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‘Doctor Strange’ and ‘Top Gun’ Sequels Will Soar, but Are They Enough to Save the Summer Box Office?

The next four months will give more evidence about the health of the industry than any time since theaters reopened.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, and Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

This weekend kicks off the summer movie season in earnest, complete with a brand-new Marvel Cinematic Universe offering. After that? The next four months will give more evidence about the health of the industry than any time since theaters reopened since lockdown.

In the most recent pre-COVID years, the month of May saw total grosses of $1 billion eight out of 11 times, including $1.077 billion in 2019. That is not likely to happen this year. Despite the real chance that both “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Disney) and “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount) will have strong $100 million+ opening weekends (two in May is not standard), the rest of the month’s lineup lacks the heft to supplement these two expected blockbusters.

A look at the current box office standing through the first half of the week shows that theaters have grossed only 54 percent year to date compared to 2019, the last “normal” year. Despite repeated claims at CinemaCon that theaters are back, that sentiment remains a hope rather than reality.

To get to the 75 percent level of 2019’s total U.S./Canada gross — $8.5 billion, compared to $11.3 billion — means adding $6.6 billion to what has been amassed so far this year. The next four months have to do far better for the season to help achieve that modest goal, stated by some in exhibition as the kind of improvement needed to starting getting theaters to back to normal.

In a best case scenario, this month has the potential of an $800 million total. A more likely guess is in the $700-750 million range. If so, actual attendance for the month will be the lowest in 25 years or more, when most top movies didn’t open until Memorial Day weekend.

In general, our monthly predictions have tended to be a little on the high side (for April, we guessed $600-650 million, with the actual total about $570 million). This month is a bit easier to project because the majority of the box office take for May, perhaps two-thirds of the gross, might come from “Doctor Strange” and “Maverick.” With both films already screened, it’s easier to assess their potential.

The Achilles’ heel for the month, as it has been since theaters reopened (though April was an improvement) is the scarcity of new releases. Only six are scheduled for this month. In 2019 (which had a fifth Friday), 16 films with 1,500 or more initial theaters debuted — and that didn’t include the massive “Avengers: Endgame,” with that year’s early summer Marvel release opening in late April.

Avengers: Endgame

“Avengers: Endgame”

Marvel

Most of what “Doctor Strange” grosses will be during this first month of release. It is the first MCU-associated entry since “Spider-Man: No Way Home” almost six months ago, with the last from Disney (“Eternals”) even more distant. Apart from the time gap, the plot is more interrelated with the thrust of the main Marvel canon than either “Black Widow” and “The Eternals,” both of which were not sequels.

The first “Doctor Strange,” released in 2016, grossed $232 million (it was an early November opening), a mid-range Marvel result. This will be bigger, with an opening weekend of $200 million possible. (Disney will only go as far as saying it will be the best opening of the year; “The Batman” did $134 million).

With a likelihood of a strong initial rush, its performance beyond those early days will depend on audience reaction. Some of the early reviews (its 62 Metacritic score at the low end of Marvel movies) suggest it has issues with pacing and challenges versus audience expectations.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Paramount Pictures

It should do most of its business in May, with a gross of $400 million not an extreme estimate. If so, that could be half or more of the month’s entire box office total. “Top Gun: Maverick” opens May 26, so only its initial five days will count towards the total.

The long-gestating Tom Cruise sequel to the 1986 film is riding high in expectations after a great reception to its CinemaCon screening. An ultimate domestic take of $300 million or more now seems possible. If that happens, potentially $150 million of that take might accrue during May.

But both films will need to max out or even overperform to reach $800 million for May; that’s because none of the other four wide films opening can expect to gross $50 million in the month, and most of them less.

May 13 sees the release of horror remake “Firestarter” (Universal), a Stephen King adaptation from producer Jason Blum. It also will stream the same day on Peacock. Focus opens “Downton Abbey: A New Era” on May 20, the same day as A24 debuts Alex Garland’s “Men.” Also on May 27, Disney opens the long-delayed “The Bob’s Burgers Movie.”

“Downton Abbey” is the most intriguing of the group. The initial film extension of the popular PBS drama grossed just under $100 million in 2019 (September opening). It will be a test of whether older audiences are returning to theaters, making its fate uncertain. The combo of A24 and Garland has worked before, so it has promise.

Those two titles will have 12 days of grosses in the month, with “Bob’s Burgers” only its initial five. All told, $150 million amassed from the four lesser studio releases during May would be quite high. The rest will come from what is left from films already playing and then other more limited openings. That will come in at some distance under $100 million.

Previous months have mostly fallen short of muted expectations. But with both “Doctor Strange” and “Maverick” with the chance to exceed even strong projections, which can then be enhanced by the lack of great competition, $800 million isn’t impossible.

And it would be a step in the right direction, but more than that is needed to get theaters closer to what they once were. That may not happen unless the release slate gets back to something like it used to be: May’s biggest failing is that two huge films alone simply aren’t enough.

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