As Hollywood studios battle pandemic fallout and feed movies to streaming services, audiences can expect far fewer theatrical releases than usual in 2022. Business over the next 12 months should help clarify the implications a lighter release schedule will have on the exhibition business.
The major studios have slated 71 films — ranging from superhero adventures “The Batman,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Spider- Man: Across the Spider-Verse” to Jordan Peele’s mind-bender “Nope,” Olivia Wilde’s thriller “Don’t Worry Darling” and James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar” sequel — to open in theaters.
That’s a notable uptick compared with 2021 (57 new releases) and 2020 (34 new releases), a stretch that comes with a COVID- shaped asterisk because cinemas spent many months shuttered or operating at reduced capacity. However, the total number of films scheduled for 2022 has decreased from 2019 and 2018 (the most recent “normal” period at the box office), in which 81 movies were released each year. The downturn isn’t only because box office receipts have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels; it also reflects the push from studios to bulk up the streaming services owned by their parent companies.
While the movie theater industry regains strength in a world that’s been permanently altered by COVID, the number of new releases in 2022 could keep fluctuating. Already, studios have amended the calendar, and the trend could continue if “Spider- Man: No Way Home” proves to be the only movie to sell tickets. Disney recently decided to not give its Pixar animated feature “Turning Red” a planned theatrical release and put it directly on Disney Plus instead, and Universal announced that “Marry Me,” a Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy, will premiere day and date on Peacock.
For theater operators, it’s valid to question how the slump in blockbuster-hopefuls will impact the overall marketplace. Though sales have been improving, box office receipts remain much lower than they were in non-COVID times. North American revenues in 2021 reached $4.4 billion, a 91% increase from 2020 but a 61% drop from 2019. That gap should continue to shrink in 2022. But can superhero spectacles, sequels in popular series and scary stories sustain the entire industry?
“Anytime you’re losing 12% of your product, you’re facing an uphill box office battle,” says Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It’s also worth noting the stakes are higher than ever, with streaming ballooning while theatrical sales are deflating.”
Broken down by studio: Universal plans to release 27 films (including six from indie division Focus Features), more than double its closest rivals. Sony will put out 13 films, Warner Bros. will have 12, Disney will debut 11 (including six from 20th Century) and Paramount will premiere nine movies in theaters. (Though independent movies remain important to movie theaters, those films can be hit or miss in terms of revenue and therefore less mercurial to overall box office revenues.)
Only Universal has increased its theatrical output since the pandemic struck. The studio behind “Jurassic World” and “Minions” released 15 new films (including five from Focus) in 2021, 16 (including six from Focus) in 2020 and 20 in 2019. By comparison, Warner Bros. delivered 17 movies in 2021 (all of which premiered simultaneously on HBO Max), four in 2020 and 18 in 2019. Disney had relatively similar numbers, opening 12 movies (including five from 20th Century) in 2021, five (including four from 20th Century) in 2020 and 19 (including nine from 20th Century) in 2019. Ditto Sony: It released 14 films in 2021 and 10 in 2020. Paramount released fewer films than its rivals in 2021 and 2020, with four and three titles, respectively. In 2019, Sony unveiled 16 movies, and Paramount launched nine.
Making money matters more complicated, each studio has established a unique strategy to present new movies to the masses. Disney, Warner Bros. and Paramount have mostly converged on 45-day theatrical window, while Universal has an agreement to keep movies in cinemas for at least 17 days before putting them on digital platforms. The collapse of the theatrical window, which shrunk from 75 days in pre-pandemic times, will have an unknowable impact on ticket sales.
Theater owner Rick Roman is worried that fewer movies will eventually translate to lower attendance levels.
“It’s not that we’re go up against streaming; they’re complimentary experiences. But if you cut down the number of pictures we have to play, it changes the outcome,” says Roman, who runs Crowne Pointe Theatre in Elizabethtown, Ky. “It has a big impact on our ability to make money.”
He also fears it could lead to the permanent disappearance of films catering to certain crowds, namely ticket buyers over the age of 35.
“The beauty of movie theaters is the ability to appeal to everybody,” Roman says. “If all I have is horror and Marvel blockbusters, it leaves a big hole in the market.”