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Summer Box Office 2023: ‘Barbenheimer’ Brought Audiences Back, But Uncertainty Around Strikes Could Capsize 2024

This summer’s box office is set to hit $4 billion for the 13th time ever, up 16% over last summer. Barbie and Oppenheimer, which together rep 22% of that figure, created a blast radius, finally bringing infrequent moviegoers back to cinemas after Covid had sidelined audiences.

However, with the ongoing strikes set to upset both the production and post-production pipeline, next summer may not be so rich.

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“The spring movies will wind up becoming the summer movies next year,” one box office insider predicts with doom and gloom.

Cosplayers hold Barbenheimer signs at San Diego Comic-Con
Cosplayers hold Barbenheimer signs at San Diego Comic-Con

How big was this summer in terms of demand? It was the season that made moviegoing a special participatory grab-your-friends-get-excited thing again, which the industry was even lacking in a bit despite the 2022 rally of Top Gun: Maverick and the previous 2021 carryover success of Spider-Man: No Way Home. It was a moment when 6 a.m. Imax showtimes for Oppenheimer were added at the last minute and sold out at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theater. It was the summer when girls dressed up in Barbie pink satin evening dresses and dudes as J. Robert Oppenheimer in fedoras and trench coats, crowding cinemas.

In total, there were 13 movies that grossed over $100 million this summer versus nine a year ago. Additionally, there were five movies that minted north of $200M, the same number as last summer.

In addition to the summer figures from comScore, admissions exploded to 330 million per EntTelligence for the May 5-September 4 frame, up 16% as well for the same frame a year ago.

It’s disappointing: Every time the industry feels like it’s getting its momentum back, a natural or unnatural disaster puts the theatrical business back on its heels. Regal just emerged from bankruptcy this summer, while AMC avoided Chapter 11 after it received the go-ahead to raise cash.

“It continues to be the same story, but to different background music: it’s two steps forward and two steps back,” says a studio marketing vet about the fits and starts of the domestic box office in recent years.

Taylor Swift Eras Tour concert movie
Taylor Swift onstage at SoFi Stadium

While the autumn box office season isn’t apt to be as bad as last year’s dry spell between August and late October with The Equalizer 3, Nun II, Universal’s Exorcist: The Believer and now Taylor Swift: Eras Tour on the schedule, the SAG-AFTRA strike spurred studios to subtract MGM’s Challengers, Sony’s Kraven the Hunter and Dune: Part Two from the schedule. That means there’s potentially close to $400 million missing from the 2023 marketplace. In fact, AMC’s lifesaving measure here during the strikes was the deal it arranged to distribute the Taylor Swift: Eras Tour concert movie, which has already racked up in excess of $10 million in ticket presales.

“The numbers this summer were fantastic and better than what we anticipated,” says Cinepolis VP of Film Joe Garel. “But we’re very cautious about the future.”

“If this summer proved anything, it’s that staying at home is fundamentally an untrue idea,” another source adds. “People want to have a premium experience outside the house, whether that’s Barbie or a Taylor Swift concert.”

‘Barbie’
‘Barbie’

Barbie appealed to a continually underserved audience from Hollywood: women. And the movie was marketed per producer and star Margot Robbie’s wishes like a superhero film for all. For those who don’t frequently attend movies, they decided early on that Barbie and Oppenheimer were one (or two) movies they were definitely going to see this year. EntTelligence says that over 50M people saw the Greta Gerwig-directed movie, with feature tracking analytics firm The Quorum reporting that the Warner Bros movie’s audience pulled in 55% infrequent moviegoers. Broken down, that’s 32% who attend every now and then, 11% who can’t recall the last movie they saw in theaters, and another 11% of which Barbie repped their first time in a movie theater post Covid. The Quorum also adds that when it came to Barbie‘s crowd, 45% said they enjoyed the cinema experience, but that moviegoing was expensive. It will take another film as exciting as Barbie to get them to go back. Another 40% said that Barbie reminded them of how much they enjoy going to the movies. Only 15% said that Barbie was a one-off experience for them.

Sound Of Freedom.
(L-R) Jim Caviezel and Javier Godino in ‘Sound of Freedom’

And it wasn’t just Barbie and Oppenheimer dynamiting the non-believers to the cinema, but Angel Studios’ Sound of Freedom as well. The indie drama did a reported $181M. Despite the buzz in the distribution community about overinflated grosses and the movie playing to empty theaters, there was still money being made by this movie, evident in comScore’s system by which circuits report their ticket sales. Sound of Freedom was a reminder of how Hollywood has fell greatly short in not repeating the 2014-2015 American Sniper phenomenon, which won over the heartland and red states with a $350.1M stateside take. There’s money in those cornfields.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in ‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in ‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’

Another takeaway of summer: The reality that we’re starving for more premium-format screens, which currently number 1,200. They are truly the catalysts of platinum movie experiences which crush the big-screen TV atmosphere at home and get people out. The three-week Imax booking of Oppenheimer boxed out Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One for a large share of Imax screens in its subsequent weeks. This is because of Nolan’s commitment to Imax on his films, using their cameras and launching the first time black-and-white Imax. Major studios, particularly this year with male-driven tentpole fare booked back-to-back, are notorious when it comes to dating on top of each other. It’s clear that the demand for PLFs and Imax are outweighing the supply. Consider the facts that PLF and Imax screens drove close to 50% of the opening-weekend gross for Oppenheimer and 42% for Dead Reckoning.

‘Oppenheimer’
‘Oppenheimer’

Now there are some who argue against increasing the supply of premium screens, that the relegation of them are confined to zoning. (Read, you’d never see two multiplexes touting Imax auditoriums in Century City since AMC already has a foothold with the large-format exhibitor there.) The concern is that the overbuilding of premium screens could create a Starbucks-like ubiquitous situation. Currently, the limited supply of Imax and certain PLFs has created an appointment-viewing situation for movies like Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Oppenheimer. However, movie industry, it’s time to grow up: Do we want to keep thriving at the box office, or cap tickets sales and cling to old ways? A slow, measured, planned build of ScreenXs and other premium formats won’t damage ticket sales. As French economist Jean-Baptiste Say exclaimed, “Supply creates its own demand.”

What will it take to keep the current domestic box office momentum, now up 25% over 2022 with $6.6 billion, on track? Cadence of product, plain and simple. The box office hasn’t slowed down since there has been a consistent amount of movies starting with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantomania. Also, it would be nice to have actors back promoting their films. No doubt, given the last-minute premieres of Barbie and Oppenheimer before the SAG-AFTRA strike deadline, actors and actresses make a hell of a difference when turning a movie into an event.

A Look at Next SummerAs It Currently Stands

At the time of this publication there’s a lot of TBD weekends reserved by the majors in a way that we’ve never seen before. Consider what’s listed below with a grain of salt.

Deadpool 3
Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman in ‘Deadpool 3’

May 3

Deadpool 3 (Dis/Marvel)
The movie will need to resume some shooting when the strikes are over. Should the strike throw it off course, it’s possible that Marvel could put Captain America: Brave New World back in this spot.

May 10

My Ex-Friend’s Wedding (Sony)

May 17
Untitled Universal event film

Anya Taylor-Joy will play Furiosa in the ‘Mad Max’ spinoff, a role made famous by Charlize Theron
Anya Taylor-Joy will play Furiosa in the ‘Mad Max’ spinoff, a role made famous by Charlize Theron

May 24
Memorial Day weekend fight here. We can see this breaking up as the amount of tentpoles here are too good to be true.
IF (Paramount)
Garfield (Sony)
Furiosa (WB)
Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (20th/Dis)

June 7
Ballerina (Lionsgate)
The Watchers (New Line)

June 14
Bad Boys 4 (Sony)
Inside Out 2 (Pixar/Disney)

June 21
Untitled Universal event film
Untitled DC event film

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in ‘Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One’
Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in ‘Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One’

June 28
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part Two (Par)
There are plans for the sequel to resume production after the strikes. Will it be completed in time? Spacing it from this summer’s Dead Reckoning isn’t a bad idea. That movie is one of the best reviewed Mission Impossibles at 96% certified fresh. Not to mention the movie is approaching $600M at the global box office to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny‘s $381M. Then again, it’s Independence Day weekend. Who would want to lose this release date. Still, it boils down to a quick resolution between the guilds and studios.

Horrorscape (Sony)

July 5
Mufasa: The Lion King (Dis)
Despicable Me 4 (Ill/Uni)
Untitled Angel Studios movie

July 12
Untitled Venom sequel (Sony)
Untitled New Line horror event (WB)

July 19
Twisters (Uni)

Anthony Mackie as Captain America
Anthony Mackie as Captain America

July 26
Captain America: Brave New World (Dis/Marvel)

Aug. 2
Harold and the Purple Crayon (Sony)
Trap (WB)

Aug 9

Borderlands (LG)
Speak No Evil (Uni)
Flint Strong (MGM)

Aug 16
Warner Bros/New Line event film
Alien reboot (20th)

Aug. 23
Kendrick Brothers movie (Sony)

Kraven the Hunter trailer
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in ‘Kraven the Hunter’

Aug. 30
Kraven the Hunter (Sony)
This is a real movie, which was suppose to come out during the first weekend of October. If it moves again, it’s only to move up.

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