The unavoidable glumness that seeps into almost every frame of Marvel’s grief-stricken tentpole sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was offset upon release by the warmth with which it was received. Critics might have been just a tad damper this time around (a solid 84% vs a sterling 96% for the original on Rotten Tomatoes) but global audiences turned out en masse, the film already edging toward the $700m mark after less than a month in cinemas.
It was rousing news for all within the industry after a precarious fall season that saw more misses than hits but its banner success still masks a far more worrying bigger picture. This Thanksgiving period might have seen Wakanda Forever top the box office with a healthy $64m over the five days but overall, it was the worst holiday showing since 1994 (pandemic years notwithstanding). In 2019, the total was $181m. This year it was just $95m.
Disney fantasy Strange World tanked with just $18.6m, a start so rocky that analysts are suggesting the film will lose over $100m for the studio (previous Thanksgivings have seen them open Coco to $72m and Frozen 2 to $130m). Sony’s airborne action drama Devotion sputtered out at just $9m, failing to capitalize on the summer success of Top Gun: Maverick (its budget is a reported $90m). And expansions of Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans both struggled to make an impact, with $3.6m and $3.1m respectively.
Trade headlines about the concerning state of the box office have been brewing now for weeks. Universal’s prestige Weinstein investigation drama She Said, Billy Eichner’s landmark gay rom-com Bros, the acclaimed Cate Blanchett-led drama Tár, David O Russell’s starry 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 all underperformed on different levels.
“It’s been tough drawing audiences to the multiplex,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a 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 confounding in terms of trying to get a handle on it and crack the code as to why certain movies are doing well and why others aren’t.” He referred to this Thanksgiving as “an attention getter for an industry that’s still reeling from 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 the cinema anymore and 18% don’t go at all.
The success of Wakanda Forever and Top Gun: Maverick before it (making just under $1.5bn since this summer) invited the opposite coverage, excitable declarations that the “box office is back!” but perspective and a deeper read has shown that the industry remains in a difficult spot, one that’s both down to recent circumstance and one that’s also of its own making.
“There has been a systemic shift in how audiences want to view content today,” said Dallas Lawrence, senior vice president at Samba TV, a company that gathers audience analytics. “We were already on a trajectory 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 last almost three years, studios postponed releases, sold others to streamers and further pushed the premium video on demand option (PVOD), which allowed audiences to pay extra to rent films that would have otherwise unspooled at cinemas. As the world started to reopen there were enough signs along the way that, despite some predicting long-lasting gloom, audiences 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 showing that even in December 2021, as Omicron edged infection rates up, $2bn worth of tickets could be sold worldwide, making it the sixth biggest film of all time worldwide.
It’s reassuringly clear in 2022 that people around the world remain willing and comfortable to go to the cinema. This year has seen major, easy-to-predict franchise hits like Jurassic World: Dominion ($1bn), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($955m), The Batman ($770m) and Minions: The Rise of Gru ($937m) but also original successes like 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 to come, it should end on a relatively high note.
But the changes that were either a result of or expedited by the onset of Covid-19 remain very present and, at times, extremely destructive. Even before it hit, streaming had altered our expectations of where new films land and how we’re able to watch them. “We used to buy $30 DVDs and build collections for years to ensure we had this ‘always on’ access,” said Lawrence. “Now viewers just sign up and keep their subscriptions to retain access to their family favorites.”
The now widely adopted Netflix model of premiering often theatrical-level releases direct to your smartphone has meant that relying purely on your living room as your cinema isn’t a ridiculous strategy. In the last 12 months alone, one could see 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 at home immediately upon release at no extra charge. In August of this year, it was estimated that 82% of Americans had subscriptions to one or more streaming services, up from 52% in 2015.
“It just shows you how discombobulated the whole marketplace is when some of the movies that are going to theaters are not necessarily the most commercial on the face of it, but some of the movies that were sent directly to streaming might have been more commercial in theaters,” Dergarabedian said.
It’s led some to argue that there’s money being left on the table by studios. While Disney’s Strange World might have bombed theatrically, its sequel Hocus Pocus 2 broke a streaming record when it premiered on Disney+ with over 2bn minutes watched. Thanksgiving might have been bad for so many films but it wasn’t for Netflix’s Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, given a trial one-week exclusive release in cinemas before it reaches the streamer just before Christmas.
Despite being released in fewer than 700 screens, it was estimated to have made close to $15m (the company refuses to share box office data). This week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that “lots” more money could have been made if the film had received a wider traditional release. The streamer paid a reported $450m for rights to two sequels.
“It’s a promotional tactic like film festivals, and if it works well we will do more of it,” he added. “We are not trying to build a theatrical business, we are trying to break through the noise.” Dergarabedian called it another “box office experiment” at a time when we’re in “a box office laboratory”.
“Studios will likely continue experimenting with a mix of theatrical, 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 alter our expectations of how soon we can expect films to trickle down from the big to the small screen with release windows reducing from months to weeks to days. The majority of Universal, Warner Bros, Disney and Paramount films are now available just 45 days after theatrical on the studios’ streaming platforms (it recently meant that Smile was available on Paramount+ the day it was still placing fifth at the box office).
While studios are smart enough not to specify this within 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 until just before it lands, this speed can’t be going unnoticed by the average consumer.
“One of the things we knew would be a challenge during the pandemic as studios altered release strategies is that it would be hard to put the genie back in the bottle once we returned to normal,” said Lawrence. “Expectations have changed. What we are 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 for success.”
All eyes are currently on this month’s long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water, a major bet for the industry at a time when almost all bets are off. The 2009 original made almost $3bn and remains the highest-grossing film of all time internationally, a phenomenon that some worry might be hard to emulate at a very different time for the theatrical experience. The sequel has cost more than $350m and was made back-to-back with another equally expensive follow-up (more will depend on audience turnout). Director James Cameron is aware of “skepticism” in the industry and has admitted that he knows the act of cinema-going will never be the same again.
“I knew it would never come back a hundred percent,” Cameron said to the Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t think it ever will. But maybe 80 percent’s enough.”
But if an Avatar sequel succeeds it will fall in line with what the last 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, there’s some sort of “emotional connection”. The 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 likely always be an appetite for major motion pictures on the big screen,” said Lawrence.
For the rest of the industry, still making films that carry less inbuilt appeal, the future remains uncertain.
“The most powerful people in Hollywood are the audience,” Dergarabedian said. “So they’re gonna tell us.”