Story at a glance
- Moviegoing plummeted in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
- This year has seen a rebound in ticket sales, driven by blockbusters including “Wakanda Forever” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
- But box office figures have not returned to 2019 levels, and experts say the pandemic may have accelerated a societal retreat from movie theaters.
If the $181 million collected at multiplex box offices over the weekend from patrons of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a guide, moviegoing is back. Sort of.
Theater owners expect to reap as much as $8 billion in ticket sales by year’s end. Compared to 2020, when theaters collected barely $2 billion, business is booming. Yet, just a year earlier, in pre-pandemic 2019, receipts topped $11 billion.
“The entire industry is in a state of disarray and anxiety and confusion,” said Peter Newman, a film producer who heads the joint MFA/MBA Dual Degree Graduate program at New York University.
Filmgoing habits “have changed profoundly,” he said, “and maybe permanently.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming services and other digital options accounted for nearly two-thirds of a $36 billion U.S. theatrical and home entertainment market in 2019. In 2020, the market sank to $32 billion, as more theatergoers retreated to their homes. Movie houses recovered somewhat in 2021, but digital services remained dominant, pushing the industry total near $37 billion.
“All of this would have happened without COVID,” Newman said. “Instead of it happening over a 10-year period, COVID accelerated it to happen over a two-year period.”
You wouldn’t know it from the box-office charts. Three of the 20 biggest opening weekends in Hollywood history have come during the pandemic.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home,” released in December 2021, reaped $260 million on opening weekend, the second-highest gross on record, according to industry tabulator Box Office Mojo. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” released in May, ranks 11th, with $187 million.
“Wakanda Forever” ranks 13th all-time, not far behind the original, prepandemic “Black Panther,” which collected $202 million.
The new Marvel film boasts an origin story worthy of cinematic treatment. The first “Black Panther” proved the marketability of films with mostly Black casts, and the box-office might of Black patrons.
And then, in 2020, the Black Panther died. Chadwick Boseman, the film’s star, passed away from colon cancer at 43.
Rather than replace him, the sequel promotes Boseman’s female costars, building a narrative around his character’s death and Wakanda’s collective struggle to survive.
The film’s success provided filmmakers a needed boost after some slow months. In September, the world’s second-largest theater chain, Cineworld, filed for bankruptcy. Hollywood endured one of the slowest Octobers on record. Industry leaders hope “Wakanda” marks a turnaround.
“After the pandemic, I think people are craving that in-person cinematic experience more than ever,” said Chanda Brashears, senior vice president of investor and public relations at Cinemark, the third-largest movie-house chain behind AMC and Cineworld, with 517 theaters in 16 countries.
Cinemark earned $650 million in the third quarter of 2022, up from $435 million at this time in 2021, but down from $822 million in 2019.
“Clearly we’re an industry that’s continuing to recover from the pandemic era,” Brashears said, “but so much of it is going to be contingent on the studios.”
Film production slowed to a stop-motion crawl in the pandemic, as studios struggled with COVID-19 protocols and diminished revenues. Production has accelerated, but films gestate on “a two- to three-year life cycle,” Brashears said. “You think where we were two or three years ago, when they were trying to greenlight scripts.”
Filmgoers have experienced the slowdown as a dwindling schedule of buzzworthy releases, punctuated by the occasional blockbuster.
“When you dig into the numbers, you realize that 75 percent of the box office this year is basically 10 movies, from ‘Top Gun’ to ‘Doctor Strange’ down to ‘Black Adam,’” Newman said.
He notes that nearly all of the year’s top-grossing films worldwide are sequels, superhero films or sequels to superhero films. The notable exception is “Elvis,” a biopic drawn from real life, “and that’s not even in the top 10.”
Nine-figure blockbusters such as “Uncharted,” “Black Adam” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru” may not ring familiar to some older cinephiles. And that’s OK: The films aren’t really made for them.
Nearly 70 percent of moviegoers in 2021 were under 40, and more than two-fifths were under 25, according to the Motion Picture Association.
“The one thing that will keep people going to theaters is the need for young people to go on a date,” said Thom Mount, an independent producer and former president of Universal Pictures.
“That 18-to-28 core group will remain loyal to that idea of getting away from the house, getting away from the parents, sitting in the dark, holding hands and having a shared experience.”
Fewer older Americans can resist the lure of watching a film on home theater, often with sound, picture quality and dimensions to rival the multiplex. And cheaper popcorn.
“The question is, when does technology begin to eat its own tail here?” Mount said.
Slowing theater traffic has left the nation with a glut of empty theaters.
“I think the multiplex is over,” said Scott Higgins, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University.
“We have 40,000 screens in the U.S., and something over 5,000 theaters. And they’re operating at about 18 to 20 percent of their capacity, on average.
“Tent-poles,” industry parlance for blockbusters, “give people a brief moment of hope,” Higgins said. “But I don’t think they can support all these theaters.”
Roughly 500 movie screens have gone dark during the pandemic. Arthouses have suffered inordinately, industry experts say, as independent films migrate to streaming services and art-movie patrons eschew large indoor events.
Regal Tara, an Atlanta arthouse, closed this month after 54 years in business.
“They just couldn’t keep going during COVID,” Higgins said of the art-theater sector. “They had much thinner margins.”
COVID-19, home theater and streaming services all have diminished the moviegoing business. In terms of actual tickets sold, the peak may have arrived in 2002, when ticket sales in the United States and Canada approached 1.6 billion. Theater owners sold fewer than 500 million tickets in 2021 and expect to tear 836 million stubs this year, according to industry analyst The Numbers.
One bright spot for theater owners, oddly enough, is the looming recession. Movie theaters have proven recession-proof. Ticket revenues rose in the last downturn. Even with prices approaching $20 in some markets, a movie remains a relatively cheap date.
“You think about it: People downgrade,” said Brashears of Cinemark. “Maybe people won’t go on a vacation, but you still want to get out of your house and do something.”
Streaming services, while clearly victorious in the battle for eyeballs, are suffering their own setbacks. Subscriber growth is flattening. Streaming companies are raising prices, cracking down on shared accounts and subjecting more customers to monotonous ads after hemorrhaging money on content in recent years. Amazon reportedly spent $715 million on its J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” making it the most expensive television show of this age or any other.
Streaming services have dropped many groundbreaking television series, with Netflix’s “The Crown” grabbing headlines this month. Yet, in recent years, the flow of strong new releases seems to be slowing.
“It’s this idea, ‘We have so much content right now, why should we chase more?’” Higgins said.
He cites the viewing habits of his own parents, who are in their 80s.
“They’ve decided it’s not worth going to a cinema anymore,” he said. “But they’ve also said, ‘We’re running out of things to watch. And the new things that are on, they’re not as good as they used to be.’ And I think that’s true.”