At the Movies, Superheroes, Sci-Fi and Horror Break Through — and Not Much Else

·7-min read

The more things change, the more they remain the same. At the domestic box office, that means science-fiction spectacles and superhero adventures have been selling more tickets than any other genre.

It may not be entirely surprising to anyone who closely follows box office trends, in part because it’s not all that different from pre-pandemic moviegoing habits. However, as the box office mounts a recovery from COVID-19, the rift in the type of films that audiences have deemed worth watching on the big screen has become increasingly pronounced.

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Variety analyzed the top 50 highest-grossing films of 2021 (so far) and compared the data to the top 50-highest-grossing movies of 2019, the most recent “normal” year at the box office. It’s not a perfect comparison because, well, the year isn’t over yet — and many of the biggest movies in 2021 were available on various streaming platforms on the same day as their theatrical releases. Even with disruptions from on-demand viewing, movie-watching patterns have been mostly consistent: horror films have also been reliable big-screen draws, while adult-skewed dramas and comedies have continued to struggle to sell tickets. For the latter, their futures may lie in streaming — at least until the movie theater business can fully recover.

By comparison, the North American box office isn’t close to returning to pre-plague levels. Domestic ticket sales remain down 68% from the same period in 2019, according to Comscore. In that year, in the halcyon days before face masks and proof of vaccination were the norm, “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King” and “Toy Story 4” propelled domestic revenues to $11.4 billion, a solid result that fell short of setting any new records. Box office receipts in 2021, analysts predict, will be lucky to reach $5 billion, less than half that amount.

Much of this year’s bounty will come from sci-fi epics and action-packed tentpoles, with the genre generating a leading $851 million at the domestic box office to date. There’s been no shortage of action movies in 2021; 16 of the top 50 movies fall into that category, led by Universal’s sequel “F9: The Fast Saga” ($173 million), MGM’s James Bond installment “No Time to Die” ($133 million), the Ryan Reynolds-led comedy “Free Guy” ($121 million), Warner Bros. and Legendary’s monster mashup “Godzilla vs Kong” ($100 million) and Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” ($69 million). The subset was similarly powerful in 2019. Science-fiction and action movies were the third-highest grossing genre of the year despite the towering ticket sales for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” ($390.7 million), “Jumanji: The Next Level” ($192 million), “Fast and Furious” spinoff “Hobbs and Shaw” ($173 million) and “John Wick 3” ($173 million). Overall, 12 of the top 50 movies in 2019 fell into the sci-fi/ action category.

It may be surprising that, in a year in which “Avengers: Endgame” became the highest-grossing movie in history (“Avatar” reclaimed the crown in 2021), superhero fare was only the second-biggest genre by way of ticket sales. It took fewer movies (eight of the top 50) to amass $2.4 billion in box office revenues, with “Avengers: Endgame” ($858 million), “Captain Marvel” ($426 million), “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ($390.4 million) and “Joker” ($333 million) as some of the biggest earners. In 2021, comic book adventures fall behind only sci-fi/ action with $672 million in ticket sales. Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($221 million) currently stands as the biggest movie of the year, followed by Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” ($190 million), Disney’s “Black Widow” ($183 million),” Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad” ($55 million) and holdover from 2020’s sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” ($23 million). Expect Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Disney and Marvel’s “Eternals” to continue the trend and find themselves at the top of box office charts by the year’s end.

In 2019, it wasn’t science-fiction or comic book movies, but rather animated films — mostly geared toward family audiences — that reigned supreme. That’s thanks to Disney, the studio that churned out hit after hit… after hit with “The Lion King” ($543 million), “Toy Story 4” ($434 million), “Frozen II” ($430 million), and “Aladdin” ($335 million). That year, 13 of the top 50 movies of the year were cartoons — amounting to a massive $2.6 billion in overall revenues. This year (at least through October), 11 of the top 50 movies fall into the animated/ family category, enough to rank as the third-highest grossing genre. So far, ticket sales have amounted to $597 million, driven by Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” ($116 million), the Warner Bros. sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy” ($67 million) and Universal’s “The Boss Baby: Family Business” ($57 million). Industry analysts have been unsurprised that CGI-heavy tentpole movies have been performing better than family friendly fare amid the pandemic. Younger males, those most inclined to watch explosive action films, have been the most reliable ticket buying demographic, while adult crowds and people with young kids have been hesitant to return to the movies.

“Families are not back yet,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “This is all about COVID, vaccinations and kids’ safety. It’s going to take time. We’re just having vaccination approvals now.”

Notably, horror in 2021 isn’t far off from matching 2019 sales. This year, 11 movies have cracked the top 50, with Paramount’s scary follow-up “A Quiet Place Part II” ($160 million), Universal’s slasher film “Halloween Kills” ($85 million), “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” ($65 million), “Candyman” ($61 million) and “Old” ($48 million) leading the pack. Only seven horror titles in 2019 made the cut, as “It: Chapter Two” ($221 million), “Us” ($175 million), “Glass” ($111 million) pulled in huge numbers. Scary movies are usually a safe bet when it comes to the big screen because they rarely cost more than $20 million to produce, making it less challenging to turn a profit.

“What stands out, to me, is the horror genre proves its resilience and pure escapist appeal to audiences,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “Similarly, sci-fi films and superhero movies also offer an escape that the genres of drama and even comedy — that are generally grounded in the real world — cannot replicate. [Those] are the types of films that are best enjoyed in a movie theater on the big screen, and the grosses reflect this dynamic.”

As Dergarabedian points out, dramas, musicals and comedies are failing to drum up significant coinage, a state of affairs that was evident even before the onset of COVID-19. Four dramas — Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” ($141 million), Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston’s feel-good film “The Upside ($108 million), “Downton Abbey” ($96 million) and the Fred Rogers biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” ($56 million) — ranked among the top 50 in 2019, accounting for $401 million combined. Drama is again one of the lowest-grossing genres, with five movies in 2021 — “Respect” ($24 million), “The Green Knight” ($17 million), “Stillwater” ($14 million), “Cry Macho” ($10 million) and “News of the World” ($8.9 million) — collecting a combined $74 million. Musicals have been similarly challenged. In 2019, Paramount’s Elton John biopic “Rocketman” ($96 million) and Universal’s Beatles-inspired “Yesterday” ($73 million) contributed $169 million and in 2021, song-and-dance stories have fared worse as the Warner Bros. adaptation of “In the Heights”($29 million) and Universal’s “Dear Evan Hansen” ($14 million) barely hit $43 million together. And two categories that generated some cash in 2019 — mystery with “Knives Out” ($115 million) and comedy with “Hustlers” ($104 million), “Good Boys” ($83 million), “A Madea Family Funeral” ($73 million) — haven’t cracked the top 50 in 2021.

“Drama, arthouse, and more broadly, character-driven movies, are under pressure,” Gross says. “This was true before the pandemic, and the bar is going to be even higher now.”

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