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Summer Box Office Came Back. Here’s Why That’s Not Nearly Enough

Tom Cruise saved theaters this summer, but here's why the blockbusters can't do it alone.

Tom Cruise

“Top Gun: Maverick”


Movie grosses this summer were the real deal. They made a statement: Theaters remain the platform through which feature films make their best debuts. Also this summer: Streaming platforms had to confront their own limitations and growing pains. At a time when “House of the Dragon,” “Squid Game,” and “Stranger Things” break viewing records and generate more media attention than most movies, Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” showed how a movie playing theaters can become a sensation that home events can’t duplicate.

That’s the good news. The less-good: Summer revealed and reinforced the ongoing weaknesses of post-Covid exhibition and they’re ones that even a $1.5 billion global blockbuster can’t touch.

Summer’s domestic box office — traditionally defined as the first weekend of May through Labor Day — will total about $3.35 billion. That’s about 77 percent compared to the summer of pre-Covid 2019. However, we’ve seen the definition of the summer box-office start shift to the release of the first Disney Marvel film. In 2019, “Avengers: Endgame” opened in late April; this year, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” opened in May.

By that metric, the 2022 vs 2019 comparison drops to 71 percent — the same comparison figure for spring 2022 v 2019, and the 2021 holiday period v 2019. That suggests while grosses are in recovery, they appear to be mired about 30 percent below pre-Covid norms.

Another factor: Ticket prices jumped sharply, as did the share of tickets sold to higher-priced premium presentations. The National Association of Theater Owners hasn’t revised its average ticket price figure since 2019, but industry sources suggest they are up by at least 20 percent. Combined with the drop in grosses, actual attendance appears to have declined by more than 40 percent since 2019.

Photo by: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 10/20/20 Big Business in New York City.

Regal Cinemas in New York


“Top Gun: Maverick” drove a lot of celebratory summer box office coverage. Harder numbers explain why, just as summer ends, Regal owner Cineworld said it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. In a statement Cineworld made prior to confirming bankruptcy, “despite a gradual recovery of demand since re-opening in April 2021, recent admission levels have been below expectations.” While recent and near-term future revenues improved, it’s not enough.

Where’s the lag? As in 2019, about 75 percent of grosses came from franchise or sequel titles, 25 percent from standalones. However, 64 percent of the take came from the five top-grossing releases. In 2019, that share was 52 percent. Beyond massive debt loads, it’s the biggest single issue theaters face: While top films perform at or close to expectations, there’s just not enough of them to create full recovery or growth.

In summer 2019, the five top studios plus Lionsgate and United Artists released over 40 titles wide. This summer there were 20. The good news is most performed well, with only Pixar’s “Lightyear” (Disney) a clear disappointment. By contrast, 2019 saw disappointments like “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “Men in Black: International,” and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix.”

This summer’s nontheatrical narrative was the collapse of faith in streaming; going forward, that could be an extraordinary silver lining. The biggest reason for the weaker gross is product shortage and reassessing the value of theatrical vs streaming could be a win for exhibitors.

Young Kya (Jojo Regina) in front of the shack in Columbia Pictures' WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING.

“Where the Crawdads Sing”

Michele K. Short

This summer also saw better-than-expected results for “Elvis” (Warner Bros.), “Nope,” (Universal), and “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony). Studios view films like these as risky; more often, they become episodic or event programming for streamers. Studios need to be encouraged that launching theatrically is worth the risk for more than just franchise titles.

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