For the past two years, box office reports have been accompanied by a COVID-shaped asterisk: Ticket sales were [insert adjective of choice] for a pandemic.
After all, “Wonder Woman 1984,” “F9: The Fast Saga” and every would-be blockbuster in between could have generated more in ticket sales without a devastating global health crisis upending the movie theater landscape.
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But as “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” debuted to $90 million last October ($10 million more than its predecessor) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” landed the second-highest domestic debut in history with $260 million, the caveats began to fade. Add in “The Batman” ($134 million debut in March) and “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” ($71 million start in April, $13 million more than its predecessor), and those numbers weren’t just notable for a pandemic, they were plain notable.
And now “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” opened to $187 million over the weekend, notching not only the second-best domestic launch since COVID-19, but the 11th-biggest North American opening weekend of all time. Only two non-“Avengers” installments in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe have reached similar heights at the box office. As Hollywood braces for summer blockbuster season, those milestones have box office watchers wondering: Do major tentpoles have the potential to perform at the box office in the way they would have prior to the pandemic? In other words, can we finally get rid of the asterisk?
Film industry analysts believe that if Hollywood isn’t there yet, the movie theater business is getting closer than it has been in the last 24 months.
“It’s very apparent that audiences have returned in a major way to theaters, especially opening weekends,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This is a strong indicator that this summer’s box office will be operating on all cylinders.”
“Doctor Strange 2” had an exceptionally huge turnout in theaters because the comic book adventure functioned as a follow-up to Sony’s $1.89 billion behemoth “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which also featured Cumberbatch’s goatee-rocking sorcerer and a few well-placed cameos. The latest Marvel blockbuster also got a boost as a sequel to two Disney+ series, the Emmy-nominated “WandaVision” starring Elizabeth Olsen, and the head-spinning hypothetical animated show “What If…?”
Blockbusters haven’t been immune to inflationary pressures, even if the higher costs are somewhat artificial in this case. Major chains, looking to capitalize on the continued success of big movies, have added $1 to $2 to ticket prices for “The Batman” and “Doctor Strange 2” in some cities, which has helped offset stagnant attendance levels. Look for price hikes to continue throughout the summer.
Those realities suggest that not every big-budget movie will exceed box office expectations to the same degree, as evidenced by lackluster returns for “Harry Potter” spinoff “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” and Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters entry “Morbius,” despite those films hailing from popular series. Nor does it apply to movies catering to comparatively reluctant audiences, such as older women and families. But in the case of four-quadrant franchise films with massive built-in fan bases — like Marvel or “Jurassic World” — COVID may not necessarily be the one to blame for less-than ticket sales. That means if a movie isn’t doing well at the box office, it’s more likely that the movie (or marketing efforts) simply are not very good, and it’s less likely that the virus is keeping people at home.
Of course, consumer confidence — and with it, box office returns — could decline with potential threats of new COVID-19 variants. But at the moment, audiences seem to be more relaxed about returning to theaters than they have been in the last two years. According to the National Research Group, which has been surveying moviegoers on a weekly basis to assess their habits amid the pandemic, 86% say they feel “very or somewhat” comfortable going to a movie theater right now. That’s the highest percentage since March 2020.
“The headwind [of COVID] is still slightly there, but we’re approaching a normal marketplace,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore.
That’s a good sign because “Doctor Strange 2″ is expected to kick off a busy summer blockbuster season. Hollywood is counting on “Top Gun: Maverick” (May 27), “Minions: The Rise of Gru” (July 1), “Jurassic World Dominion” (June 10), “Thor: Love and Thunder” (July 8) to keep auditoriums bustling and popcorn popping. Studio insiders say the international box office, which is key in propping up grosses for big-budget blockbusters, is rebounding. But that comes with a major caveat in that China and Russia, two major markets, are basically inaccessible to Hollywood films due to geopolitical tensions.
“The international outlook is a bit more complex with varying degrees of market recovery,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, “but event-level cinema has clearly proven to be robust during the recovery era thus far.”
At the domestic box office, the packed stretch between the first weekend in May and Labor Day in early September typically accounts for 40% of annual revenues. Blockbuster season brought back $4 billion and change in 2018 and again in 2019, according to Comscore. Those figures plummeted dramatically in 2020 when box office returns totaled $176 million — or, less than “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” earned in a single weekend. Sales rebounded slightly in 2021, to $1.7 billion, thanks to the “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9,” “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Black Widow.”
But box office analysts have increased faith in 2022’s summer slate, believing the tentpoles on schedule could bring in double the returns of last summer. If that rings true, popcorn season would be tantalizingly close to returning to pre-pandemic levels. Other anticipated movies, like Disney’s “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear” (June 17), director Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” musical biopic (June 24), Jordan Peele’s twisted thriller “Nope” (July 22) and Sony’s action-packed caper “Bullet Train” (July 29), will be key in helping to lift ticket sales in the hottest months of the year.
If these films keep cash registers ringing, then “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will have served as an omen of good things to come.
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