Movie Theaters Got the October Box Office Boost That They Needed

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Amid the ups and downs of a box office still recovering from pandemic shutdowns, October has brought the jolt to movie theaters that the film industry has craved, as Comscore reports that North American grosses for the month rose to a pandemic-best $638 million.

While that’s short of the heights seen in 2018 and 2019, last month’s domestic ticket sales topped the lackluster 2017 total of $569 million and finished just shy of 2016’s $658 million total grosses, according to Comscore.

The top grosser of the month was Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” which kicked off with a post-shutdown record $90 million opening. Since then, the film’s total has grown to $190 million. Help has also come from MGM’s “No Time to Die” ($133 million), Universal/Blumhouse’s “Halloween Kills” ($85 million) and Warner Bros./Legendary’s “Dune” ($69.4 million).

“Is it what we expected? No, but it is what we hoped for,” Focus Features distribution chief Lisa Bunnell told TheWrap. “In this environment, we can’t expect numbers like this. But it finally feels like we are getting back to a place where we are seeing consistent turnout and a more diverse set of films in theaters beyond just the blockbusters.”

Major movie theater chains like AMC and Cinemark have previously stated that box office revenue would have to get to 80-90% of pre-pandemic levels before they could start turning profits again. That may be happening in Q4 as Cinemark reported on Sunday that its overall revenue for October is more than double what it earned back in May, when Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II” kicked off the rebuilding process in earnest on Memorial Day weekend.

Another key stride that studios and theaters have made last month was providing more titles for audiences who aren’t interested in comic book movies. MGM even found a blockbuster in “No Time to Die,” a Bond film that offers a different flavor of big-screen spectacle than the “Fast & Furious” and MCU titles that have dominated the charts this year.

And on the indie side, Searchlight’s “The French Dispatch” has has provided record post-shutdown business for art-houses that have had to wait much longer than mainstream theaters for the sort of highly anticipated fare that draws their clientele. Still, the numbers are relatively small: The Wes Anderson anthology film has grossed a modest $4.6 million through two weekends in limited release.

Either way, these films have brought in moviegoers who either weren’t comfortable with returning to theaters over COVID concerns during the summer or simply weren’t interested in what was on offer until now. On opening weekend, MGM reported that 25% of the audience for “No Time to Die” had bought a ticket for the first time this year; and Searchlight execs told TheWrap that 15-20% of the first-weekend audience for “The French Dispatch” were also first-time moviegoers, based on conversations with distribution partners.

halloween kills box office
“Halloween Kills” (Universal)

“Wes Anderson really has been a ‘Star Wars’ for so many art-houses,” Searchlight general sales manager and EVP Frank Rodriguez told TheWrap. “We have heard from places like the Avon Cinema in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Hillcrest in San Diego that have told us that they have seen by far their best turnout this year from people coming to see ‘The French Dispatch.'”

All this is good news heading into a November that will have more franchise tentpoles like Marvel Studios’ “Eternals” and Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” as well as family films like Disney’s “Encanto” and Paramount’s “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” But just as important will be the arrival of expected Oscar contenders like Focus’ “Belfast,” Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” and MGM’s “House of Gucci.”

While there’s nothing on slate that’s a slam dunk, this is the first serious sign that studios are putting forth the variety of films that supported the pre-pandemic box office and pushed annual grosses above $11 billion. If that momentum from tentpoles to indies continues to build through the end of 2021, it should provide the momentum to make 2022 the year that the film industry — at least domestically — returns to normal.

Of course, that’s assuming that COVID-19 doesn’t rear its head again. In China, a new wave of COVID outbreaks in some provinces has forced 13% of the country’s theaters to close over the past two weeks; and in Los Angeles, county health officials reported another bump in new cases, with 1,400 reported on Saturday.

With two-thirds of Americans at least partially vaccinated, the U.S. should be able to stave off a surge as deadly as the one seen last year. But the nature of the virus and people spending more time indoors during the winter could lead to an uptick in cases. And that may put a dent in audience turnout during the holidays, especially for films like “Belfast” and 20th Century’s “West Side Story” that appeal to older audiences.

Still, Bunnell said that all signs point to studios and theaters alike taking the winter and whatever pandemic obstacles that come with it head on. “All you have to do is look at the slate. If studios were really nervous, you’d see films move out of November and December,” she said. “No one is moving, and while we’re managing expectations we’re confident that people will continue to come back to theaters.”

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