March 3, 2024

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The Box Office: A New Normal (Pt. 2)

Good morning! Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, one of the most hotly-anticipated movies of 2024, has won acclaim from critics and audiences alike… which is exactly what America’s box office needs after a string of record-low weekends, worryingly high-profile flops, and one of the lowest-grossing months of the 21st century. Join us as we take a temperature check of the silverscreen, exploring ticket sales, superhero fatigue, sequelitis, and more.

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Sleep year

Covid era aside, 2024 has been one of the drowsiest starts to a cinematic year for almost 3 decades: January faltered, and theaters are just about crawling away from last month — enthused by the promise of Dune 2 — with hopes of leaving one of the weakest months in modern box office history firmly in the rear view mirror. Indeed, if you exclude the pandemic years (2020-2022), then February 2024 was the lowest-grossing month at the US box office since September 1997 — and that’s not even accounting for inflation.

RIP the golden age of cinema

While Jan and Feb have long been known as The Dump Months — a period when Hollywood studios clean house and release some of their less choice offerings — last month’s $362 million total domestic gross figure could be a reflection not only of a quieter slate, but of a more troubling fact: that the box office is never going back to what it once was.

Even the old reliable superhero genre hasn’t been enough to boost this year’s lackluster takings. Sony’s latest installment in its ever-tangling series of Spiderman-adjacent movies, Madame Web, has so far served only as a cultural and critical punching bag following 2 disappointing weekends that saw it recoup just $79 million around the world — some way off its estimated $150-200 million break-even threshold. Dune 2 has a lot of pressure on its shoulders.

Fantastic fall

Whether you, like Martin Scorsese, think that Marvel’s gargantuan cast of characters and other superhero films have devoured the concept of “cinema” as we know it, spitting out a vague blob where one of the most beloved art forms once stood, or you think they’re frankly just a lot of fun for a couple of hours, there’s no denying that supers have lost some of their powers.

In 2021, superhero films took a record-breaking 32% share of the domestic box office, more than any other single genre, according to box office data site The Numbers. That year, Marvel had just kicked off its multi-billion dollar Multiverse saga, releasing 4 films which ended up grossing a staggering ~$3.1 billion worldwide, some $1.4 billion of which was in North America alone, while Sony’s Venom sequel did $214 million at home and $507 million around the globe.

Déjà vu

Since then, however, the fortunes of the genre — whose films have been criticized for boiling down to “keep glowy thing away from bad guy” — haven’t burned as brightly. Take 2023, for example, when Marvel released The Marvels; an effort that ended up being its lowest-grossing picture of all time and the only one not to make $100 million domestically. All told, superhero movies accounted for just under 17% of the domestic box office last year, as critics continued to explore the death of the genre with increasing fervor.

This year, mostly owing to the aforementioned disaster that is Madame Web, the figure has slumped further to just ~10% at the time of writing — however, with some big-name sequels and threequels lined up in 2024, that is likely to tick up a little before the year is out. While it’s yet to be seen if a fleet of follow ups in the super space will be enough to reinvigorate the genre, pitching sequels and reboots remains a reliable strategy for studios.

Sequels part 2: into the unknown

Indeed, though we’ve charted about “sequelitis” a lot in the past, filmmakers' appetite for risk only appears to be diminishing. Recent analysis from EntTelligence, for example, revealed that just 5 of the 60 highest grossing films since 2016 (not including 2020) can be classified as “true original” titles, as opposed to sequels, IP reboots or rehashes.

While complaining about sequels is nothing new, the proliferation of second, third, fourth, and fifth parts has had a profound effect on the titles of the biggest movies on our screens.

Digits and dots

Looking at the 10 biggest movies of each year from 1995 to 2000, just 7 movie titles contained numbers or colons that denoted a sequel, such as The Lost World: Jurassic Park from ‘97 or Toy Story 2 from ‘99. Since then, however, a world building surge has meant that movie makers (and marketing departments) have needed to change up title formats, slipping in subtitles preceded by colons, or nudging numbers into whichever Fast and Furious installment they’re onto now. Indeed, nearly half of the top grossing films of the last 5 years contained either a colon or numerical figure that indicated sequel status.

We may not even have seen “peak sequel”. In 2023 book You Are What You Watch, Walt Hickey posits an interesting distinction: sequels and movies that rely on old IP aren’t born from crazed searches for profit, but rather on the studios’ need for a reliable means of “not losing money” — tried and tested remakes appeal to “risk-aversion motivation”, offering a rare reprieve for the industry as eyes shift elsewhere.

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The alternaTV

From a pure ticket sales perspective, peak cinema was all the way back in the early 2000s. But, whilst movie tickets — unlike those for concerts or the Super Bowl — have broadly risen in line with inflation since the late 60s fewer and fewer of us are making the effort to get down to our local screens to watch the latest releases. In addition to the obvious answer “it’s because of streaming”, another factor is simply that getting a quality experience at home is increasingly affordable.

Home cinema

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the cost of televisions as a category have fallen an astounding 98% since 2000. A 55-inch TV, which even 15 years ago would have cost a smallfortune, can now be picked up for just $250 from any number of retailers.

So, despite the stratospheric success of some stand out blockbusters like Tom Cruise’s Top Gun follow up, the Avatar sequel, and Barbenheimer last year, the US box office still hasn’t quite bounced back to where it was before theaters were shuttered across America. If there’s one thing we know about Hollywood, however, it’s that everyone’s always holding out for a strong follow up.

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