The Future of the Box Office


The movies are officially back! Not only are they back to our screens at home but they are once again lighting up the big screen at the theater nearest you. As covid restrictions slowly uplifted across the country, movie theaters (that survived the 2020 closures) were quick to open up their doors, allowing for production companies to get their highly anticipated blockbusters back on screen and back in the box office. However, movie debuts look a little different in 2021.

Believe it or not, when theaters began opening back up earlier this year, not everyone was rushing to sit in a crowded room for 2+ hours after months of safely enjoying movies from the comfort of their homes. Studios anticipated the slow return and opted to use streaming services to bring their movies to more people. HBO Max, Disney+ and Prime Video are the 3 main streaming services that began offering their subscribers the opportunity to watch films as they were premiering in cinemas and sometimes even before.

While releasing these films to streaming services has likely brought films to the eyes of people who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to see them, filmmakers have not had the most positive reaction to this latest development in the structure of movie releases. Steven Spielberg, Patty Jenkins, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan are just a few of the directors that have voiced their negative opinions about streaming releases. While some took the position of calling it a threat to movie theaters, Jenkins described films on streaming services as “fake movies” while Nolan went as far as calling HBO Max “the worst streaming service.”

However, with these directors collecting millions of dollars over the years from people viewing their films in theaters, you have to ask: Is this hatred rooted in the preservation of the quality of movies, or is it (like most things) more so about streaming releases taking money out of the box office. Let’s take a look at just how much the box office has changed in the past 3 years and while the effects of covid on movie theaters were felt worldwide, the box office numbers we are looking at here will be limited to the domestic totals.

The box office numbers reported here are taken from Box Office Mojo by IMDb Pro.

2019: Once Upon a Time… Pre Covid

From start to finish, 2019 brought us some of the strongest films to ever hit the box office. The highest-grossing films of the year were: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen II, Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Each of these films also ranked within the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time, with Endgame battling it out with Avatar for the top spot before eventually settling into its place as the second highest-grossing film of all time.

This was also the year that gave us Parasite. The film that would go on to win best picture at the 2020 Oscars, making history as the first foreign-language film to ever win this award. The Oscars has never been about awarding the films that made the most money so it’s no surprise that Parasite was not the highest-grossing film in the best picture category that year. That would actually be Joker, which brought in over $334 million.

The year-end domestic box office totals rounded out to almost $9.5 billion making 2019 a great year for film both creatively and financially. This made the 2020 fall that much more devastating to the industry and movie lovers all over the world.

2020: Masks Out

Theaters began to shut down in March 2020 as states around the country were advised against any gatherings of more than 10 people. As a ripple effect, distributors like Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. pushed back the release of some of their highly anticipated films with the hope that we’d be returning to theaters in no time. As we all know, this was not the case. The highest-grossing films (domestically) of 2020 were Bad Boys for Life, 1917 and Sonic the Hedgehog, which is a pretty accurate picture of just how underwhelming the films released that year were. Bad Boys topped off the list with $204 million while 1917 and Sonic followed behind with $158 million and $146 million respectively.

Most of the films released after March quickly found their way to streaming services which is likely where the majority of people were able to watch and enjoy them. This switch to streaming and endless postponements were clearly seen in the box office totals with 2020 bringing in… prepare yourself…only $2 billion (domestically). Any normal person would look at $2 billion and be overjoyed but when it comes to box office totals, it’s truly devastating. More specifically, it’s a 79% decrease from 2019 box office numbers. But maybe, 2021 will be the light at the end of the tunnel.

2021: Let There Be Movies

Now the return to the movies was not immediate and was arguably anticlimactic but it did happen. This past summer, movie theaters began to open back up, promising moviegoers a clean and safe moviegoing experience. So far, we’ve gotten Shang-Chi, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Black Widow, F9, No Time to Die and most recently, Eternals. Each of which has made its mark on the box office. Shang-Chi currently tops this year’s list at $224 million while the 2021 box office YTD (domestic) total sits at just over $3 billion.

$3 billion may be a 66% decrease from pre-covid 2019 box office totals, but it is a 60% increase from 2020, signifying that the industry is on the mend. With only one month

left in the year, it is highly unlikely that the totals will reach anywhere near those of 2019. Like most things in the world today, we may not see a “return to normal” in the box office anytime soon.

Now, these numbers could also be used to argue the point of streaming service releases being a detriment to movie theaters. 2020 was the year that streaming services began putting newly released movies onto their platforms and it was also the year that the box office tanked. However, there is no way we can not take into consideration covid’s impact on the 2020 box office numbers. For a while, it was not safe to go to theaters to see our favorite films play out on the big screen but going to the movies is about the experience. It is that very experience that is bringing people back and it is likely what will keep the industry alive.

Whether streaming services compromise the overall quality of the films being put out is a whole separate conversation. But at the end of the day, quantifiable evidence that streaming releases will ultimately cause the failure of the modern moviegoing experience is limited due to the very important extraneous variable that is COVID-19. Box office numbers are down but with films like West Side Story, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The King’s Man, The Matrix Resurrections, Morbius and Uncharted on the horizon, those numbers are sure to continue on their upward climb.

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