Box Office Comeback: Why Movie Theaters Are Finally Feeling Optimistic

Need proof the box office is really, truly rebounding from COVID?

Look no further than domestic charts, where not one, not two, but four movies — a mix of new releases in Baz Luhrmann’s musical biopic “Elvis” and Blumhouse’s creepy thriller “The Black Phone,” as well as leftovers with “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World Dominion” — are pulling in healthy ticket sales.

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It marks the third straight weekend that more than one major movie has managed to sell a meaningful number of tickets. After a tough stretch for movie theaters, which were closed for months during the pandemic and then greatly struggled to rebound, it’s a welcome change in pace because, at long last, it signals that audiences of all ages are returning to the big screen.

Hollywood needs that trend to continue throughout the summer as Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” (July 8), Jordan Peele’s “Nope” (July 22) and director David Leitch’s starry action-thriller “Bullet Train” (Aug. 5) gear up to release in theaters.

“This is another very good weekend, with two successful new stories pulling very different audiences, in addition to strong holdover business,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “And we’re headed for a long holiday weekend.”

For a while, there were only one-off successes (fueled by young men) that would dominate the moviegoing landscape while leaving scraps for basically every other release, from “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” ($90 million debut) to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ($260 million debut) and “The Batman” ($134 million debut). Those wins were undoubtedly encouraging, but most box office triumphs were adaptations of popular comic books or sequels in well-known film franchises. So while those were helpful in showcasing that movies had the potential to match pre-pandemic box office expectations, the results ultimately left industry experts fearing that other films, especially from genres that weren’t of the superhero ilk, would not be able to survive at the box office.

“I’ve always maintained the box office is at its healthiest when there’s something for everyone,” says Chris Aronson, who leads domestic distribution at Paramount. “That’s what you’re seeing now. There’s something for everyone.”

Moreover, there are movies that audiences actually want to see on the big screen. According to exit polls from CinemaScore, recent releases like “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Elvis” and  “Jurassic World Dominion” earned grades in the “A” range from ticket buyers, indicating that audiences were pleased after leaving the theater. That kind of reception is important to fuel positive word-of-mouth and, in turn, to incentivize people to ditch HBO Max in favor of their local multiplex. It’s been an uphill battle for Hollywood studios since many high-profile movies landed directly on streaming services during the pandemic, conditioning moviegoers to wait to watch new releases at home.

But over the weekend, a wide range of offerings convinced people to part with their TV remotes. In a first for COVID times, four movies — “Elvis” ($30.5 million in its debut), “Top Gun: Maverick” ($30.5 million in its fifth weekend), “Jurassic World: Dominion” ($26.4 million in its third weekend) and “The Black Phone” ($23.3 million in its debut) — each grossed $20 million or more. Meanwhile a fifth, Disney’s Pixar film “Lightyear,” came close with $17 million.

“What a tremendous result,” says Jim Orr, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “You have tentpoles, family films, horror films, an adult drama/musical. It’s very encouraging going forward and a great sign that people really want to be back in theaters.”

A week earlier, the box office achieved another rarity: three movies — “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Lightyear” and “Top Gun: Maverick” — each earned more than $40 million between the Friday and Sunday stretch.

And the good fortunes look to continue next weekend as “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” the fifth installment in Universal and Illumination’s popular “Despicable Me” franchise, opens on the big screen. The animated comedy is expected to generate at least $65 million to $70 million in its debut over the July 4th holiday weekend.

Movie theater industry analysts believe the attendance surge is a combination of two factors: People are feeling more comfortable returning to the movies, and the films being released are worthy of shelling out hard-earned cash to see on the big screen.

There’s data to back up the first theory. A record-high 88% of moviegoers are “very or somewhat comfortable” going to the movies, according to the latest study from the National Research Group. Around a year ago, that percentage was closer to 59%. That means people are feeling better and better about returning to a darkened room with strangers, a reality that prevented many ticket buyers from going to the movies in the earlier days of the pandemic.

“Behavioral change is slow, and in the last two-plus years of the pandemic, people couldn’t go to the movie theater and got out of the habit,” says Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. Now, he observes, audiences are feeling excited to get back to cinemas. “Without a doubt, the marketplace is coming back.”

But things aren’t back to normal — yet. The box office is still down 33% compared to the same weekend in 2019. Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, says that’s because studios are releasing fewer movies than they have in the past.

“Audiences are showing up. There just aren’t as many choices,” Bock said. “That will change in summer 2023.”

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