The 2022 domestic box office to date has already surpassed the prior year’s haul of $4.5 billion with $5.6 billion as of the end of September, but that’s just under half of the $11.4 billion gross seen in 2019.
As the fourth quarter of the year begins and a fresh wave of some high-profile new releases is on the horizon, there’s little hope the 2022 total will come in striking distance of bringing theatrical back to where it once was before the pandemic era began. But the question remains: How far could the top-performing movies set to unspool in the coming months go towards closing that gap?
Predictive data provided exclusively to Variety Intelligence Platform from content analytics firm Cinelytic assesses four films that should earn big at the box office between now and the end of December. James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” sequel is expected to make the biggest splash, followed by Disney’s sequel to “Black Panther,” Warner Bros.’ DC film “Black Adam” starring Dwayne Johnson and Universal’s new “Halloween” sequel.
Cinelytic predicts Disney’s follow-up to 20th Century’s 2009 theatrical all-timer will rake in around $650 million at the box office before pulling in around the same amount from VOD and physical sales combined with streaming and TV payouts in the years to come.
This is notably below the $772 million cumulative gross the first “Avatar” earned in the U.S. and Canada, but it will have been 13 years since that film’s triumphant run when “The Way of Water” releases in December.
The projected haul would also put “The Way of Water” below the film currently sitting at No. 1 for 2022: “Top Gun: Maverick” has since grossed more than $700 million domestically and nearly $1.5 billion worldwide since its release, a true achievement given the more than three decades separating it from its 1986 originator.
Still, that may have more to do with the allure of one of the last remaining examples of true star power in one Tom Cruise. Less reliant on singular big-name actors, the return of “Avatar’s” 3D visuals may no longer have the same pull now that the film market sees VFX-heavy superhero tentpoles every year.
The respective $328 million and $423 million Cinelytic predicts for “Black Adam” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” are otherwise consistent with the running tally for brand siblings “The Batman” and “Doctor Strange 2” in 2022.
Dwayne Johnson is certainly a get for Warners, especially at a time when the studio absolutely needs its films to turn a profit within the newly christened Warner Bros. Discovery regime, but “Black Adam” is an untested property in DC Entertainment’s film output and doesn’t have the status of “The Batman’s” titular hero, making it unlikely to outgross the March release.
Meanwhile, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has the untimely death of star Chadwick Boseman and his subsequent absence working against it, making its projected $424 million domestic haul well below what its 2018 predecessor pulled in, even if it would still outgross the “Doctor Strange” sequel from May.
Especially fascinating will be the outcome of Universal’s “Halloween Ends,” the third and final film in its reboot of the classic slasher franchise that brought back original star Jamie Lee Curtis for each film. Just like “Halloween Kills” in 2021, “Halloween Ends” will be available to stream on NBCUniversal’s Peacock service when the film hits theaters in October, but Cinelytic forecasts almost $130 million for its domestic gross.
That would be about $40 million more than what “Kills” earned last year, which is an improvement that will be indicative of last year’s lingering COVID uncertainty at cinemas having since lifted should the forecast prove true, though Peacock’s struggle to grow subscribers could also be a factor there.
When added together, Cinelytic’s projections for the four biggest films left on the calendar get 2022 up to $7 billion, but not much farther when you remember that the “Avatar” sequel only has roughly two weeks to contribute to 2022 grosses. As was the case with the $800 million domestic haul of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which had the same release window in 2021, more than a quarter of the gross earned by “The Way of Water” will likely fall into 2023.
As things currently stand, weekend grosses have fallen back below pre-pandemic levels as theaters struggled through the usual August slump capping most summer box-office seasons. Compounding the problem is a lack of releases with guaranteed audiences going into the fall.
Just look at Labor Day Weekend in 2021 vs. this year. The release of Disney’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” resulted in record gross for the holiday in 2021, but this year’s extended weekend was without a major release, with audiences instead flipping on their TVs and streaming devices to check out Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” original series.
2022 also had its share of floundering tentpoles. Not only did Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts 3” fail to hit $100 million, but Marvel’s “Morbius” at Sony didn’t even make it past $75 million — about the same amount as its budget — domestically, per Comscore.
Unfortunately for the box office, even the best-case scenario for the four biggest films expected to release in the fourth quarter would do little to dig 2022 out of a very deep hole.