Tthe inevitable gloom that seeps into almost every image of Marvel’s grief-heavy tentpole sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was offset upon release by the warmth with which it was received. Critics may have been a bit of a damper this time around (a whopping 84% versus a sterling 96% for the original on Rotten Tomatoes), but global audiences turned out in droves, the film already approaching $700 million after less than a month in theaters.
It was encouraging news for everyone in the industry after a precarious fall season that saw more misses than hits, but the banner success still hides a far more worrying bigger picture. This Thanksgiving period might have seen Wakanda Forever top the box office with a healthy $64 million over the five days, but overall it was the worst holiday showing since 1994 (pandemic year notwithstanding). In 2019, the total was 181 million dollars. This year it was just $95 million.
The Disney fantasy Strange World took in just $18.6 million, a start so rocky that analysts suggest the film will lose over $100 million for the studio (past Thanksgivings have seen them open Coco to $72 million and Frozen 2 to $130 million) . Sony’s airborne action drama Devotion splashed out to just $9 million, failing to capitalize on the summer success of Top Gun: Maverick (budgeted at a reported $90 million). And expansions to Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans both struggled to gain traction, with $3.6 million and $3.1 million, respectively.
Trade headlines about the worrying state of the box office have been brewing for weeks now. Universal’s prestige Weinstein investigative drama She Said, Billy Eichner’s landmark gay romcom Bros, the acclaimed Cate Blanchett-led drama Tár, David O Russell’s star caper Amsterdam, period whodunnit See How They Run, George Miller’s garish fantasy Three Thousand Years of Longing and even Dwayne Johnson’s DC outing Black Adam underperformed everyone on various levels.
“It’s been difficult to draw audiences to the multiplex,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Comscore. “I don’t think anyone can complain that there isn’t an incredible mix of movies out there, but this marketplace has been so confusing when it comes to trying to get a handle on it and crack the code of why certain movies do well and why others it is not.” He referred to this Thanksgiving as “an attention grabber for an industry still struggling with the impact of production delays and release calendar changes”.
A survey earlier this year found that 41% of consumers rarely go to see movies in theaters anymore, and 18% don’t go at all.
The success of Wakanda Forever and Top Gun: Maverick before it (grossing just under $1.5 billion since last summer) invited opposite coverage, exciting declarations that “the box office is back!” but perspective and a deeper reading have shown that the industry remains in a difficult place, one that is both due to recent circumstances and one that is also of its own making.
“There’s been a system shift in how audiences want to watch content today,” said Dallas Lawrence, senior vice president of Samba TV, an audience analytics company. “We were already on our way to a future where all content would be streamed, and the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this significant shift by several years.”
During the darkest days of the past nearly three years, studios postponed releases, sold others to streamers and further pushed the premium video on demand (PVOD) option, which allowed audiences to pay extra to rent movies that would otherwise have turned out at the cinema. As the world began to open up again, there were enough signs along the way that audiences, despite some predicting prolonged gloom, were eager to return to the multiplex, with hits such as Godzilla vs Kong, F9: The Fast Saga, A Quiet Place Part II and Spider-man: No Way Home. The latter in particular shows that even in December 2021, as Omicron increased its infection rate, $2 billion worth of tickets could be sold worldwide, making it the sixth biggest film of all time worldwide.
It is reassuringly clear in 2022 that people all over the world are still willing and comfortable going to the movies. This year has seen big, easy-to-predict franchise hits like Jurassic World: Dominion ($1 billion), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($955m), The Batman ($770m) and Minions: The Rise of Gru ($937 ) m), but also original successes such as Elvis ($286m), Nope ($171m), Smile ($215m) and The Lost City ($190m). 2022 continues an upward trend since the dog days of 2020, and with Avatar: The Way of Water coming, it should end on a relatively high note.
But the changes that were either a result of or accelerated by the outbreak of Covid-19 are still very much present and at times extremely devastating. Even before it took off, streaming had changed our expectations of where new movies land and how we can watch them. “We used to buy $30 DVDs and build collections for years to make sure we had this ‘always on’ access,” Lawrence said. “Now viewers sign up and keep their subscriptions to keep access to family favorites.”
The now widely adopted Netflix model of delivering often cinema-level releases direct to your smartphone has meant that relying solely on your living room as a cinema is not a ridiculous strategy. In the past 12 months alone, Pixar adventure Turning Red, big-budget action thriller The Gray Man, Will Ferrell Christmas musical Spirited, glossy Father of the Bride remake and mystery sequel Enola Holmes 2 could be seen at home immediately upon release at no extra cost . charge. In August of this year, it was estimated that 82% of Americans subscribed to one or more streaming services, up from 52% in 2015.
“It just shows you how disjointed the whole market is when some of the movies that go into theaters aren’t necessarily the most commercial on the face of it, but some of the movies that went straight to streaming may have been more commercial in theaters,” Dergarabedian said .
This has led some to argue that it is money left on the table by studios. While Disney’s Strange World may have bombed theatrically, its sequel Hocus Pocus 2 broke a streaming record when it premiered on Disney+ with over 2 billion minutes watched. Thanksgiving may have been bad for so many movies, but it wasn’t for Netflix’s Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, given a one-week trial release in theaters before hitting the streamer just before Christmas.
Despite being released on fewer than 700 screens, it was estimated to have grossed close to $15 million (the company refuses to share box office data). This week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that “a lot” more money could have been made if the film had been given a wider traditional release. The streamer paid a reported $450 million for the rights to two sequels.
“It’s a promotional tactic like film festivals and if it works well we’ll do more of it,” he added. “We’re not trying to build a theater business, we’re trying to break through the noise.” Dergarabedian called it another “boxing experiment” at a time when we are in “a box office laboratory”.
“The studios will likely continue to experiment with a mix of theatrical releases, direct-to-streaming and theatrical-turned-streaming releases to see what works best,” Lawrence said. “This is already underway as streamers try to diversify their release tactics.”
What the pandemic has also done is change our expectations of how quickly we can expect films to trickle down from the big to the small screen with release windows shrinking from months to weeks to days. The majority of Universal, Warner Bros, Disney and Paramount films are now available just 45 days after theater on the studios’ streaming platforms (that recently meant that Smile was available on Paramount+ on the day it was still number five at the box office).
While the studios are smart enough not to specify this in marketing (the trailer for Don’t Worry Darling didn’t alert viewers that the film would be on HBO Max in a month and a half) and secretive enough not to let fans know the exact streaming release date before it lands, this speed cannot go unnoticed by the average consumer.
“One of the things we knew would be a challenge during the pandemic as studios changed release strategies is that it would be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle once we got back to normal,” Lawrence said. “Expectations have changed. What we’re also seeing at the same time is a sheer avalanche of content competing for audience attention that has shortened the overall lifetime value of content once it hits a streamer, making audience discovery a critical element of success.”
All eyes are currently on this month’s much-anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water, a big bet for the industry at a time when almost all games have been turned down. The 2009 original grossed nearly $3 billion and remains the highest-grossing film of all time internationally, a phenomenon some worry may be difficult to replicate at a completely different time for the theatrical experience. The sequel has cost more than $350 million and was made back-to-back with another equally expensive follow-up (more will depend on audience attendance). Director James Cameron is aware of “skepticism” in the industry and has admitted he knows the cinema will never be the same again.
“I knew it would never come back one hundred percent,” Cameron told the Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t think it ever will. But maybe 80 percent is enough.”
But if an Avatar sequel succeeds, it will fall in line with what the past year has already shown us, that audiences are willing to come out in large numbers if the film is made on a large scale, and as Dergarabedian added, it’s a kind of “emotional connection”. Next year should then see strong results for Scream 6, Creed 3, Ant Man 3, John Wick 4, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Indiana Jones 5, Dune 2 and Mission: Impossible 7. “There will probably always be an appetite for big movies on the big screen,” Lawrence said.
For the rest of the industry, which still makes films that have less built-in appeal, the future remains uncertain.
“The most powerful people in Hollywood are the audience,” Dergarabedian said. “So they’re going to tell us.”