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Box office almost back to pre-Covid levels


Zoran Zeremski | Istock | Getty Images

For nearly three years, the domestic box office has been chasing the highs of the pre-pandemic era, hoping that blockbuster franchise films would fill seats and sell popcorn.

While superheroes, fighter pilots and blue aliens have lured moviegoers back to cinemas, it’s the recent steady stream of mid-budgeted films from a wide variety of genres that has bolstered ticket sales.

“We’re actually catching up with 2019 levels,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Remember: 2019 was no slouch. It was the second-highest box office year with $11.4 billion.”

The performance of the 2019 box office has become the benchmark for the industry in recent years as it represents the last full year of theatrical normalcy before the Covid pandemic.

Since movie theaters reopened to the public in late 2020, the domestic box office has steadily recovered, generating significantly higher ticket sales each year. Last year, the box office reached $7.5 billion, up 64% from the $4.58 billion in ticket sales seen in 2021. But, it lagged around 34% from 2019.

Industry analysts attributed the smaller box office to a more limited inventory of theatrical releases, not a general disinterest by consumers to return to cinemas. After all, the number of wide releases, those that open in more than 2,000 locations, was down just about the same percentage as the over all box-office totals.

A lifelike doll programmed to be a child’s greatest companion and a parent’s greatest ally turns murderous in Universal Studios and Blumhouse’s “M3GAN.”

Universal

In 2023, that volume is coming back and it’s “driving a healthier market overall,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.

Between January and March 31, studios opened 18 wide releases, a 25% drop from the 24 released during the same period in 2019. Similarly, the first-quarter box office in 2023 also lags by 25%, generating around $1.8 billion during the first three months of the year, compared with $2.4 billion in 2019.

The number of film releases is important to the industry. In 2022, there were only 16 wide releases during the first quarter, and the box office generated $400 million less in ticket sales, tallying $1.41 billion.

Both Dergarabedian and Robbins told CNBC that blockbusters and franchise films are important, but a steady stream of low- to mid-tier budget movies is also critical to the overall success of the industry.

While Disney‘s “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” alongside Warner Bros.‘ “Creed III” and Universal’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” were the top-performing films during the first three months of the year, original titles like “M3GAN,” “Jesus Revolution” and “Cocaine Bear” delivered strong results, boosting the overall box office.

“The most encouraging sign to me is that there’s more variety then there was last year,” Robbins said.

He noted that there were more titles for adult audiences, like “80 For Brady” and “A Man Called Otto,” as well as more genre films like “Plane,” “65” and “Knock at the Cabin.”

And that kind of variety is appealing to potential moviegoers. Around 33% of consumers said they would go to theaters more if the box office offered a wider array of film genres and choices, according to new study by United Talent Agency.

The survey, which polled 2,000 U.S. people aged 15 through 69, also found that 75% of respondents planned to go out to the movies more often in 2023, compared with 2022.

And there are plenty of films for moviegoers to see. Robbins and Dergarabedian both noted that the 2023 slate will improve as we enter the second quarter of the year:

April

  • “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” — Wednesday
  • “Air” — Wednesday
  • “Paint” — Friday
  • “Renfield” — April 14
  • “The Pope’s Exorcist” — April 14
  • “Evil Dead Rise” — April 21
  • “Beau is Afraid” — April 21
  • “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” — April 28

May

  • “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” — May 5
  • “Fast X” — May 19
  • “The Little Mermaid” — May 26

June

  • “The Boogeyman” — June 2
  • “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” — June 2
  • “Strays” — June 9
  • “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” — June 9
  • “Elemental” — June 16
  • “The Flash” — June 16
  • “Asteroid City” — June 23
  • “Joy Ride” — June 23
  • “Harold and the Purple Crayon” — June 30
  • “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” — June 30

“It’s a killer slate,” Dergarabedian said, noting that the second quarter doesn’t include all of the summer movie season or titles like “Barbie,” “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” or “Oppenheimer.”

And with more people venturing out to see movies, Robbin foresees a windfall. Movie theaters are where most moviegoers see trailers for upcoming releases and will likely inspire audiences to return again and again to their local cinema to see new films.

“I firmly believe moviegoing begets moviegoing,” Robbins said.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of Universal and CNBC.

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