This Year’s Box Office Faces a Brutal Start, Made Worse by Omicron

·4-min read

As the windfall grosses from “Spider-Man: No Way Home” fade away, movie theaters are facing the sobering reality that the first two months of the 2022 box office look to be a serious dry spell — and that would have been the case even before the Omicron surge swung a wrecking ball into the Q1 release slate.

In the past week, Sony moved its next Marvel movie, the Jared Leto-led “Morbius,” from late January to April 1. Then, on Friday, Disney pulled the early-March Pixar film “Turning Red” from theaters entirely, instead making it the third straight feature film from the animation studio to get exclusive release on Disney+.

That means that theaters will soon be lacking all three of the major ingredients for box office riches at this time of year — holiday holdovers, Oscar contenders and major new releases — with only the prospect of Sony’s Tom Holland action film “Uncharted” on Feb. 18 and Warner Bros.’ “The Batman” on March 4 on the horizon to lure audiences in large numbers.

Even prior to the pandemic, box office performance in January and February has been mixed. On the one hand, films like “Hidden Figures,” “Bad Boys for Life,” and Marvel’s “Black Panther” found success with audiences in these early-year slots, combining with December releases like “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and Oscar contenders like “La La Land” to provide a solid start for the year.

But that hasn’t always been the case. In 2019, early-year sequels like “Glass” and “The Lego Movie 2” performed below their predecessors and did not keep the momentum going from “Aquaman” the previous Christmas. Nor was there any major success from the Oscar field that year as “Vice” and “Green Book” failed to rank among the top 10 grossing films for January 20219. As a result, domestic grosses through the first two months for 2019 sat at $1.43 billion, the lowest in six years.

For at least the next four weeks, the box office is likely to see those 2019 trends play out again on a much greater scale. “No Way Home,” which grossed $33 million this past weekend, will provide a little help. But with Universal’s animated hit “Sing 2” now available on-demand, there won’t be much holiday holdover support from any other film.

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“Morbius” (Sony Pictures)

And theaters can forget about Oscar contender support. After Disney/Twentieth Century’s “West Side Story” flopped last month, it’s safe to say that the older moviegoers who would most likely be interested in seeing all the Best Picture nominees in theaters aren’t going to buy tickets this year, even if the spike in COVID infections subsides by February or March.

At best, theaters might get a few million from MGM’s “Licorice Pizza,” which has performed well with younger moviegoers and is expected to get a screen expansion after Oscar nominations are announced on Feb. 8, as well as some from “Dune” if Warner Bros. decided to give it an awards re-release.

The move of “Morbius” — which was unlikely to match the $90 million opening of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” last October — puts more pressure on a pair of Paramount sequels to perform: “Scream” (Jan. 14) and “Jackass Forever” (Feb. 4).

Paramount will be banking on Gen X and Millennial nostalgia to bring in a turnout, as “Scream” is projected for a $35 million debut over the four-day Martin Luther King Day weekend. Early projections aren’t in yet for “Jackass Forever,” though given the current environment it’s likely that it will open below the $50 million launch posted by “Jackass 3D” in 2010.

The other big hope for theaters is Sony’s “Uncharted,” the first attempt by the studio to turn its library of Playstation franchises into big screen success similar to what Paramount has done with “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Sonyt has big hopes that Holland will succeed at launching a new, non-Marvel franchise as treasure hunter Nathan Drake.

If none of these films pan out, theaters will have to bide their time to the release of “The Batman” — yet another superhero movie — will finally bring young audiences back. But even if “Uncharted,” “Scream” and “Jackass Forever” soften the blow, the lack of reliable films from the holiday season will show how important it is for the theater industry to get a wider swath of moviegoers back in theaters. But as long as variants like Omicron keep much of the population home and getting more comfortable with watching films on streaming, the less likely many of them will be to come back.

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