Summer Box Office Preview: 10 Questions for What Could Be a Scorching-Hot Season

Last summer’s box office season got off to a blazing start only to collapse into a pit that took multiple months to climb out of. Can summer 2023 get theaters back to the windfalls they enjoyed in pre-COVID summers?

The loaded release slate theaters saw this spring — from “Creed III” in early March to “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” on Easter weekend — was a trial run for what’s in store this summer. On nearly every weekend either a high-profile blockbuster or a potential surprise hit is on the calendar, and if most or all of them become successful this summer season may see grosses return to pre-pandemic levels the way “Super Mario Bros.” pushed April’s totals above 2017’s figure for the month.

And 2017 is really the target here. With “Avengers” films skewing the numbers in 2018 and 2019 those years aren’t fair comps. 2017, which at the time was considered an underperforming year, recorded a $3.87 billion total between the first weekend of May and Labor Day weekend, 14% above the $3.39 billion earned in summer 2022.

If summer 2023 matches that $3.87 billion it’s a victory for studios and theaters. If it hits $4 billion they’ll be ecstatic. But the big-picture question of the overall summer total is just one question facing the box office. Here are nine more:

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Are Marvel and DC superhero movies truly in decline?

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($960 million) earned 41% more than its predecessor without a penny from China. “Thor: Love and Thunder” ($755 million) overcame mixed reviews and buzz to earn more than “Thor: Ragnarök” in North America and gross more than “Thor 3” worldwide, sans Russia and China. However, a feeling of obligation has creeped into the MCU with the slew of loosely connected Disney+ shows offering essentially non-stop Marvel content. That has turned keeping up into something closer to homework than recess.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is akin to “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in that it’s theoretically a much-anticipated sequel in an MCU franchise that has a strong fandom unto itself. However, pre-release tracking has been closer to “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” than “Captain Marvel” and the film is selling itself as a farewell to its titular characters rather than advancing the increasingly muddled overall MCU plot. The question is if that farewell will leave audiences feeling moved or if its animal cruelty-filled depiction of Rocket Raccoon’s heartbreaking origin story proves too much for them to handle.

Warner Bros. Discovery is positioning “The Flash” as the event movie of the season. Most general audiences have no idea who Ezra Miller is and thus are indifferent to their alleged crimes. But will those same audiences care about a big-budget “Flash” movie at all — even one with Michael Keaton reprising his role as the Dark Knight — with a loose connection to a cinematic universe to which they’ve been mostly indifferent? What we may discover in 2023 is that the DC or Marvel comic book superhero movie has gone from being a box-office cheat code to a challenge to be overcome.

Fast X

Will the “Fast and Furious” series collapse under its own weight?

“Fast X” is being sold as the beginning of the end of “Fast & Furious,” setting up next year’s final chapter. Given the recent numbers for this franchise’s box office it may be the right move to wave the white flag for the final lap.

As TheWrap first reported, “Fast X” saw its budget balloon to $340 million due to payments for the series’ increasingly stuffed cast and cost overruns related to COVID-19 safety and insurance costs. If “Fast X” opens as well as the top-grossing movies in the series that won’t be a problem. But the first round of tracking has the film opening closer to the $70 million earned by “F9” in 2021 during the early stages of theatrical reopening.

With DreamWorks and Illumination rising in box office power, “Fast X” is not a do-or-die film for Universal’s theatrical hopes in 2023. But unlike superhero movies there’s no question “Fast & Furious” is in decline. The question is whether”Fast X” can pause it.

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Do kids still care about “Indiana Jones”?

Disney implicitly hopes “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” will be another Boomer-targeted legacy sequel on par with “Top Gun: Maverick.” However, while “Top Gun: Maverick” was a 36-years-later follow-up to a beloved pop culture classic, this is the fifth “Indiana Jones” movie and lacks Steven Spielberg and George Lucas calling the shots. Plus, it’s a 15-years-later follow-up to the liked-but-not-beloved “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

As we’ve seen with “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Scream 4” and “The Matrix Resurrections,” it’s hard to play the legacy sequel card when audiences weren’t crazy about the last installment. And as popular as Indy is, he’s never been as big as Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker, so it’s hard seeing “Dial of Destiny” becoming an event film anywhere near the level of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Will younger audiences care about 80-year-old Harrison Ford running away from danger and punching Nazis one last time? The picture cost a reported $300 million so the answer better be yes, even if it’s as absurd as asking in 1985 whether kids would race to see Roger Moore in “A View to a Kill.” Moreover, the James Mangold-directed actioner is implicitly selling itself as “Indiana Jones is back at last!” and “Indiana Jones is old and coming to terms with his mortality!” That’s exactly what the last film sold itself as. Nonetheless, if it works on its own as a rollicking action-adventure flick from the guy who directed “Ford v Ferrari,” “Logan” and “3:10 to Yuma,” all of this will be less of an issue.

Paramount Pictures

Will Tom Cruise be the King of Summer again?

“Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part I” will absolutely get a boost from the overwhelming success and popularity of “Top Gun: Maverick.” How much of a boost is the question. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” earned $792 million worldwide in 2018, which was a then-personal best for Tom Cruise. Halfway between “Fallout” and the $1.491 billion earned, sans China, by “Top Gun 2” is $1.1 billion worldwide. That shows how obscenely successful last summer’s Pete Mitchell Passion Play turned out to be.

Even if the latest Christopher McQuarrie-directed spy flick ends up nowhere near the 2022 smash it could be the summer’s biggest-grossing film whose success is predicated on one movie star. Give or take Harrison Ford’s “Indiana Jones,” which now feels like a cog in the Disney machine, most of this summer’s biggies will be predicated on IP (“Transformers,” “The Flash,” “Barbie,” etc.), marquee filmmakers (Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”) and ensemble casts (“Fast X”). The “Mission: Impossible” sequels have embraced their scene-stealing supporting players (Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, etc.), but it’s still far more about Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt than the “Mission: Impossible” IP. Its success could make Tom Cruise, by default, the biggest movie star of the summer.

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Can Disney and Pixar get out of their animated slump?

Pixar’s “Elemental” does not need to make $1 billion-plus like “Incredibles 2” or “Finding Dory” in order to be a success. It doesn’t even have to reach the $857 million “Inside Out” earned in summer 2015.

But it needs to earn at least double the $226 million that “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear” scrounged together last June, starting a miserable year for Disney’s animation studios that continued with an even bigger bomb with “Strange World” at Thanksgiving.

Over the past three years, former Disney CEO Bob Chapek saw the original films coming from the new generation of Pixar creatives like Enrico Casarosa and Domee Shi as fuel for subscriptions to Disney+, rather than box-office hits, sending well-received films like “Luca” and “Turning Red” straight to streaming and earning the ire of movie theater owners.

Now, Chapek is out and Disney is hoping to get families back in theaters with a film about a family of fire elements who come to live in a city filled with air, water and earth people toward whom they feel deep distrust. On the broadest level, “Elemental” will try to follow the path of Disney Animation’s “Zootopia” by attracting audiences with its imaginative cityscape and message against prejudice. Will that be enough to bring the masses back at a time when they are voting with their wallet for what other animation studios are producing?

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse
Miles Morales as Spider-Man (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE.

How big of a breakout sequel will “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” become?

Barring a Pixar miracle, the summer’s biggest animated film will not come from Disney, DreamWorks or Illumination. Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is pegged to be an old-school breakout sequel. That’s when a well-reviewed film opens well, develops legs due to strong word-of-mouth and then, after performing well in theaters, gains a second audience on DVD, VOD and streaming. Think “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Scream 2,” “John Wick: Chapter 2” and “The Matrix Reloaded.”

Just how big the second Miles Morales installment will be is an open question. The Oscar-winning first film earned $190 million domestic and $375 million worldwide, which was terrific for a $90 million superhero animated feature. That’s 34 times the $5.6 million total of “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.” A decent 41% boost would give it $530 million, putting it above “Hotel Transylvania 3” as Sony Animation’s biggest global earner. Barring an inexplicable artistic botch the sky is the limit for this one, especially if it plays to a younger audience than “The Flash”

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”: the double feature of the century?

Once upon a time counterprogramming was business as usual for movie theaters. Different studios releasing very different films on the same weekend was standard practice with the faith that the audience was wide enough to support both films.

That has become such a rarity that the simultaneous release of Greta Gerwig’s colorful, bubbly “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s searing retelling of the atomic bomb’s invention in “Oppenheimer” are generating memes for their release on July 21. For “Barbie,” the chances of breakout success are quite high given the strong buzz the film’s trailers have generated.

“Oppenheimer,” on the other hand, will be the biggest test yet of Nolan’s box office drawing power as a filmmaker. There are few directors who could convince a major Hollywood studio to invest well over $100 million into producing a movie about nukes, but the director of “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” and “Dunkirk” absolutely could. There’s a very good chance “Oppenheimer” could become the first serious contender for the 2024 Oscars, but will audiences reject it the way they have rejected so many awards hopefuls that tackle challenging topics?

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Will the Disney remake train keep on chugging?

Rob Marshall’s redo of “The Little Mermaid” will mark the last of the uber-successful Disney Renaissance toons to get the live-action remake treatment. As such, there now aren’t very many Disney animated films for which audiences would line up to see a remake. Respective critical adoration notwithstanding, the world isn’t clamoring for live action redos of “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Meet the Robinsons,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” or “The Emperor’s New Groove.” As such, “The Little Mermaid,” starring Halle Bailey, Melissa McCarthy and Javier Bardem, may mark the end of an era for Disney’s biggest live-action in-house cash-cow.

That’s partially why we got news weeks ago of a live-action remake of “Moana,” as the 2016 blockbuster is considered a modern classic and still hugely popular on Disney+. To the extent that Universal announcing a live-action “How to Train Your Dragon” movie and Disney casting for a “Lilo & Stitch” remake opened the floodgates for more recent animated films getting this treatment, it’s now only a matter of time before “The Princess and the Frog” and “Frozen” go this route. Yes, “The Little Mermaid” is probably going to make a ton of money no matter the (partially disingenuous) online discourse, but it’s what comes next that will tell the long-term (fairy) tale.

Is there any place for grown-up movies this summer?

There are more than a few adult-skewing, old-school “movie-movies” opening in wide release right alongside the four-quadrant tentpoles and fantasy franchise flicks. Sony moved the Priyanka Chopra Jonas/Sam Heughan romance “Love Again” into the early May slot alongside “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” as once-upon-a-time “Made of Honor” opened alongside “Iron Man” on the first weekend of the summer. Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings” will open on Memorial Day weekend alongside “The Little Mermaid.” Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City” opens against “The Flash,” while “Joy Ride,” “No Hard Feelings” and “Strays” will attempt to show there’s still life left in the R-rated comedy.

Will anyone see these films theatrically? Well, none of them have to break records to break even, they merely have to go the distance to win the day. There’s usually room for one big “event movie for grown-ups.” Think “The Road to Perdition” in 2002, “Wedding Crashers” in 2005, “Bridesmaids” in 2011, “Baby Driver” in 2017 and “Elvis” last year. Universal clearly hopes Chris Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” will fill that void this season, although we don’t yet know if “Indiana Jones 5” and “Barbie” will play more to nostalgic adults than thrill-seeking kids.

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