Theaters underperformed in September and October, and with November and December they have a shot at redemption — or at least, a chance to restore the summer’s momentum. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney), opening November 11, is the first of two potential massive hits; Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” on December 16 is the second.
We could say that these films may determine the future of the exhibition industry; it could even be more truth than hyperbole. But the larger truth is box office has been, and continues, hanging from tenterhooks: Declining revenue remains a serious issue.
October saw about $470 million in domestic box office. We projected $500 million, including a guess that “Black Adam” (Warner Bros. Discovery) would gross $150 million by October 31. The difference between the guess and the actual was the “Adam” shortfall. The DC film (budgeted around $200 million) is a credible $113 million so far, but it reinforces the idea that theaters remain hugely dependent on major franchises that meet or exceed expectations. That’s a tall order.
October 2022 saw 60 percent of the box office generated in October 2019 — back when tickets cost 20 percent less. By that measure, current attendance is half or less of 2019. Year over year, this October reached 75 percent.
“Adam” is part of a franchise, as is October’s second-best release, “Halloween Ends” (Universal). However, most of the month’s biggest titles were originals (led by September holdover “Smile”). It’s a sign that originals with lower budgets at sufficient volume can be profitable and benefit theaters, but the franchise titles still provide the bulk of the revenue.
Case in point: “Wakanda” will provide most of the box office this month, but it will have to soar beyond already-high predictions if November is to exceed $800 million. In November 2019, the box office was $959 million. Calculating price increases, that would be $1.15 billion today. Still, after three very subpar months, $800 million would be a step in the right direction.
Our estimate for the “Panther” sequel is $600 million total; the first “Panther” did $700 million (unadjusted). If it can generate $450 million by November 30, it would be on track.
Other significant new releases will only have eight days of play in the month, but these include the five-day holiday period. November 23 brings Disney’s animated “Strange World,” “The Fabelmans” (Universal), and Sony’s “Devotion,” a Korean War fighter-pilot story starring Glenn Powell (“Top Gun: Maverick”) and Jonathan Majors. Other wide releases include “One Piece Film: Red” (Crunchyroll) this Friday, “She Said” (Universal), and “The Menu” (Searchlight) November 18, as well as an expansion of “Bones and All” (United Artists) and a limited run of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” on November 23.
To reach $800 million, those films need a total gross around $200 million with holdovers and other new releases clearing $150 million. Beyond the money, theaters need the momentum. As “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Top Gun: Maverick” showed in May, starting off big provides dividends.
Christmas has fewer films than normal, but “Way of Water” has the potential to better “Wakanda.” The full year’s domestic gross is coming into view. At this point, it should fall short of $8 billion. (Last spring, AMC chairman Adam Aron floated $8.8 billion, double of 2021). At $8 billion, 2022 would see 70 percent of the 2019 domestic gross. It’s late in the day for incremental improvement.