I have been writing these yearly recaps since 2011 but I skipped last year. I didn’t think I could give a good recap of what the box office meant, as the post-pandemic was still fresh and new, and I didn’t know what changes would be permanent or temporary. But now that we are several years away from the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel I have learned enough to once again generate some opinions on Hollywood in relation to the year’s top grossers and what the show us about the state of the cinema in 2023.
And what they show us isn’t very good. I’ll be giving reasons why Hollywood haven’t really learned much about the way movies work in the post-pandemic times, and that their treating the way they do business as if the pandemic never happened, that the world is the same way it was back in 2018, is causing serious damage to the film industry,
Let’s start by sharing the Top Ten Domestic Grossers:
And, for comparison, the Top Ten Worldwide Grossers:
Now, let’s dive in.
1. Budgets are too high
You would think that any film in the Top Ten at the end of the year would be a box office success. This year’s list proves that you would be wrong. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania ended up losing millions. Mission: Impossible-Dead Reckoning was labeled a box office disappointment. The Little Mermaid was labeled a disappointment. Even Fast X, the fifth highest grossing film worldwide, barely made a profit.
The studios will give you a whole litany of reasons for these films flopping or disappointing. But there is one thing all of these films share – they all have budgets of over $200 million dollars. In the case of Fast X, well over $300 million dollars.
This is not the first time I have spoken about the enormous budgets Hollywood has been throwing around. They seem to think that every film they make is a shoo-in for a $1 billion gross. Even though we have had two film gross over that amount this year, that number isn’t easy to get. But if your film has a budget of $200 to $300 million and it grosses a billion, great, that’s a huge profit. If it grosses under $500 million, which is a lot a money, you have a “disappointment.”
The viewing habits of filmgoers have changed after the pandemic. They aren’t willing to sit shoulder to shoulder with each other unless the film is truly special. And you don’t need a $200 dollar budget to have a special film. If Hollywood continues to throw good money after bad at films that have no way to earn that money back, we might not have a film industry to speak of any longer.
2. Hollywood will not learn the lesson of BARBIE and SUPER MARIO
If you were to ask any film pundit what the top two films of 2023 would be, I’d imagine no one would have picked Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie. One is a toy tie-in, the other a video game tie-in. Traditionally, neither genre was a guaranteed box office success. And Mario had already bombed on the big screen once before. So, the prospects of success seemed grim.
However, pundits are often wrong. Both films hit big at the box office, both crossing over the billion-dollar plateau worldwide. And consider they cost $150 million and $100 million to make, that profit margin in huge.
Nothing in Hollywood sells like success. But Hollywood is also simple-minded. They won’t see that these are two franchises that have been around for decades and have generations of fans. They won’t recognize that they appeared in films that were thoughtful and well made. They only see it as moviegoers want more toy and video game tie-ins.
Mattel announced that they were stepping up development on a number of film tie-ins to their toy lines, including films based on their View-Master and Betsy Wetsy toys. And more interest has been given to video game films such as Minecraft, Just Dance and Pac-Man. None of these concepts really lend themselves to films. And no one has been clamoring for a Pac-Man or Betsy Wetsy feature film. But I bet a lot of them get made, only to die a horrible death at the box office.
3. OPPENHEIMER is not a sign audiences crave more cinematic fare
Fans of “cinema” have been very vocal about its place in today’s theaters this year. Typically using the comic book films as a target, these high-profile cinema cheerleaders praise the storytelling aspects of their version of film, bemoaning the more popular films that dominate the box office as inferior.
I’m sure Marty was referring to the Christopher Nolan of Oppenheimer fame, who, as we all know, made a bunch of comic book films. Oppenheimer is the film that certainly checks off a lot of boxes as to what Scorsese considers cinema. It is a big film about a weighty subject that makes its audience think. If it can be a success, the certainly his and Ridley Scott films can succeed as well!
Only one problem with that: both Scorsese and Scott had films out this year. Scorsese had Killers of the Flower Moon and Scott had Napoleon. All three opened in the similar number of theaters (Oppenheimer in 3,610 theaters. Killers of the Flower Moon in 3,628 theaters and Napoleon in 3,500 theaters). Only Oppenheimer was successful. And that’s with it opening the same day as the Barbie juggernaut. The other two flopped.
Not all cinematic films are made the same. Nolan has been making the thinking man’s blockbuster for years. Scott and Scorsese seem to have an antagonistic approach to making popular fare, putting out esoteric off-putting period pieces like The Last Duel and Silence. Nolan is coming off a long line of hits (excepting the COVID-era Tenet). Scott and Scorsese are coming off of box office disappointments if not outright flops. Oppenheimer cost only $100 million to make. The other two cost twice as much to make. Oppenheimer might be a cinematic success, but there are reasons for that that go beyond its cinematic merits. It is the exception that proves the rule.
4. Superheroes and Computer Animated Films are in decline
I know what you are saying. You are saying the 40% of the Domestic Top Grossers and 50% of the Worldwide Top Grossers are superhero movies, computer animated films, or both. I get you. There are examples of these film genres on the list. But these two genres used to be money making factories, and this year has seen more flops and financial disappointments in these genres than has ever happened in the past.
I have already published my annual post detailing the State of the Comic Book Movie so I’ll be brief here. In essence, there were nine comic book movies released this year. Only three of them made the top ten, and one, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, failed to break even. After that, there are outright bombs on the list, including Marvel Studios first true box office failure, The Marvels. All of DC Comics’ output bombed. You might say that it would be too early to tell with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, as it just opened, but it opened at $40 through the holiday weekend. That’s less than The Marvels and while that film had a bigger budget, if that film was a flop, then Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will be a flop.
On the animation front, Pixar’s Elemental didn’t dominate out of the gates as most Pixar films do. As a matter of fact, many pundits expected it to be a flop before it eventually scratched its way to become a “sleeper hit.” Disney’s in-house animation studio’s offering, Wish, wasn’t quite as lucky. It underperformed on its opening weekend, opening in third place. It is likely going to bomb. Outside of the mouse house, Illumination’s Migration opened at $12.5 million, also opening in third place and posting the lowest opening weekend of any Illumination film.
We might be seeing a sea change at the box office. These genres have appeared to go from guaranteed money makers to hit-or-miss propositions. If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see what fills the vacuum they leave behind.
5. Streaming is hurting the box office
Elemental had 26.4 million views in the five days following its release on Disney+. Think about that. If all those people who viewed that film bought a ticket at $15 at a movie theater, the film’s box office tally would increase by about $400 million dollars and it would have been a major hit right out of the gate. They would have come close to the $1 billion plateau. And that’s not counting all the views after the first five days. It wasn’t a case that people didn’t want to see the film. They just didn’t want to go to the theaters to see it. And Hollywood has only itself to blame for it.
Hollywood had tried to shorten the time between when the film left theaters to when they hit home video all the way back to when home video was only VHS tapes. They thought the 75-to-90-day window from when films hit home video after they left theaters was archaic, as their research told them that attendance drops after six to eight weeks in cinemas. For these people who wanted to shorten that window, the pandemic was a godsend. Home video and streaming became a better option for those stuck at home during the outbreak. Once the pandemic was over, the studios negotiated a shorter window, an average of 30 to 45 days, before it hit streaming after being in theaters.
The studios thought this was the best idea in the world. Audiences will fill the theaters for all the movies in the first few weeks of release, and they will get the same box office grosses they always had, and then the films would hit streaming sooner, dumping more money into their streaming services. They’d make money on top of money.
But the COVID-19 virus never really fully went away, and fear of missing out turned to fear of getting sick. Going to see a film in its theatrical run became less important as watching a film in your home became a better experience. As such, box office receipts are down and the number of bombs and disappointments are higher. Unless a film is truly spectacular, audience will prefer to wait the 45 days until it hit streaming.
6. SOUND OF FREEDOM shows that a little film can make good – if they game the system
Ah, Sound of Freedom, the little independent movie that could. Making over $250 million against a $14.5 million budget, it became one of the year’s most profitable films of all time and a cause celeb for everyone from the religious right to the QAnon right who saw the film’s success as proof that America wants to see films that match up with their respective dogmas.
That might hold water if every ticket sold actually was attached to someone who watched the film. That might not be the case.
Supporters of the film promoted it through efforts sublime (Testimonials from celebrities ranging from Mel Gibson to Odell Beckham Jr supported the film) to the ridiculous (conspiracy theorists tried to encourage people to see the film to counter what they said was AMC was trying to sabotage the film by turning off their air conditioning, among other things, a claim the film’s distributor Angel Studios was quick to discredit).
However, the one marketing tactic that might have worked best was the film’s pay-it-forward marketing. A message at the end of the film encouraged audiences to buy a ticket for a future showing to give to someone who wouldn’t normally see the film. It is unknown how many took advantage of this promotion, but there were reports of empty theaters for the film being marked as being sold out, meaning a lot of tickets were bought, but not used.
On the one hand, these tickets were bought even if they weren’t used. On the other, it’s not much of a mandate for your cause if the number of people who saw your movie was far less than it appears.
7. Taylor Swift shows that the studios are unnecessary
If there was a villain in this year in film, it would be a movie producer. Not only did they bring about a strike by cheating writers and actors out of streaming money, but they also threaten to replace them with A.I.. If that wasn’t bad enough, one of them callously said they would keep the strike going until the striking employees started losing their houses, the cad!
A hero needed to rise. It just happened that the hero that rose was wearing a sequined jumpsuit, strumming an acoustic guitar, and brought a legion or rabid fans with her.
For some inexplicable reason, the movie studios decided to waffle on distributing Taylor Swift’s concert film detailing her Eras tour. I’m so old that I am waiting for grunge to make a comeback and even I know there is money in the Taylor Swift business, Taylor knew this too and decided to join up with AMC and Cinemark and put out Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. The result? More of the film’s $250 million gross ends up in Taylor’s pocket and the film lands in the top ten grossers.
Now, not everybody is an international superstar like Taylor Swift. But she proved there is a way to make a whole lot of cash outside of the studio system. I hope more people take advantage of it.
8. Everything old is old again
It is a universal truth that time catches up to all things. People get old. Tastes change. What was hip becomes passé. This is especially true in Hollywood, where they have an itchy trigger finger to get rid of a property–or actor–that is a bit too long in the tooth. Spider-Man has had three incarnations in live action films. Fantastic Four is about to get its third. Superman is going on his fourth film incarnation. Batman is heading for his sixth.
All of this makes the longevity of franchises like The Fast and the Furious (11 installments over 22 years), Mission Impossible (7 installments over 27 years) and Indiana Jones (5 films over 42 years) truly extraordinary. Keeping a franchise going that long with the same actors in the leads never happens.
But it seems like this is the year that those evergreen franchises have started to wilt. As we mentioned above, Fast X barely made a profit, Mission Impossible-Dead Reckoning was labeled a box office disappointment, and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was condemned as an outright bomb. This is a cold splash of water to the face for franchises that were hit machines.
There could be a lot of reasons why these movies failed. As I said above, they all were the most expensive entries in the series at a time where audiences weren’t supporting blockbusters. But it could also be because audiences are sick of seeing a 56-year-old Vin Diesel driving his car off a cliff or 61-year-old Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane or an 81-year-old Harrison Ford punching Nazis. Is it ageist? Yeah, probably. It there a chance that it is true? Yeah. But since both Fast X and Mission: Impossible-Dead Reckoning have set up even more sequels, I bet the studios are hoping that isn’t the case.
9. JOHN WICK is the exception to this rule
Keanu Reeves is pushing 60. The franchise has had four installments over nine years. It has a large all-star cast. It has many of the same qualities that might be keeping audiences away from the above titles. So why is John Wick getting sequel after sequel–and spinoff after spinoff–where the other franchises are flailing?
If I had a guess, I’d lean towards budget as one of the main reasons. John Wick-Chapter Four had a budget of $100 million. If the canard is that a film has to earn three times its budget back to be successful, that is a lot easier to do if the budget is $100 million than if it is $300 million.
But while the franchise might be made cheaper than most films these days, but it doesn’t skimp on entertainment value. It uses fight scenes and car chase to build excitement instead of CGI set pieces or high-priced stunts. It also has a detailed mythology that has captured the fans of the franchise and keeps them coming back for more.
If Hollywood is to survive, they should follow John Wick‘s lead. Buy low, sell high, and leave the audiences entertained.
10. Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated fare might be waning
Disney’s live-action adaptations of their classic animated fare was quite a successful cottage industry for the company. Films like Malificent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book made it seems like Disney had a successful revenue stream for the foreseeable future.
Then 2019 happened. Their live-action adaptation of Dumbo that year lost the studio money. Then the pandemic happened and a number of the adaptations, including the abysmal Pinocchio remake, went directly to Disney+.
The Little Mermaid was supposed to be the film to right the ship. It was adapting one of Disney’s most iconic and beloved cartoons, it was in the hands of Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall, and had an intriguing cast. But still it disappointed.
Part of the reason was because of the controversy that surrounded the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. Forget whether she could sing or not–and she can sing–she was the wrong skin color for the character many people. These shadow racists mounted a review bombing attack on the film, which might have caused audiences to stay away. So maybe the film’s failure is just a fluke and not a part of a malaise for the live action remakes.
Disney is certainly hoping for the former, because they are hellbent on bring all of their animated classics into live-action. Their Lion King sequel, Mufasa: The Lion King, will be arriving next year, followed by a live-action Snow White and Moana in 2025. Past that, Disney has plans for bringing films ranging from The Sword in the Stone to Bambi to live-action. If audiences are falling out of favor with them, then that will be a whole lot of money wasted.