A frank look at how the film industry stands as 2023 begins, from someone not really qualified to offer their take.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Now that 2022 is officially out the door, how is the long-term health of the Box Office looking as we welcome 2023 inside? You’ve likely been subjected to a lot of concerned handwringing from Box Office pundits with access to significantly more data than I over the year about “pre-pandemic levels,” and alarmed cries of any particular weekend being the worst since 199[x] excluding the pandemic they all keep pretending is over. Hell, Box Office Mojo dedicated an entire two paragraphs of their New Year’s weekend write-up to the great white whale hope that a 2019-level performance will eventually crest over the horizon and save us all. Safe to say, people want answers and also some adults in the room before the TikTokers spread their bullshit again.
Well, I’m not officially a member of the industry, I don’t have access to the mountains upon mountains of data that these other people do, I don’t get paid to make this analysis my full-time job, and the last thing I would ever call myself is an expert. That said, November marked 10 years of my writing about and following the US Box Office around the web, so I hope that I’ve absorbed by osmosis a little bit of knowledge and genuine insight. Therefore, I’d like to give it a go myself with a real steaming Hot Take (that’s only a Hot Take if you didn’t read the one of these I did last year where I kinda called our current predicament)…
We are back to normal.
Yeah. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but this current miserable landscape we’re stuck in? The one where almost an entire month goes by between big releases, usually from some arm of the Disney mega-corporation, that hoover up all the money and nearly everything not connected to a franchise either drowns ignominiously or fights for scraps? That’s honestly not too far removed from 2019 when you really break it down.
Take a look once again at 2019’s top domestic calendar earners. If you count Spider-Man: Far From Home as a Disney co-production since it’s a Marvel Studios movie, Disney owned eight of the ten top slots for the year. Joker, a comic book movie badly wearing Martin Scorsese like a skin-suit, was the year’s #9… then a long drop down to IT: Chapter Two at #10. All ten movies were either franchise entries or trading off established IP, the #1 movie of the year was a freak anomaly significantly responsible for the year’s overall total, and a gap of $600 million separated #1 from #10. Of the 29 $100 mil+ earners, only five films qualified as entirely new IP – Us, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Knives Out, Ford v. Ferrari, and Hustlers – and two of those were biopics (three if you count Hollywood’s fix-fic on history). More than a few of those $100 mil+-ers were also labelled as “disappointments” at the time, too, for one reason or another (usually budgets).
Now take a look at 2022’s top domestic calendar earners. There’s much less Disney in the top ten, only five of the slots coming (at least partly) from their various arms, and the number of R-rated pics drops from 2 to 0, but things are otherwise remarkably similar. All of the ten biggest films are franchise instalments or trading off established IP, the #1 movie of the year was a freak anomaly significantly responsible for the year’s overall total, and a gap of $530 million separates #1 from #10. Of the 18 $100 mil+ earners, only five films qualify as entirely new IP – Elvis, NOPE, Smile, The Lost City, and Bullet Train – although just one of those is a biopic. And, oh hey, more than a few of those $100 mil+ers were labelled as “disappointments” to some degree or another at some point during their run, usually for budgetary reasons.
The big change, the thing that has everyone very concerned, has been the total collapse of the undercard. There were 11 less $100 mil-ers in 2022, that’s already been noted. But what’s much more noteworthy is this fact: in 2019, you had to scroll down to #57 to find a film which failed to crack $50 mil domestic (Isn’t it Romantic?); in 2022, $50 mil domestic stops being cracked at #34 (Violent Night). That is a major downturn in audience members queuing up to see mid-range or lower-deck films than pre-pandemic, and the root cause – besides the great myth of capitalism being a system which always provides constant growth year-on-year despite that not being the least bit sustainable – of why 2022’s domestic total comes to $7.37 billion compared to 2019’s $11.36 billion.
Whilst I am alarmed by that last paragraph, I’m also a lot more practical than most of the industry and DISCOURSE takes I’ve seen floating around in recent weeks. Fact of the matter is that the film industry was headed for this exact scenario in 2019. The results being posted that year were very heavily-reliant on Disney loading the bases with guaranteed home-runs releasing at staggered intervals to keep the industry going in between a surprise breakout like Knives Out or Joker doing mad numbers. A good amount of sequels were posting lower numbers than their predecessors years earlier. Opening weekends were making up, on-average, a third of a movie’s total gross as repeat-goings, and resultantly a film’s legs, continued to shrink so you really could start writing your narratives as soon as the Sunday estimates came in. And 2019 wasn’t exactly a bomb-free city, to put it mildly. Starting to see the pattern?
The pandemic has without a doubt changed things. Adult dramas are almost completely failing to find audiences outside of their arthouse faithful. Animation has really struggled to find reliable legs again. High-carb, low-cal action junk has mostly just ceased to exist (and the few which did come out were DOA). The streaming boom during lockdown is certainly a reason for all this. When cinema tickets and the cost-of-living are getting more expensive whilst wages stagnate, and cinema behaviour from other people has (allegedly) gotten much worse, why shell out that money on something which doesn’t feel like it desperately needs to be seen on the big screen? Do I need to go see Till, a dead-serious drama about the murder of Emmett Till, in the cinema when I can wait six months and add it to my Netflix Watch Queue that I’ll never get round to? Why should I spend $11 (on average) plus concessions and travel to go see a Michael Bay movie in the cinema when I can pay way less than that to watch 6 Underground or Extraction or The Grey Man at home?
(To be clear, that’s me playing a hypothetical character. You absolutely should have watched both Till and Ambulance in cinemas, in my opinion.)
But, again, we were already heading this way. Animation is the one notable anomaly, but a lot of the others – and we’ve not even mentioned comedies in this discussion, which should really tell you how badly streaming had killed off that genre’s theatrical side – were demonstrating declining audience interest pre-pandemic anyway. The pandemic merely catalysed and then calcified the change in audience habits to arrive us at this point a little faster than initially forecast. I’m not going to pretend to know how to get out of this mess – the one major non-mainstream breakout of the year, Everything Everywhere All at Once, still only made $68.6 million domestic, and streaming services themselves appear to be undergoing a major bubble pop so LOOK FOR THINGS TO GET EVEN WORSE, FOLKS – but I do think we’re in for a bleak rout if things don’t change fast. The eleventh-highest grossing film of the year domestically, Black Adam, has lost Warner Bros. anywhere from $50 mil to $100 mil. That is not the sign of a healthy industry.
Now this all said, and to close out, I want to acknowledge something which certainly is not helping. And, just so you know, this involves the state of Box Office DISCOURSE and accompanying self-flagellation so, if you’d rather not deal with this particular snake eating its own tail, I totally understand you peace-ing out here. It’s something which has been recurring around this end of the industry a lot all year, but has reached truly noxious levels during the last two months as She Said, Avatar, and Babylon all took their bows. We need to stop making the cultural narrative surrounding a film be about whether or not it makes a bunch of money.
Seriously, this needs to stop. The DISCOURSE around She Said when it opened at the end of November was nothing to do with the movie itself; its performances, the handling of the various women’s abuse stories, the way that Maria Schrader refused a more sensationalised take on the investigation. The DISCOURSE around She Said, from the second it opened to the public, was about how it flopped. About how nobody saw it, how nobody was going to see it and everyone should feel very bad about that, how its antagonist’s camp were gloating over its financial failure, how it spells DOOM for adult dramas in cinemas… And, like, no shit nobody was going to see She Said? You can throw all the critical raves, Awards Season buzz, and respectable stars at it, yet if you ask the average moviegoer whether they’d like to pay money to watch a drama about the Harvey Weinstein investigation then they are almost definitely going to answer “no.” Spotlight, the film it most closely resembles, wasn’t setting tills alight in 2015 either, although at least Open Road there had the good sense to start its run in Limited Release instead of dumping it Wide and hoping it didn’t somehow drown.
It’s a similar deal with Babylon. Putting aside all questions regarding quality, any studio willing to throw $80 million at an R-rated 180-minute orgiastic period drama about Hollywood’s darker side during the 1920s is hardly expecting to recoup their investment on the theatrical end of things. Obviously, they would like to, but they’re probably not expecting to; especially Paramount who have their own proprietary streaming service they’re hoping to draw subscribers to should Babylon rack up a few awards nominations that increase its market value. Ergo, making the sole discourse about a movie like Babylon or She Said be its financial performance is missing the forest for the trees and equates a film’s worth with its ability to make money. And you can supercharge that by about 10,000x when bringing Avatar: The Way of Water into the fold; seemingly the only DISCOURSE anyone wants to have about that film is on whether or not it’ll make enough money to be profitable. Like that’s the only thing an Avatar movie is good for, keeping the industry’s lights on.
I do worry about whether or not this series contributes to the problem. Box Office reporting has almost been sports team-ified by this point, where everybody picks their faves or Villains of the Day and uses the financial data as empirical evidence of whatever narrative they want to create even if it defies reality (if I have to read one more “MARVEL FATIGUE” op-ed I swear to God). Cheering failures, feigning ignorance when something outside their personal bubble does super-well, driving DISCOURSE rather than just being a fun little side-dish for those of us with no financial stake in the matter. (Unsurprisingly, DC and Marvel movies can be the worst for this.) I know for a fact that I’ve been guilty of such behaviour throughout my years working the BOR beat, joining in on the easy dogpiles. But I do also fear that I contribute on a larger scale to driving these narratives when I write up results weekend after weekend. That’s why I try to strike a balance between genuine measured analysis and a healthy dose of snark, taking the financials seriously enough to properly contextualise them whilst also keeping things light enough to remind us all that this should be a fun little side-activity rather than the main story surrounding any work of art. Hopefully I’m walking that line more than often than not.
So, that’s the State of the US Office Report at the end of 2022. It’s undoubtedly gonna get worse before it gets better. But as long as the films are good, should that really be a bad thing? The entertainment industry is always a struggle between art and commerce, and fixating too much on the latter just takes all the pleasure out of the former. Anyways, join us here next week when M3GAN makes $12 M3G-billion dollars in its opening weekend and James Cameron is found in a ditch.
Callie Petch is workin’, 9 to 5, it ain’t so smooth.