Movies have momentum headed into the second half of 2022, if inflation doesn't spoil it

Key Points
  • "Top Gun: Maverick" rocketed to $1 billion at the global box office over the weekend, signaling some momentum for the domestic box office.
  • A string of solid theatrical performances coupled with a strong slate of upcoming films has left most box office analysts optimistic.
  • But inflation threatens to slow the rebound as moviegoers weigh rising prices.
Tom Cruise in "Top Gun: Maverick"
Source: Paramount

"Top Gun: Maverick" rocketed to $1 billion at the global box office over the weekend, setting a new career milestone for star Tom Cruise and signaling some momentum for the domestic box office as it heads into the second half of the year.

The Paramount and Skydance film is the second feature to reach the $1 billion benchmark since March 2020, when the Covid pandemic halted production and shut down theaters. Box office analysts are hanging hopes for a strong second half of 2022 on the domestic ticket sales for "Maverick" — around $520.8 million of its total haul.

As of Sunday, the domestic box office has generated $3.63 billion in ticket sales, up more than 263% compared with last year. While the tally still lags 2019, down about 33%, a string of solid theatrical performances coupled with a strong slate of upcoming films has left most box office analysts optimistic about future ticket sales, despite economic pressures.

"Even with a third-less content, summer 2022 is rolling along as audiences and theaters have found their cinematic groove," said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "With five films in double digits this past weekend, it's a surefire sign that momentum is on the side of studios again."

Over the weekend, "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Elvis" each brought in around $30 million domestically, "Jurassic World: Dominion" added $26.4 million, Toy Story spin-off "Lightyear" tallied $17.6 million and "The Black Phone" premiered with $23.7 million, according to data from Comscore.

"The issue this summer, is that after the first couple weeks of July, and especially August, will the movie momentum continue with largely original films?" Bock said. "That's going to be key for the industry. Look, we know blockbuster IP is back, but that was never really in question since 'Spider-Man: No Way Home.' What will be very telling, is how films perform in late-July and August."

Experts foresee the domestic box office reaching between $7.5 billion and $8 billion this year, about 30% to 35% off the $11.4 billion generated in 2019 — but that's only if non-franchise films can drive incremental tickets sales between big budget releases and moviegoers don't get scared away by rising prices.

While the movie theater biz has long been considered "recession proof" because ticket prices are traditionally lower than other forms of entertainment, consumers could cut back on cinema visits as other costs balloon. Inflation is surging at rates not seen in four decades, according to recent government data.

"The effects of rampant inflation on the pocketbook may prove to be the biggest challenge for the industry as audiences who are naturally becoming more selective on what they spend their hard-earned money will be more finicky than ever when it comes to the decision head to the multiplex," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Audiences will have a lot of content to choose from in the coming months. On the docket is Disney and Marvel's "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" as well as Warner Bros. and DC's "Black Adam" and "Shazam: Fury of the Gods." Universal is set to release "Minions: The Rise of Gru" as well as Jordan Peele's "Nope," and Sony has the hotly anticipated "Bullet Train."

Capping off the year will be Disney's "Avatar: The Way of Water," the first planned sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time.

"There is no greater sign of a return to normalcy for the box office than a movie marketplace replete with a diverse lineup of films all jockeying for position on the weekend chart delivering a combination of hits and misses," Dergarabedian said.

Already 2022's slate is outperforming features released in 2021, which saw Disney's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" as the highest-grossing domestic release of the year, with $225 million in ticket sales, until Sony's "Spider-Man: No Way Home" nabbed $573 million in late December.

"This summer is generally meeting, if not exceeding, expectations to that end with a robust release schedule that isn't depending on just one film," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "There's something for everyone in theaters right now, and high comfort levels are coinciding to produce the latest progression of moviegoing's rebound. Theaters are back and thriving."

"Maverick" is the highest-grossing domestic title for the year, followed by "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," which generated $409 million in the U.S. and Canada, then "The Batman" with $369.3 million and "Jurassic World: Dominion" with $303 million.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of "Minions: The Rise of Gru," "Nope," "Jurassic World: Dominion" and "The Black Phone."