2023 Box Office Preview: Is It Time for the Pandemic Grading Curve to End?

If you are a movie theater operator looking for some good news about the 2023 box office, here’s a statistic that will bring you hope. If you are someone who bemoans Hollywood’s lack of originality, turn away:

There are currently 38 franchise films — sequels, prequels, spinoffs, IP adaptations combined — that are currently set for release this year. This comes after a 2022 where there were only 18 films that grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office, and none of the top 10 were from original screenplays.

Even before COVID-19 was on the minds of an entire planet, big, familiar blockbusters reigned supreme at the box office, but in 2022 they seemed to rule at the expense of almost any other kind of film. The fact that more of those kinds of films are on the 2023 slate is a reason why multiple analysts and studio execs tell TheWrap that they expect the year’s annual domestic total to reach $8.25-9 billion, up from the estimated $7.36 billion seen last year.

While that’s an improvement, that is of course short of the $11 billion-plus totals that were seen between 2015 and 2019, and it’s completely possible that such levels of business for movie theaters might not ever come back, as turnout for awards contenders, festival darlings, and even some mainstream genres like comedy and middlebrow dramas have dried up since cinemas reopened.

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In 2021 and the early months of 2022, those low numbers were judged on a curve, as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to weigh down moviegoing and studios were very unsure about which kinds of films would work theatrically. But this year, with audiences showing via “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick” that they can come back in droves like before, there won’t be any pandemic curves to soften the blow if a film flops in 2023.

“The gloves have to come off,” said Chris Aronson, President of Domestic Distribution at Paramount. “We can’t judge the box office on the pandemic curve forever. We saw last year that people will come back for the right movies, so as more films get added to the slate, we need to seriously look at what the audience sees nowadays as a film they want to buy a ticket for; and both studios and theaters need to start looking at ways to attract audiences back to the films that they don’t seem to think are worth seeing on the big screen.”

Those hard appraisals that Aronson mentioned begin now, as the year begins with a post-holiday period that ended up being a two-month slump last year. This time around should be better with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” and Blumhouse newcomer “M3GAN” providing a bit more sustenance for theaters through January while Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will provide the February slate with a blockbuster that it didn’t have in 2022.

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But on the flip side, expect the Oscar bump for Best Picture nominees, once a reliable pillar for the box office prior to the pandemic, to remain in its grave. Of the films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture this year, only “Avatar 2,” which doesn’t need the Oscars to drum up interest, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” a film that already has become too polarizing to gain a significant mainstream following, and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” a film that confronts sexism and domestic abuse at a time when dramas that tackle real-life issues have been ignored by the public, have any significant theatrical play between now and Oscar Sunday on March 12.

The others, from blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” to auteur-driven dramas “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Tár” have already completed their theatrical run and are available on streaming and digital platforms, a result driven mainly by a shortened theatrical window. Any interest in seeing those Best Picture nominees will be driven to those home platforms, taking away what was once a reliable pillar of the early-year theatrical market alongside Christmas holdovers.

With that revenue stream dry and prestige films in general flailing, a portion of the pre-pandemic market that brought in moviegoers who weren’t interested in a blockbuster has barely recovered from the pandemic. Without it, it’s hard to see annual domestic totals ever getting back to $11 billion unless it happens by inflation.

“The prestige films that have come out so far have been very somber, and that’s not what most people want. There hasn’t even been something like an ‘American Hustle’ or a ‘Hidden Figures,’ and people are getting their fix for those kinds of stories from streaming shows like ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘The Crown,'” said Boxoffice Pro analyst Shawn Robbins.

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The one possible hope to get those older moviegoers back on a consistent basis? Maybe some lighter fare tailored to them. “Elvis,” a characteristically over-the-top biopic from Baz Luhrmann about the King of Rock that captivated the interest of the over-50 crowd and attracted a good number of younger moviegoers as well. Universal’s “Ticket to Paradise” also enjoyed some success this fall with the same audience, offering a fun, exotic romcom starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

With that in mind, it will be intriguing to see how broad comedies aimed outside the 18-35 demo do this year, such as Paramount’s “80 for Brady” starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, and Sally Field as well as “Book Club 2,” a sequel to Paramount’s 2019 comedy that grossed $104 million worldwide and will be released by Focus Features in May.

On the animated front, the 2023 slate sees a bit of a twist. While Sony, Universal and Paramount all have franchise animated films with “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” all coming out from those respective studios, Disney will try to rebound from the bombs of “Lightyear” and “Strange World” with a pair of original films.

Neither Pixar’s “Elemental” nor Disney Animation’s “Wish” are likely to or need to make $1 billion worldwide to be hits, but grossing over $500 million is probably key. If either film fails to make that mark, the murmurs around whether Disney’s push to prioritize streaming under former CEO Bob Chapek cost them their ability to draw families to theaters will get louder.

Marvel Studios

Regardless of that, Disney will have a big presence at the box office as they always do, thanks to Marvel films like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” a live-action/CGI remake of “The Little Mermaid,” and Harrison Ford’s blockbuster finale “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” Those films headline a stacked summer slate that also includes Universal’s “Fast X,” Paramount’s “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” Warner Bros./DC’s “The Flash” and “Blue Beetle,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” his first film after moving from Warner to Universal.

But none of those films may end up being the top grosser of 2023. That might go to Tom Cruise and Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning: Part One.” The success of “Top Gun: Maverick” gave the 60-year-old Cruise his first $1 billion hit and arguably made him more popular than he has ever been. That could spill over to “Mission: Impossible,” which isn’t exactly the same as “Top Gun” but may still be enough for moviegoers looking for another hit of Cruise’s unique brand of action.

Fortunately, the big films won’t just be confined to the summer. The spring slate includes films like MGM’s “Creed III” and Lionsgate’s “John Wick: Chapter 4,” while the fall includes Sony’s “The Equalizer 3,” Universal’s reboot of “The Exorcist,” and Warner Bros. and Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Dune.”

Alone, these films won’t be Marvel or “Fast & Furious”-level moneymakers, but together, they should make it less likely that the box office will fall into the deep slumps that we saw last year. They should also create more awareness of films coming in the later half of the year and 2024 thanks to the trailers that will be playing in front of these popular films, building the momentum that only came to the box office in fits and starts in 2022.

“We saw last year how much losing momentum hurt the industry,” said Robbins. “People need to be incentivized to get back in the habit of moviegoing, and only having several well-liked films come out in succession will do that.”

Creed III

It is this mix of optimism and pessimism that will likely define the film industry in 2023. On one hand, all the pieces are in place for the biggest sectors of the box office to regain the consistency that they had before COVID. On the other hand, the independent and specialty sectors face existential crises, and renewed success for tentpoles, horror and animation won’t be enough to restore the industry back to where it was in 2019, when it felt like any film, from “Avengers: Endgame” to arthouse fare like “Parasite” and “RBG” could turn a theatrical profit.

At the very least, studios and exhibitors will be looking for all segments of the box office to see some sort of progress, and any lack of progress cannot be blamed on COVID fears anymore. Each film has its own unique challenges when it comes to attracting audiences to theaters, but if certain genres continue to languish on the charts and the prestige depression continues for another year, we may find ourselves in 2024 being forced to conclude that the theatrical marketplace, to a certain extent, has been permanently diminished.

“Wherever we are in 12 months, barring some unforeseen, pandemic-like catastrophe, will probably be the new normal going forward,” Robbins said.