For the first time in a long time, people are actually going to the movies.
After a delayed start to summer, Universal’s action franchise “F9: The Fast Saga,” Paramount’s thriller “A Quiet Place Part II” and the Warner Bros. monster movie “Godzilla vs. Kong” have each had a hand in putting butts in seats at otherwise mostly empty multiplexes. With the release of every new major blockbuster, the domestic box office has continued to set records (which, of course, come with a COVID-19 shaped asterisk), a trend that industry watchers are hoping will continue when Disney and Marvel’s superhero adventure “Black Widow” arrives next weekend on the big screen. The Scarlett Johansson-led comic book adaptation will also be available on Disney Plus for a $30 rental fee.
Yet, a noble assist from a hulking Dom Toretto, a fearless Emily Blunt, and Godzilla and Kong hasn’t been enough to help the box office keep pace with years past. As 2021 reaches its midpoint, Variety is assessing how the movie theater industry is recovering from the pandemic and stacking up against pre-COVID days.
The box office is still a ways away from reaching pre-pandemic levels
The aforementioned “F9” ($123 million), “A Quiet Place Part II” ($145 million) and “Godzilla vs. Kong” ($100 million) may be the closest the U.S. and Canada gets to true summer blockbusters. (Add “Black Widow,” “The Suicide Squad” and “Jungle Cruise” into the mix when those movies debut this month and next.) It’s an impressive rebound given the rise in streaming services and lingering hesitancy about going to the movies, but it’s a far cry from the era when popcorn season tentpoles like “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” pulled in between $300 million to $800 million in North America alone.
With pandemic limitations in mind, as of early July, the overall domestic box office has reached $1.05 billion in ticket sales, down 42.3% from 2020 and down 81.3% from 2019. At the same point in 2020, North American revenues had tallied $1.825 billion because the movie business had been operating normally until the middle of March and had seen commercial triumphs with “Sonic The Hedgehog” and “Bad Boys for Life.” By July of 2019, the box office had hit $5.6 billion thanks to the combined success of “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
But week after week, ticket sales are gradually seeing an uptick
As the movie theater business mounts a revival, the box office has returned in fits and starts. But since May, the trajectory of the box office has mostly started to improve on a weekly basis since brick and mortar movie theaters have been reopening in earnest and Hollywood studios have finally been opening new movies theatrically. Over the July 4th celebrations, “F9,” “The Boss Baby: Family Business” and “The Forever Purge” propelled domestic box office revenues to $71 million. While that total is a significant decline from non-COVID times, it represented the third-best weekend of the pandemic. It’s also marked improvement from the summer of 2020 when roughly 1,000 theaters were open, many of which were drive-in locations, and revenues for a single weekend barely reached $1 million in total.
At the same time, more movie theaters have been able to reopen their doors
It’s been rough out there for movie theater owners. After a desolate 18 months, the finances of most film exhibitors are in rough shape, leading many to make tough decisions about whether or not to turn the lights back on. Now, with a steady stream of new releases to grace the big screen, cinemas across the country have started to reopen to a significant degree.
There are currently 4,698 theaters in North America that are open for business (the exact number fluctuates daily), an improvement from the 1,341 venues that were open in 2020 but still down from the 5,839 locations that were open in 2019. The number of cinemas that have reopened continues to improve each week, though 19% of multiplexes in North America — many of which are in Canada — remain shuttered.
So how is the rest of 2021 expected to stack up?
After this weekend, Hollywood studios are ready to cap off summer with a series of blockbuster-hopefuls including “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and the G.I. Joe spinoff “Snake Eyes.” Industry analysts have been encouraged that rest of this year’s popcorn seaseon slate will lead to a robust fall, which is poised to feature Disney and Marvel’s “Eternals,” Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” and director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” It may not be one for the record books, but it looks to be a positive step forward for the struggling movie theater industry.
“The upcoming slate of films looks to continue a positive trend of recovery for the business,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “As more and more theaters open for business, the industry is counting on the early promise of a strong recovery now [to] carry forward into 2022 and beyond.”