Summer Box Office Preview: The Movies Are Back, But Not Enough of Them

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The 2022 summer box office should be another big step on the road to recovery for movie theaters with several big blockbusters performing like COVID-19 isn’t a thing. But the biggest obstacle isn’t the quality, but the quantity.

According to Comscore, only 35 films between the first weekend of May and Labor Day weekend — the traditional definition of the summer film season — are slated for wide release. By comparison, 37 films were released last year in at least 1,000 locations in 2021, and 45 films were released in 1,000+ screens in 2018 and 2019, when summer grosses topped $4.3 billion.

At CinemaCon, National Association of Theater Owners President and CEO John Fithian chalked this up to lingering production delays caused by the pandemic. With a backlog of productions that started before the worldwide shutdown combining with new productions trying to get underway, many key elements of filming and postproduction such as soundstages and visual effects houses are in short supply, overloaded by studio demand.

“It’s probably going to take the rest of the year to get through the bottlenecks slowing down production, but this summer is already a sign of the progress that our studio partners have made in increasing the number of titles we have to show in cinemas,” Fithian said. “We have told everyone that we as an industry are back, and this summer will be when everyone starts to truly see it.”

But for now, it’s unlikely that the summer will yield the $4 billion-plus domestic total that the industry was used to seeing prior to the pandemic. However, it’s likely that summer 2022 will do better than the $1.75 billion seen last year, because there are still plenty of heavyweights on the slate.

The first, of course, is “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” a Marvel film set to open to a $170 million-plus launch this weekend with a strong chance of topping $400 million on the domestic side and $1 billion worldwide. Fellow MCU title “Thor: Love & Thunder” (opening July 8) should also bring a big midsummer jolt as Taika Waititi’s last “Thor” film opened to $122 million in 2017, while Universal’s “Jurassic World: Dominion” (June 10) will also have a strong chance at a $100 million-plus opener.

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Disney-Pixar

Animated family films will also return in a big way with Disney/Pixar’s “Lightyear” (June 17) leading the charge, followed by Universal/Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” (July 1) and Paramount’s “Paws of Fury” (July 15). Again, production backlogs have significantly delayed rollout of major animated films, but the success of “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” this past month shows that families are ready to come back to theaters, so the trio of titles on offer should perform well.

Also on the slate are a series of revivals, biopics and originals that may not open above $100 million but could provide a second tier of support to cinemas. Foremost among them is Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” (May 27), a sequel to Tom Cruise’s 1986 fighter pilot classic that may not have much of a nostalgia factor among the under-35 crowd but could do even better than its rather high expectations if audiences love the high-octane dogfights (first reactions have been effusively positive).

Then there’s Universal/Monkeypaw’s “Nope” (July 22), the third horror film from one of the few remaining directors with true box office draw, Jordan Peele. The Oscar winner’s preceding horror films, “Get Out” and “Us,” each grossed $176 million domestically, and with “Nope” promising more of Peele’s now-signature mix of true scares, likable heroes and dark humor, this summer should bring another original success story.

But perhaps the two most interesting films in terms of long-term box office outlook will be Focus Features’ “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (May 20) and Warner Bros.’ “Elvis” (June 24) as these two films are most likely to bring out older moviegoers.

While COVID-19 cases have been trending slowly upwards over the past month, the latest variants of the virus haven’t created a spike in cases. This may mean that seniors are more comfortable with buying a ticket to an Elvis Presley biopic starring Tom Hanks or a “Downton Abbey” sequel than they were for Oscar contenders like “West Side Story” this past winter.

The big weakness in the summer slate, though, is in its final weeks. After Warner’s animated film “DC League of Super Pets” and Sony’s “Bullet Train” come out on July 29, there are no films like “Free Guy” or “Suicide Squad” to keep the momentum going in August. There will be a few studio titles like Universal’s Idris Elba thriller “Beast” (Aug. 19) and indie titles like A24’s “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (Aug. 5) starring Pete Davidson, but the momentum built up between May and July may slow to a crawl.

But that May to July period may be the most robust stretch that movie theaters have seen since before the pandemic began, with big titles hitting theaters more frequently and the down periods between them having stronger numbers from holdovers and smaller budget newcomers. This summer won’t fix all the ills facing movie theaters, but the causes for optimism are plentiful.

“It would be very difficult for this summer to get back to $4 billion, but I think that topping $3 billion is a possible goal for this crop of very strong films,” Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian said. “There’s a pent-up demand for moviegoing and a lot of highly anticipated titles to meet that demand. The numbers may be more front-loaded, but this should be the most significant leap back to normal that the industry has seen.”

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