Disney’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” completed the Herculean task of getting audiences to go to theaters for a shirtless Chris Hemsworth and… OK maybe that’s not too heavy a lift given that the fourth standalone Marvel movie about the hunky God of Thunder opened to the tune of $143 million at the domestic box office.
But “Thor 4,” which impressively scored a mightier start than its 2017 predecessor “Ragnarok” ($123 million), as well as the third-biggest opening weekend of the year, marks another important box office victory as the industry attempts to rebuild itself during the pandemic era. As the second consecutive movie to deliver a $100 million-plus debut, “Love and Thunder” also continues an unexpectedly robust summer movie season, following the successes of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” and “Elvis.”
With those back-to-back-to-back triumphs (and a speed bump or two… ahem, “Pixar’s “Lightyear”), the summer box office has generated $2.27 billion between May and June 10, according to Comscore. Those returns are 217% above the same period in 2021 and just 12% behind the identical frame in 2019, which suggests that the doomsayers were wrong and people haven’t forgotten about the movies.
But where does popcorn season go from here? Hollywood studios have already unloaded their sure-fire hits, leaving the rest of this summer’s movie slate — Paramount’s family comedy “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” (July 15), Jordan Peele’s thriller “Nope” (July 22), “DC League of Super-Pets” (July 29), Brad Pitt’s “Bullet Train” (Aug. 5) and Idris Elba’s “Beast” (Aug. 19) — to look like a series of question marks. Any film on that lineup could turn into a sleeper hit, but it has box office analysts wondering: Will “Thor: Love and Thunder” be this summer’s last hurrah, or are there be more box office surprises in store?
“Late July and August are generally when the summer starts slowing down, but overall, July is going to be a very good month,” predicts David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, pointing to holdover business from “Minions” and “Thor,” as well as newcomers like “Nope.” He adds, “Very little has missed.”
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst, is optimistic because the adage that success begets success is especially true at the movies.
“There’s a tremendous amount of momentum going,” he says. “We have a good shot of having a very solid rest of the summer.”
However, the upcoming movies on deck are comparatively fallible because, for the most part, they are original films that don’t have the added benefit of built-in fanbases. That means in order to get people to the big screen, those movies have to stir up the kind of word-of-mouth that convinced people to show up to “Top Gun: Maverick” in droves (for seven weeks in a row).
Except for “Elvis,” the recent box office victories of “Love and Thunder,” “Dominion” and “The Rise of Gru” had a leg up because they hailed from popular franchises or, in the case of “Maverick,” served as a nostalgia-fueled sequel to an enduring ’80s era blockbuster.
“The fresh original stories are always the biggest challenge,” Gross says. “Let’s see how this next leg goes.”
Though Peele is essentially a brand unto himself, having twice captured the zeitgeist with 2017’s “Get Out” and 2019’s “Us,” his next nightmarish vision “Nope” will rely heavily on reviews to drive ticket sales beyond opening weekend. Likewise, “Bullet Train” and “Beast” boast big stars and compelling pitches, but neither will be able to rely on the charism of Pitt or Elba to drive ticket buyers to the box office. All three films will rely on positive word-of-mouth to not just get people to cinemas, but then have them tell their friends about it. And while “Paws of Fury” and “DC League of Super-Pets” look to charm family audiences, those release dates are awfully close for two kid-friendly films about talking cats and dogs.
“The ‘glass half full’ takeaway here,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro, “is that the industry is going into a projected slowdown not due to consumer caution or health concerns, but simply due to the strength of studio release schedules.”
Privately, theater owners are griping that Hollywood studios are releasing fewer movies than they used to, which is contributing to lower overall grosses. Though July is expected to have 11 new major movies (one more than July 2019), the number of nationwide releases continue to trail pre-pandemic times.
“This is a different looking business today: lean and profitable, and for now, smaller, but growing again,” Gross adds. “Creatively, the films are delivering, and if they continue to do that, then 2022 should finish [..] with a strong second half of the year.”
Box office watchers believe that new ideas like “Nope” and “Bullet Train” can thrive alongside conventional tentpoles “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” Should those films succeed in theaters, it’ll be another encouraging sign to Hollywood and cinema operators alike that any obituaries about the exhibition industry were prematurely written. But there is still plenty to be determined about the box office fate for any films that aren’t related to a major franchise or don’t feature comic book characters.
“August has been called the dog days for years so this feels positively normal,” Dergarabedian says. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can end up being surprised.”