Both globally and domestically, the box office was much stronger in 2021 than 2020, with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” being the first film to earn $1 billion since 2019. But while the market for seeing a movie in a theater was more lucrative, driven by the availability of safe and effective vaccines, it was still a far cry from its pre-pandemic profitability.
Part of this has to do with the prevalence of streaming. Services like Disney+ and Netflix offer big-budget experiences like “Red Notice’’ (it cost $200 million to make) and “The Mandalorian” (its first season cost $100 million). Disney+ in particular forwent cinemas for Pixar’s “Soul” and “Luca,” with plans to do the same for the studio’s next film “Turning Red.” Disney+ and HBO Max also allowed their subscribers to watch select films on their platforms while they simultaneously were shown in theaters, with Disney+ charging an additional fee, effectively ending the exclusivity theaters had on certain titles.
But perhaps the biggest reason the box office is not what it once was is because the world never recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, with vaccines being unevenly distributed worldwide and a slice of the population in countries that have access to them refusing to take them due to vaccine hesitancy, and notable COVID variants emerging that have lowered the efficacy of our vaccines.
It must also be noted that Massachusetts didn’t fully reopen until May 2021. Given the economic upheaval of the virus which continued into last year, many consumers either didn’t have the disposable income to go to the theater regularly or might have been understandably hesitant to engage in the same level of recreational spending they did before the pandemic. I think this is also why the top five highest-performing American films worldwide in 2021 (“Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “No Time To Die,” “F9: The Fast Saga,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “Godzilla vs. Kong”) all came from established franchises; if you were going to take the risk of seeing a film in theaters, you’d probably want to make sure it was going to be something you knew you’d like.
Surprisingly, early data show that the omicron coronavirus variant has not had a devastating impact on consumer comfort with going to the movie theater, according to a Jan. 5 Morning Consult report, with 47 percent of U.S. adults saying that they feel comfortable seeing a film in theaters, which is down from 2021’s high of 55 percent, but were similar to what the company measured in late September and early October, though that might change as the variant lingers.
Their data also show that one in five Americans plan to return to theaters in the next month, with a near equal amount planning to return in the next six months. As such, Morning Consult concluded: “While younger consumers continue to express greater comfort returning to activities like moviegoing, the data suggests Americans in general are still hesitant to embrace out-of-home entertainment as the omicron variant surges across the country.”
This would suggest that the breakout success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is the exception and not the rule going forward; I wouldn’t expect to see another $1 billion earner for a while.
For our local theaters, hopefully this means that, while the stream of blockbusters and their audiences won’t be as strong as they were in 2019 going forward at least for a while, the worst of the pandemic is behind them.
Film studios took a notable hit on their theatrical films in 2021, with many films either barely scraping by or even taking losses, but there is reason to hope that better days are ahead.
The pandemic has certainly shaken theaters and the place they have in our entertainment diets, as it has Hollywood. In 2020, a Chinese film (“The Eight Hundred”) was the top performing film in the world, with the Japanese animated feature “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” being the second highest. “Bad Boys for Life,” the highest-earning American film, took home the third-largest haul. Until December, another Chinese film, “The Battle of Lake Changjin” was the highest-grossing movie of 2021. This is notable because before 2020, an American film topped the worldwide box office every year since the blockbuster film era began (arguably somewhere between 1975’s “Jaws” and 1977’s “Star Wars”).
The box office’s rebound from 2020’s low point, though, affirms that the theatergoing experience still has a place in a market dominated by streaming giants and marred by the pandemic.