In June, I wrote a column about the great need to support our local movie theaters, which were ravaged not only by a paltry stream of releases but also by government-imposed restrictions during the various stages of the state’s reopening. It came a little more than a month after COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, with great hope that enough people would get the vaccine to help us end the pandemic.
That hasn’t happened — the pandemic is alive and well, and as such, the box office is not yet at full strength, with domestic and worldwide earnings paling in comparison to those of 2019’s. To put this in perspective, in 2019, nine films earned more than $1 billion at the box office — all American movies, including four comic book/superhero movies (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Spider-Man; Far From Home,” “Captain Marvel” and “Joker”), four family films based on classic Disney properties (“Frozen II,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Toy Story 4”) and a “Star Wars” film (“Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker”).
Fast-forward to 2021, and not a single film has earned $1 billion so far this year. The closest film to reach that mark is China’s “Hi, Mom,” which has earned more than $820 million, with the closest American film being “F9: The Fast Saga,” which has earned about $716 million.
This doesn’t bode well for cinemas both locally and nationally who rely on big tentpole films to stay in business, nor is it good for the studios that produce them, who now face the harsh reality that, unless the box office gets healthier, blockbuster films costing $100 million to $200 million to produce just aren’t viable products. The latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” is a great example of the hole in which studios have found themselves. Variety reports that, due to its massive budget — between $250 million and $300 million to produce and an estimated $100 million-plus to market — and the cost of multiple delays, “No Time to Die” most likely will need to make $800 million just to break even, meaning it will have to outperform the year’s highest-earning American film just to get close to making money.
It unfortunately epitomizes why blockbuster films have become few and far in between this year, as many films were commissioned before COVID-19, when studios felt comfortable approving lavish budgets due to the remarkable strength of the box office at the time, and many now have no hope of meeting pre-COVID-19 projections or, like in the case of “No Time to Die,” have slim windows to turn a profit at all.
This highlights the longevity of the pandemic augmented by those who still refuse to get the vaccine, as the presence of the virus is a critical factor when considering to see a film in person. As long as the virus remains in circulation, many will see theaters as a needless risk, especially as platforms like Disney+ and HBO Max continue to offer same-day streaming of films currently in theaters.
The Eagle reported in July that Phoenix Theatres, owners of The Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, has received $617,054 in COVID-19 pandemic funds from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and other Berkshire theaters have also benefited from COVID relief money, as have many theaters across the country. But if the box office continues to limp, more theaters will have to close their doors forever.
The hauls of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (it set a new Labor Day weekend record), “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (highest-earning opening weekend of the pandemic) and “No Time to Die” (highest-earning opening weekend of any James Bond film) show promise and hope for the box office and the theaters that rely on it, and I think that there is reason to be optimistic about upcoming titles like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Matrix Resurrections.” But unless the nation is able to reach a point where it can put the pandemic behind it and recover, the box office will continue to be a shadow of what it once was.
Regardless, the industry will no doubt feel the economic toll of the pandemic for years to come, especially considering that just about every studio film is a multi-year investment, and it will take time for investors to regain the same level of comfort they had before March 2020.
Please continue to support your local movie theaters, because the pandemic is far from over, and it’s unclear if and when the global box office will fully come back to life.