By Anthony D'Alessandro
Editorial Director/Box Office Editor
Updated: The aftermath of Covid’s 2020-21 closure of cinemas will continue to be felt in 2023 as the domestic box office claws its way back to what many sources believe is an $8 billion-$9 billion result.
On the high end, it’s a 22% jump from what Comscore is expecting 2022 to final at, that being $7.4B. This year’s domestic box office also reps a 72% surge over 2021’s $4.3 billion.
While next year won’t be at the $11.3 billion 2019 level, confidence beams from studios and exhibition as the pandemic’s post-production logjam finally clears up with arguably a film for everyone every weekend, starting with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania on February 17.
Something the industry will be happy to hear: There are 33 movies on the calendar that have the potential to gross well north of $100M stateside, which is more than the 29 titles that 2019 notched. It’s also up from 18 movies in 2022 and the 13 in 2021.
Yes, business looks to be improving, with 100 wide releases anticipated to hit the theatrical calendar next year. That’s still down by four movies from this year’s 104. Sources don’t believe we’ll be fully back in business until there are 120 titles. 2019 counted 143 wide theatrical releases. The box office year of normalcy, per those in film distribution and exhibition, keeps getting kicked down the road: It was supposed to be 2022. Now it’s not next year — it’s either 2024 or 2025.
However, the collapse that weighs heavy on several studio executives’ brows remains with original movies aimed at adults that are non-genre (meaning not action, not sci-fi, not horror). It’s not just specialty, highbrow titles but broader studio attempts as well.
This past Christmas saw two casualties in Paramount’s $80M Margot Robbie-Brad Pitt awards-season bait Babylon as well as TriStar/Compelling Pictures/Black Label’s $45M attempt to grab a broad and Black audience with the Whitney Houston biopic. But I Wanna Dance with Somebody was no Ray ($20M opening, $75.3M final domestic in 2004), with its ticket sales earning $6.75M in four days.
“I’m scared too,” one studio boss tells Deadline about the bleak outlook for the adult-feature marketplace.
“But it’s a bit of chicken and egg.”
The suit adds: “There haven’t been any mainstream original adult films recently because studios are afraid that audience is gone. But that audience is gone because there haven’t been any good movies for them. We need more of them, and gradually the adult audience will reacquire the habit of heading to the cinema.
“If we had Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Martian or Dunkirk this Christmas, grownups would go,” asserts the source.
And, by the way, when it comes to the rebound of these types of movies, don’t expect any help from the streamers. While Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery showed Netflix the lucre in a theatrical release, the streamer’s founder and co-CEO Reed Hastings declared at a New York Times DealBook conference shortly after the pic’s release: “It’s a promotional tactic for the streaming service. … We are not trying to build a theatrical business.” The sequel in its first weekend on Netflix counted 82.1M global views (less than the 111.1M global views of Don’t Look Up‘s first week a year ago). We cried about how Netflix left money on the table by not going full theatrical in its $400M purchase of the Rian Johnson-directed whodunit franchise. “Even if the movie made $100M, Netflix isn’t getting rewarded for it,” observes one exhibition boss. “Nobody on Wall Street was going to raise the stock price had Knives Out 2 made money.”
While the legacy sequel Top Gun: Maverick brought back older adults to the cinemas for the first time during the pandemic, becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year ($718.7M, $1.48 billion WW) and Tom Cruise’s best ever, the only two original adult movies to cross $100M stateside were Warner Bros.’ Elvis — further proving that well-made features about popular jukebox musicians continue to work in the wake of Bohemian Rhapsody — and the Sandra Bullock-Channing Tatum Paramount adventure romantic comedy The Lost City ($105.3M). After that, Sony pulled women out with Where the Crawdads Sing, based on a bestselling novel, and of course there’s A24’s 18-34 (69% turnout) magnet Everything Everywhere All at Once, which also succeeded in attracting those over 35 at 28%, per PostTrak, and grossing $70M stateside. The fall season, which was laden with awards-bait titles and few tentpoles, ran the gamut from alright B.O. results (The Woman King, Ticket to Paradise) to simply dead (She Said, Tár).
Observes one major studio marketing chief: “The pandemic has produced new habits in general for older adults and the 50+ demo, and it’s not moviegoing. It can be Rummikub, streaming or cocktails with friends. There was a baseline of an audience there: They read reviews, are educated and have time, energy and money to spend. Pre-pandemic, you could get at least $2M out of that audience in a given weekend.”
How to solve this newfound dilemma with adult movies so that they continue to stay on the big screen, and avoid being swallowed up and lost on a streaming menu?
Sure, it boils down to product and these movies had lackluster reviews, long running times and/or niche appeal. Yet, when it comes to mid- and-low budgeted original adult fare, for any of them to work, distribution support and bigger marketing spends are greatly needed.
A successful case in point: Everything Everywhere All at Once. That Daniels-directed movie doesn’t become the highest-grossing A24 title of all time without the distributor pulling out all the stops. It previewed the film aggressively, juiced the pic’s ticket sales with special Imax screenings and blasted it off like SpaceX rocket to a great, riotous response at SXSW back in March, weeks before its opening. Now the film is being buzzed as a potential Best Picture Oscar nominee.
True: Paramount did greatly support Babylon, and through executive turnover at the studio between the administration that greenlighted the movie to the one that released it. Paramount dropped the pic’s first trailer out of TIFF and previewed the movie to the mediamore than a month before its December 23 release. The yield here is five Golden Globe nominations to date. Babylon‘s failure ($4.8M 4-day opening) boils down to the film being too expensive for its limited commercial appeal. Insider Hollywood movies never proved to work at the box office.
If there are two big takeaways from 2022 for studio executives, it’s making these original adult-demo movies even cheaper than they are and, dammit, shorter in running time.
One mid-sized luxury exhibition boss gripes to us that the whole 17-day theatrical window model doesn’t do them any good. The business formula was put into effect by Universal with its exhibition partners as the industry emerged from the pandemic, and it’s one that other studios have emulated. The financial upside for the studio is to maximize marketing dollars during a pic’s first two weeks of theatrical — which statistically is when audience interest peaks — as the title segues onto PVOD. Except for exhibition, the downside is having a movie in competition with the home market, not to mention they notice that studios aren’t spending as much to promote a movie that’s on a shorter window. Further complicating business for theaters: Studios will demand a two-week hold for a movie that’s playing to empty seats, so the exhibitor can’t swap up for a better title.
“We need an STX-like distributor to come in and spend like they did on Hustlers,” says the exhibition source. “Studios have to match their pre-pandemic marketing spend if they want older audiences to come back.”
Yes, studios are greatly rushing product through theaters on a shorter window so that they can arrive to their respective streaming services sooner. With more entertainment conglom bosses like Warner Bros Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Paramount Pictures President & CEO Brian Robbins recognizing the great financial worth of a theatrical release and how that triggers downstream revenues — a significant 180 from former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar and Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s financially destructive day-and-date mania — theaters are becoming de facto advertisers for the studios’ new streaming services. As such, some exhibitors believe there needs to be a re-evaluation of rental terms, meaning a bigger share of the box office going back to theaters as movies hit their PVOD window. Does that become a sustainable business for studios? Does that pencil out? The distribution and film finance executives we’ve spoken with say a lengthening of the theatrical window on non-tentpole titles will be examined more closely in regards to where marketing costs are reaped and revenues are peaked.
In 2023 we’ll also see whether Disney+ is too much of a good thing as Bob Iger returns as CEO. While Lightyear put off Toy Story loyalists, only making $118.3M stateside, the question remains whether Disney family audiences are conditioned now to skip the theater and wait for movies on Disney+. After several Pixar movies went straight to the streamer under the Chapek regime, including Turning Red, Soul and Luca, is there confusion among some Disney fans that the brand has been relegated to the streaming service? Hopefully, the June 16 theatrical release of Pixar’s original animation title Elemental ,about two lovers in a city where fire, water, land and air residents live together, reminds Disney fans that the spectacle starts on the big screen first, not in the home.
RELATED: ‘Elemental’ Teaser: Opposites React In Latest Disney/Pixar Toon
What could pop in 2023 among original adult films? Some see Christopher Nolan regaining blockbuster status in his WWII epic Oppenheimer on July 16, after Tenet was released too early during Covid (before NYC, LA and San Francisco theaters reopened). Word is Wes Anderson returns to giddy form in Focus Features’ Asteroid City on June 16. Sony just boldly dated an Adam Driver guy-skewing sci-fi movie, 65, on top of Shazam: Fury of the Gods‘ March 17 release. Can Jennifer Lawrence’s entrée into R-rated comedies with Sony’s No Hard Feelings on June 23 become a gamechanger for the genre? Is Sebastian Maniscalco’s big-screen leading-man debut with Lionsgate’s About My Father opposite Robert De Niro the next Meet the Parents on May 26?
One studio film finance VP has a pessimistic point of view: “There’s no data to support that the confluence of adult titles will bring audiences back to the box office.”
“There is a big business in theatrical,” counters one independent film financier, who forecasts “a golden age of quality original films” despite the abundance of titles that have gone to streamers.
The pandemic forced creators and talent, as they stared down the barrel of closed movie theaters, “to take the fast money, on the safe path to getting paid at the expense of quality, and bespoke marketing campaigns,” says the same source.
They further add: “When we think of theatrical, when was the era that these original adult films did a lot of box office? Never. To make them work, it takes a lot of pressure on talent reps and studio executives to shape them as theatrical movies.”
Here are the 33 movies that could gross more than $100M at the domestic box office in 2023:
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (Dis), Feb 17
Creed III (UAR), March 3
Shazam! Fury of the Gods (NL), March 17
John Wick: Chapter 4 (LG), March 24
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (Par), March 31
Super Mario Bros. (Uni), April 7
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Dis), May 5
Fast X (Uni), May 19
The Little Mermaid (Dis), May 26
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse – Part 1 (Sony), June 2
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (Par), June 9
Elemental (Dis), June 16
The Flash (WB), June 16
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (Dis), June 30
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 (Par), July 14
Oppenheimer (Uni), July 21
Barbie (WB), July 21
The Marvels (Dis), July 28
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (Par), Aug. 4
The Meg 2 (WB), Aug. 4
Haunted Mansion (Dis), Aug. 11
Blue Beetle (WB), Aug. 18
The Nun 2 (NL). Sept. 8
Kraven the Hunter (Sony), Oct. 6
Dune: Part Two (WB), Nov. 3
Trolls 3 (Uni, Nov. 17
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (LG), Nov. 17
Wish (Dis), Nov 24
Wonka (WB), Dec. 15
The Color Purple (WB), Dec 20
Untitled Ghostbusters Sequel (Sony ), Dec. 20
Migration (Uni) – Dec. 22
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Dec. 25
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