In August, Sony Pictures’ top execs pledged to theater owners at CinemaCon that it would not jump into the day-and-date streaming experimentation that other major studios had used throughout 2021.
“Debuting movies simultaneously in theaters and at home is devastating to our collective businesses. Our movies will be seen exclusive first in our movie theaters,” Sony Motion Picture Group President Josh Greenstein said. “Movie theaters and the theatrical movie experience will triumph.”
And boy did Sony triumph. Just five weeks after Greenstein made that promise, Sony began a streak of success that lasted throughout the final quarter of the year. Starting with “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” in October, then “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” in November, and the record-smashing “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in December, the studio finished just below Disney with $1.1 billion in North American grosses, according to The Numbers. (This story will be updated with end-of-year data from Comscore when it is published.)
But while the last three months have been nothing short of spectacular for Sony, the recent victories hide some big questions about the studio’s long-term prospects outside of its web-slinging moneymaker; and Greenstein’s commitment to theatrical exclusivity doesn’t change the fact that the studio still had to pull what would have been some successful family films from its slate due to the pandemic.
Let’s focus on the good news first, starting with Sony’s smart move to push up the release date of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” to October 1, a week ahead of the U.S. release of MGM’s 007 film “No Time to Die.” Free from any major competition, “Venom 2” opened to a then-pandemic record $90 million and went on to gross $212 million in North America, matching the domestic total of the first “Venom” in 2018.
Then came “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” a film with a more modest $44 million opening in mid-November but which legged out to $123 million, enough to put it in the top 10 for 2021. But then, of course, was “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the blockbuster that shrugged off the Omicron surge to become only the third movie to earn a domestic opening of over $250 million and the first film of the pandemic era to gross over $1 billion worldwide. (Remarkably, it managed to top recent pre-COVID hits like “Black Panther,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Frozen II.”)
But before those three hits came along in Q4, Sony didn’t have much of a presence at the box office. “Afterlife,” “Venom 2” and “No Way Home” combined for 86% of the studio’s 2021 total. In fourth on the studio’s annual chart is “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” which grossed just $40 million domestic over the summer. Meanwhile, the studio’s horror films from Screen Gems failed to reach either critical or commercial success: Sequels to “Escape Room,” “Don’t Breathe” and “Resident Evil” failed to top $35 million in their domestic runs.
And while Sony’s recent success with blockbusters has been a victory for theatrical exclusivity, the fact that the studio doesn’t have its own streaming service forced it to sell two big animated films to competitors. First there was the critically acclaimed “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” which was originally intended for release in fall 2020 but was instead sold to Netflix and released last April.
Then there’s “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” which Sony planned first as a summer 2021 release and then as a family film for Halloween. Instead, the studio sold “Transformania” to Amazon Studios, which will launch it on January 14.
Obviously, giving “Venom 2” that pre-Halloween spot paid off, and Sony’s ability to bring millennial and Gen Z moviegoers to theaters in droves is a reason why top theater chains like AMC are still confident that 2022 will be a rebound year even as COVID drags on. But it will be a while before Tom Holland and Tom Hardy can return to play Peter Parker and Eddie Brock, and another “Ghostbusters” film hasn’t been greenlit. So what does Sony have to keep this momentum going?
Forecast for 2022
Part of Sony’s answer to this question is…more Spider-Man. Or at least a well-diversified Spidey portfolio.
While work begins on a new series of “Spider-Man” films with Holland, Marvel’s other masked webslinger, Miles Morales, will return in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse — Part One,” the sequel to the Oscar-winning animated film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The second part of “Across the Spider-Verse” is set for release in 2023.
Also due this year is “Morbius,” which like “Venom” is part of Sony’s attempts to build franchises based on “Spider-Man” villains to which they have film rights. The Jared Leto vehicle was set for release in January but has been moved to April 1 due to the Omicron surge.
Meanwhile, Holland returns to Sony in a non-Peter Parker role in “Uncharted,” which is due February 18. “Uncharted” is part of Sony’s attempt to build a new IP stable based on its most popular Playstation games, with an adaptation of the hit samurai open-world game “Ghost of Tsushima” also in the works.
Beyond the franchises will be action films like the David Leitch/Brad Pitt assassin film “Bullet Train,” the sci-fi thriller “65” starring Adam Driver and directed by “A Quiet Place” co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and the studio’s likely awards contender “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a biopic about Whitney Houston from “Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons.
Aside from the pandemic year of 2020, Sony has topped $1 billion in domestic grosses every year since 2017 after a box office slump in 2015 and 2016 led the company’s motion picture division to report hundreds of millions in annual losses. The return of fan favorites to “Spider-Man” helped the studio keep that streak alive, but now it’s up to the studio to prove it can keep it going without all that MCU magic.
TheWrap’s 2021 Studio Box Office Report Cards
Monday: How Warner Bros.’ HBO Max Experiment Led to Mixed Box Office Results
Tuesday: Universal Mined Sequels and Flexibility on Streaming to Survive at 2021 Box Office
Wednesday: Inside Paramount’s Quiet Place at the Box Office, Sidelined for a Brighter 2022
Thursday: Sony Struck Box Office Gold With Spider-Man in 2021 – But Not Much Else