, easy date," he said. 

Despite a slow start to the year, going to the movies remains popular -- even among millennials.  

An Ernst & Young study commissioned by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) shows that streaming is not pulling film fans from seats in front of the big screen. 

The data suggest that those who stream the most content, also visit movie theaters most regularly. The inverse is true, too. 

"People who go to the movie theater nine times or more a year are also heavy streamers, so the notion that people who are staying at home streaming a lot are not going to movie theaters doesn't ring true," said NATO's Phil Contrino. 

"At the end of the day, people want to get out of their houses, and the theatrical experience is as strong as it's ever been. To talk about it as in any kind of trouble is inaccurate," he said.