It was the year that the box office recovery from the COVID-19 catastrophe began to take shape.
Blockbusters hit the big screen, led by Tom Cruise, giant people-eating dinosaurs and James Cameron’s tall, blue Na’vi. One year after Warner Bros. sent its entire release slate to HBO Max and cinemas simultaneously, the Burbank studio’s movie posters boasted “only in theaters” like old times. In a show of confidence, the head of the world’s biggest theater chain rolled down the streets of Pasadena in a Rose Parade float.
But it wasn’t enough.
The year is expected to end with about $7.4 billion in ticket sales from the US and Canada, according to analysts and studio estimates, down 35% from the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
When the hits came, they reminded audiences and studio executives of the good old days, proving that audiences want to go back to certain movies in droves.
There just weren’t many movies of that caliber.
Only three 2022 pictures will have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, assuming “Avatar: The Way of Water” reaches that milestone. The mega-budget movie is expected to join “Top Gun: Maverick,” the highest grossing film of the year ($1.49 billion), and “Jurassic World Dominion” (almost exactly $1 billion). In 2019, nine movies joined the billion-dollar club, most of them produced by Disney.
The primary culprit, according to theater owners and studio executives: a persistent movie shortage.
US cinemas received 37 fewer wide-release movies as of Dec. 18 this year compared with the same point in 2019, according to Comscore. A wide-release plays on 1,800 screens or more.
“You’re off 30-something percent and you’ve got 30% less movies, right?” said Brian Robbins, President and Chief Executive of Paramount Pictures. “The math kind of works.”
With such a thin slate, the box office became increasingly reliant on the home runs, and there weren’t enough of what studio executives call singles, doubles and triples — the kinds of mid-budget films that sustained theaters year-round.
The top 10 movies this year are expected to account for more than half of the industry’s total box office. In the years before COVID-19, the 10 highest grossing movies took up between 30% and 40% of the annual totals, according to Comscore data.
Multiple factors explain the shortfall in film releases. Some big pictures were pushed to 2023, including Warner Bros.’ “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” A backlog at visual effects companies meant that some films couldn’t be finished in time and had to find other premiere dates. Some films that in other years might have gone to theaters were instead funneled to streaming services (Pixar’s “Turning Red” and Disney’s “Hocus Pocus 2”).
Certain movies were released in theaters but hit streamers at the same time, undercutting their grosses (“Firestarter,” “Halloween Ends”). In a particularly disruptive move, Netflix took Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion,” a sequel to a massive hit, “Knives Out,” and yanked it from theaters after a week-long promotional run.
A pair of Disney animated bombs (“Lightyear,” “Strange World”) sparked worries that the company’s streaming strategy had trained loyal fans to look for its movies primarily on Disney+ rather than buy tickets.
And some films just flopped as studios took bets that simply didn’t pan out (Focus Features’ “The Northman,” MGM’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing”).
Finally, many top releases were clumped together within a couple of months of one another, resulting in long stretches without any blockbusters.
The first four months of the year were a disaster, thanks to a paucity of major titles. Late spring and early summer came back roaring with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World Dominion.”
And then the late-summer drought hit. Between “Bullet Train” in August and Warner Bros.’ “Black Adam” in October, only “Smile” managed to crack $100 million in domestic sales. The lean times killed whatever momentum the hits had built up.
Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian compared the year to a relay race in which an athlete fumbles the baton.
“If it was just that people didn’t want to go back to the movies, then the summer would have sucked too,” Dergarabedian said. “What changed was that there were fewer movies, and then this unusual circumstance threw the release calendar into disarray.”
The doldrums hit theater operators hard.
Cineworld, owner of the nation’s second largest theater chain, Regal, filed for bankruptcy in September, citing the weak slate and a heavy debt burden. The stock price of the No. 1 chain, heavily indebted AMC Theaters, plummeted after surging last year as CEO Adam Aron memed his way into retail investors’ hearts. Shares of AMC have fallen 82% to $4.91 so far this year.
It was hardly all doom and gloom, though. The year demonstrated that releasing good movies in theaters is smart business, as long as they remain in cinemas for multiple weeks before they show up for online rental or streaming.
Starting in 2020, when theaters were closed for months, studios experimented with releasing movies in theaters and online sites at the same time. Same-day streaming cannibalized box office. Sign-ups to streaming platforms surged.
But entertainment companies, other than Netflix, have begun to backtrack on streaming-focused movie strategies.
Wall Street has started to demand profits rather than subscriber numbers at all costs. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, in contrast with the preceding AT&T regime, has rejected big streaming movies as boondoggles. Paramount’s upcoming comedy “80 for Brady” was at first intended for streaming, but is getting a theatrical release instead. Ditto for “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” which was planned for HBO Max, but is now set for the big screen next year.
“They wanted to boost their subscriber numbers while they had a chance,” said Eric Wold, senior analyst at B. Riley Securities. “But I think we’ve seen that that just isn’t sustainable, nor can it get a return on a high production-cost film.”
Still, it’s becoming clear that the theatrical window — the gap of time when theaters have sole rights to show movies — has changed for good. Previously, movies waited an average of 72 days before becoming available for digital viewing. Now, studios are holding most films for around 45 days before they hit streaming.
The flexible release patterns are beneficial for studios because they allow them to avoid having to restart marketing campaigns. They’re more efficient and give poor-performing movies a better shot at profitability. On the flip side, successful movies can stay for longer. “Top Gun: Maverick” remained in theaters for more than 90 days before becoming available for home viewing.
“I don’t think it’s going to be one-size-fits-all,” said Jim Orr, president of domestic distribution for Universal Pictures. “Still, I think some consistency across the windows is a decent thing.”
Studios that held on to their biggest movies to release them in theaters reaped the rewards.
Paramount Pictures enjoyed unusual levels of success in 2022, releasing “Jackass Forever” and a “Scream” reboot early in the year, facing minimal competition. The long-awaited “Top Gun: Maverick” became the year’s highest-grossing release, with $1.49 billion in ticket sales. “Smile,” a movie that was greenlighted with a straight-to-streaming plan, was flipped to theaters and became a huge hit.
“Sometimes I say I feel like we’ve been living in a little bit of an alternative movie business reality,” Robbins said.
Universal Pictures put out more movies than any other studio by far — 33 including a couple classic re-releases — and had a remarkably diverse slate that bet on a wide range of genres for various audience demographics.
That paid off in some instances, with winners like Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” Illumination Entertainment’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and Dreamworks Animation’s “The Bad Guys.” In other cases, not so much. “She Said” and “Bros” were among the year’s biggest flops.
Disney, in contrast to its struggles in animation, did well with superhero titles, taking the current no. 2 and no. 3 spots with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($421 million domestic) and the “Doctor Strange” sequel ($411 million), respectively. Warner Bros. found success with “The Batman” ($401 million) and “Elvis” ($151 million).
The winners and failures defied conventional wisdom about the health of whatever genres went in and out of vogue.
Yes, comedies largely struggled. Mid-budget fare aimed at adults, long a source of angst within studios, fielded several wins, including Sony’s “The Woman King” and “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
Indie art-house labels served up their share of commercial disappointments like “Tár” and “The Banshees of Inisherin,” suggesting that serious cinema is a tough sell in an environment that rewards escapism.
But some “specialty” releases fared well, at least those that were entertaining and skewed young, such as Searchlight’s “The Menu” and A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
“It’s fair to say that it’s probably a little bit more difficult to get certain demographic groups back into theaters,” Orr said. “Some of the adult titles have certainly struggled, but I don’t think that’s always going to be the case. We’ll get to the other side of that.”
Horror had a particularly strong year, with highly profitable releases including “The Black Phone,” “Barbarian” and “Smile.”
When people came back to theaters, it was often for a premium experience. Audiences paid up for large format screenings, such as Imax, that make a trip to the movies more of an event. During the opening weekend of “The Way of Water,” 3D accounted for 57% of sales. Premium formats and motion seat auditoriums fueled more than 60% of business.
“There’s no question that when a moviegoer makes an appointment to go to the multiplex to see a specific movie, they want to make sure they get a premium offering like Imax,” said Greg Foster, a movie business consultant and former Imax Entertainment CEO.
But the box office was dominated by big-budget, escapist entertainment based on established film franchises. Every film in the top 10 was a sequel, reboot or part of a larger cinematic universe. The highest-grossing “original” film was Warner Bros.’ opulent music biopic “Elvis,” at No. 11.
“Do I feel like there’s certain parts of the audience that aren’t coming back? Sure,” said Robbins. “I think the older audience is still struggling. But that also might be that the product is not there for them.”
Thanksgiving weekend, usually the source of a huge box office bounty, was called for by compelling new releases, leaving Disney and Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” to run roughshod over the competition, including fellow Disney release “Strange World.”
The upcoming Christmas weekend is likely to be similarly bare. Paramount’s “Babylon,” an audacious ode to old Hollywood from Damien Chazelle, and Sony’s “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” are each projected to gross less than $20 million Friday through Monday. Universal and Dreamworks’ “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is tracking about $20 million for the long weekend.
That leaves “Avatar: The Way of Water” a clear path, with analysts hoping it will continue to draw crowds. Rival studios anticipate it will have strong staying power and decline a mere 40% from its $134-million domestic opening weekend. If not, there’ll be nothing to blame but the movie itself.