- "Spider-Man: No Way Home" proves that audiences are ready to return to movie theaters, but the industry still faces major obstacles.
- Franchise films have always been popular and during the pandemic era they have been the strongest draw for cinemas.
- Conversely, films aimed at older audiences are having a harder time attracting moviegoers.
The opening weekend of "Spider-Man: No Way Home" was a welcome boost to the domestic box office.
Not only did the Sony-Marvel collaboration shatter box office sales records set prior to the pandemic by raking in proceeds from the second-highest weekend debut in history, it also ensured the U.S. cinema industry would tally more than $4 billion in total ticket sales for 2021.
"'No Way Home' proves that people will go back to cinemas if the right movie is there," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com
Since reopening to the public, movie theaters have had colossal ups and downs in ticket sales. The domestic box office has rebounded from historic lows in 2020, but has yet to reach the consistency seen prior to the pandemic.
Franchise films have always been popular and during the pandemic era they have been the strongest draw for cinemas. In fact, Spider-Man's $260 million opening haul is more than the total domestic gross of any movie released during the pandemic, according to Comscore data.
The three other Marvel Cinematic Universe titles released in 2021 — "Black Widow," "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" and "The Eternals" — all hold spots on the top six highest-grossing films of the year, alongside Sony's "Venom: Let There be Carnage" and Universal's "F9."
While these blockbuster features have rekindled faith in the future of the box office, concerns over new Covid variants as well as lackluster ticket sales for nonfranchise films could mean a slower recovery for the industry.
Since movie theaters reopened, films aimed at older audiences like "House of Gucci," "The Last Duel" and "West Side Story" have had a hard time drawing large crowds.
"Adult dramas, comedies, indie films. These have all been struggling before the pandemic and have come to a screeching halt during the pandemic," said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "In 2022, just looking at the release calendar, you can see Hollywood shifting away from these genres and angling more towards tentpoles even more than before."
While adult-pitched films often make less money than major tentpoles, they are still vitally important to the overall box office. Together, these so-called "mid-level" features contribute billions to the total annual haul, said Eric Handler, media and entertainment analyst at MKM Partners.
"The mid-level just seems to be gone right now," he said. "We are already seeing several films from the first quarter get pushed to the summer, so omicron is definitely spooking studios. People will clearly show up for the big blockbusters."
Paramount sold "Coming 2 America" to Amazon and "The Trial of the Chicago 7" to Netflix while Sony got a paycheck from HBO Max for Seth Rogen's "An American Pickle" and one from Hulu for the Kristen Stewart-led "Happiest Season."
Others, who foresee a solid payday at the box office, have continued to punt release dates further down the calendar. That list includes Paramount's "Top Gun: Maverick" and Universal's "Minions: The Rise of Gru."
"Streaming is always going to be the box office's biggest foe going forward," Bock said. "And this boils down to content and the creators of that content. With huge deals involving major talent, the streamers are syphoning A-list talent away from the big screen at a rate the industry has never seen before."
In the U.S., many movie theaters require audiences to wear masks, even if local and state governments don't have mandates. On Monday, Quebec shut down movie theaters across the province, but it's unlikely that a similar move would occur in the U.S. As the pandemic has worn on month after month, there has been less of an appetite for mask mandates and even less for lockdowns.
Still, there is hope for the future of the box office. Robbins noted that the new Spider-Man film brought many people to movie theaters who had not been inside one since the pandemic began. In doing so, the audience was able to experience the Covid-19 safety protocols in place at major chains and see new trailers for upcoming features. Such an experience could entice these first-timers to return in the near future, he said.
Next year also promises to have fewer, if any, hybrid releases from major studios. Many films underperformed this year in part because they were made available on streaming services at the same time they were launched in theaters. While this strategy was designed to allow people who were uncomfortable returning to cinemas to still watch major films, it also led to a massive spike in piracy and shrank box office sales.
"Looking at next year, I think the biggest tentpoles are in good shape," Handler said. "The sort of second-tier tentpole, they better be good. There will be a lift just by the fact that studios do seem to be leaning towards exclusive theatrical releases."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of "F9" and "House of Gucci."