2021 In Review: What The Top Ten Grossers Say About The State of Cinema

In a world where it looks like we will have to deal with a constant pandemic, Hollywood will have to look even closer at its highest grossing films to get some idea where Hollywood is going in the future. So, let’s look and the highest grossing films of 2021. What secrets do they hold? What truths do they tell? Let’s find out.

Below is the list of the top ten domestic calendar grossing films of 2019, courtesy of Box Office Mojo (captured on 12/31/21):

So, what does this list of films (and some that didn’t make it) tell us?

1. Superheroes Rule…

First it was the journalists complaining about superhero movies. Now it’s big name directors.

This year we had directors such as Ridley Scott and Jane Campion joining past directors such as David Cronenberg, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Roland Emmerich in condemning superhero films. Campion called them “noisy and like ridiculous” and Scott called them ” fucking boring as shit.’

We should give these statements as much weight as you would give anything said by a bitter human being who once was able to walk into any studio and get any budget they wanted to make whatever movie they wanted and now they can’t. The reason why can be seen in the list above.

The narrative thread through most of these criticisms is that audiences would be much better off if they got less superhero films and more weighty dramas from the likes of them. That of course ignores the importance of escapist fare to audiences in times like these. If you spent over a year stuck at home due to a mangled handling of a virus outbreak, mourning the loss of loved ones the virus had claimed, hoping you don’t get sick yourself, maybe when you are finally able to go back to the movies, the best movie for you is a martial artist fighting a Lovecraftian demon with a giant flying dragon.

So, these guys can complain all they want. Audiences want superhero films. Until that changes, studios will be always willing to risk giving $200 million to a film that might earn $1 billion back that give $100 million to an auteur that might only get a small percentage of that back.

2. …Weighty (costume) dramas drool.

Let’s do a case study here. Since Ridley Scott has two films out this year, both not terribly successful, let’s take a closer look at them.

First up was The Last Duel. This film had a $100 million dollar budget but only grossed $30 million worldwide, and only $10.8 million domestically. It ranks at a lowly #61 at this writing in the domestic box office. That is a pretty sizable flop. Why? Because audiences don’t want to see a film set in medieval France, especially one  starring Matt Damon with weird facial hair and Ben Affleck in a bad wig. Not helping matters was a vague marketing scheme that didn’t really let on about the rape-centered plot.

But at least The Last Duel got good reviews (85% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). You can’t say the same about his other film, the Oscar bait The House of Gucci. It currently holds a 62% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Most critics fault its tone and lack of cinematic vision. Considering Scott’s rant railed on the lack of good writing in superhero films, this criticism must have hurt.

It must have especially stung that, out of the superhero films in the top ten, The House of Gucci only received better reviews than Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Eternals. The three other superhero films scored way higher on the Tomatometer, each scoring at least double digit percentage points higher–Black Widow at 79%, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at 91% and Spider-Man: No Way Home at 94%. But when it comes time for the Oscar nominations to roll out, I’ll bet those movies get half the nominations as Gucci because they are comic book films and Gucci is “serious fare,” forget about which were better reviewed.

The House of Gucci currently stands as I write this at #27 at the domestic box office with $48.2 million. Better of the two films, but still not enough to show a profit when even overseas grosses are added in.

3. Spider-Man: No Way Home proves some films are pandemic proof.

In November, the Ominicron variant of the COVID virus was discovered in South Africa. It spread faster than other variants, more resistant to vaccinations, but less severe than other variants. It soon spread across the globe, and many localities reported record cases of infections because if it.

You’d expect this to be a cause for concern, especially for the movie industry. with tentpoles such as Spider-Man: No Way Home having the possibility of suffering the consequences.

You’d be wrong, though. Whether it is just pandemic fatigue or faith that the new variant is less deadly, people crammed in to theaters to see No Way Home in droves. So much so that the film broke a number of records, raced up to over $1 billion in worldwide grosses, and became the highest grossing film of 2021, all in just over two weeks.

Time will tell if these records mean that every showing becomes a super-spreader events. But the film’s success shows that people are not going to let the chance of getting sick to keep them from seeing the film they want.

4. Day-and-date hurts theaters (and films).

In a non-COVID world, this year’s top ten might look much different. Perhaps The Suicide Squad might have bumped the total comic book films in the Top Ten to six. Maybe Kong vs. Godzilla or Dune might have made the leap higher instead of hanging out just outside the list.

But we will never know, because those films were released by Warner Brothers on HBO Max the same day they were released into theaters. That policy hurt the theaters and films alike.

U.S. box office is down 48-53% from a similar period prior to the pandemic. There is more than one reason for that, but a big one is the day-and date streaming keeping moviegoers at home and not in theaters. And streaming numbers are harder to quantify than theatrical grosses. If you watched The Matrix Resurrections on HBO Max as part of your preexisting subscription, then did that viewing really make Warners any money?

Day-and-date is supposed to fade away in 2022, replaced by the window between release to theaters and top streaming shrinking from 90 days to 45. It might not be what theaters wanted, but it’s better than the alternative they have now.

5. The Fast and Furious franchise is still a cash cow.

I have mentioned before about the evergreen earning potential of The Fast and Furious franchise. I’ll probably keep on mentioning it because I am constantly amazed by the way there series has not only lasted so long but has thrived.

The franchise has undergone so many revamps, reboots and new directions since it debuted 20 years ago (20!) that the most recent film, F9, only bears a passing similarity to the first one. Actors leave, actors join. The cast can fit Oscar winners, B-movie icons and ex-professional wrestlers in comfortably. It has suffered the real-life death of one of its leads and still keeps on ticking.

The franchise might never end. You might argue that it might go away when Vin Diesel eventually leaves the series, but, don’t forget, he has already left once and the franchise went on. I’ll probably be watching these films with my grand kids.

6. Animation domination might be over.

This recap is the first one in my ten years of doing these recaps that there hasn’t been at least one animated film in the top ten highest grossers. Even last year, with COVID raging and shutdowns everywhere, there were two animated films–Onward and The Croods: A New Age in the top ten.

There could be many reason for this. One could be that blockbuster factory Pixar’s 2021 offering, Luca, only received a limited theatrical release, instead heading directly to Disney+. Or that the COVID vaccinations were not available to those under 5 years old, which might have made parents unwilling to take their kids in that age group into a crowded theater. Or that films like Tom and Jerry, Raya and the Last Dragon and The Boss Baby: Family Business were released day-and-date to streaming.

Or, it could mean that animation’s long-held domination at the box office is slipping. You had two relatively big animation releases hit at the end of the year–Encanto and Sing 2–each with a chance to enter the top ten if things went right. But Sing 2 opened way under expectations and Encanto‘s grosses were hampered by a 30-day theatrical release before it hit Disney+. But films havd earned their budgets back, but it will be doubtful if they can break even when advertising and marketing are added in.

We should key an eye on this trend to see of the animated film bounces back. I hope it does, because it is the most dependable source of originality in films today.

7. FREE GUY shows originality can thrive–if it is a little bit derivative.

It’s a pandemic miracle! We have a film in the top ten that is not an adaptation, sequel, remake, or reboot! Free Guy has been lauded as an original concept that has gained success. And while it is true that the film is not based on any preexisting property, it does wear its inspirations on its sleeve.

The film serves as a satire and parody of online gaming, and references video games ranging from Mega Man to Fortnite to Grand Theft Auto in its narrative. Many have pointed out that its plot resembles that of The Truman Show. And Guy has access to Captain America’s shield, a lightsaber, a portal gun from Portal and other pop culture weapons to help fight his battles.

I’m not mentioning this as a searing indictment of the film. I’m saying that creating something original out of various and sundry influences is a good thing. I’d like to see more of it.

8. WEST SIDE STORY shows that some remakes don’t need to be made. .

Let’s talk about West Side Story. If you asked film pundits earlier in the year how we’d be talking about the remake, they’d all predict that they’d be crowing about the massive hit it was, as it would still be earning millions at the box office on its way to its inevitable Oscar nominations. After all, it was one of the world’s greatest directors, Steven Spielberg, updating a classic Oscar winner that was adapted from one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all time. It would be like printing money, right?

Funny how things work out sometimes.

The remake was an unmitigated bomb. To date, it has only grossed $52.7 million against a $100 million budget with little chance of making up the difference.

Bob Iger, searching for a reason for the film’s failure, blamed competition with streaming services, the cost of theater tickets, and the effect of the pandemic. Funny, he didn’t mention that Robert Wise’s 1961 film adaptation is recognized as a timeless classic, one AFI’s Top 100 films of all time, and didn’t really need a remake. While Spielberg updated the original film’s problematic stereotypes, the remake couldn’t improve that film on the whole. And it’s not like the 1961 version faded into the annals of history. It is still around, able for anyone to watch it.

I mean, what’s next? Quentin Tarantino’s Casablana? Paul Anderson’s Citizen Kane? Hollywood’s remake frenzy shows an incredible amount of toxic ego and hubris. Hopefully, the failure of West Side Story will show that some classics should just be left as they are.

9. NO TIME TO DIE shows there is life in the James Bond franchise.

This should come as no surprise to anyone, but No Time to Die will be Daniel Craig’s last go around as James Bond. If that is a spoiler for you, then you must have missed the thousands of gigabytes of stories the Internet posted on the topic over the last several years, and I envy you.

If you think that this will be the time where the finally put to rest the 60-year-old (Take that Fast and Furious) franchise, you are crazy. The series is an international juggernaut. It plays well everywhere. The character and the concept is eternal. I believe there will always be a James Bond film in theaters or on the horizon.

The only question is what direction the new era will go into. Will the next Bond be a woman or a person of color? Will franchise be grounded in reality or become more fantastic? And when will we find out?

10. A QUIET PLACE PART II shows that in the new reality, lower budgets might be the way to go.

Make no mistake, Spider-Man: No Way Home will probably be the most profitable film released this year. It has already made six times its budget back, and that number will only get bigger the longer it stays in release. However, A Quiet Place Part II is not all that far behind, and it might set the precedent for Hollywood if the pandemic drags out even longer.

The film made $297.4 million against a rumored $61 million budget. That means it earned around five times its budget back. That is not too shabby. And in this day and age, $61 million is a relatively puny output for studios to make.

Buy low and sell high seems to be a solid business practice in every industry instead of the film industry. However, with pandemics affecting attendance, it would be prudent for studios to keep budgets low so they have a better chance of making their money back.

Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2040 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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