After a stunning shutdown for most of 2020, 2021 was as much of an experimental year for film exhibition as it was at the start of its comeback. Nearly every major studio tested simultaneous releases in theaters and on streaming to some degree.
2022 should (knock on wood) be the first full year to see exhibitors stay open nationwide since the pandemic began since 2019 — though the landscape has gone through some changes.
Here are three trends likely to define the year ahead.
Studios Without a Shared-Universe Approach to IP Will Rethink That Strategy
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” did remarkably well in theaters and has earned more than $500 million domestically, a first for Sony and an obvious pandemic best overall.
“Spider-Man” bumped Sony’s 2021 box office haul to near-equal standing with Disney, which itself owes around half of its 2021 gross to three Marvel Cinematic Universe films led by “Shang-Chi,” per analytics and measurement firm Comscore.
2021 also marked the start of Sony being able to link the current Tom Holland iteration of “Spider-Man” with its sister Marvel properties — Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters (SPUMC) is the name of the shared-universe endeavor that encompasses the Marvel characters that Sony owns.
With SPUMC release “Morbius” set for April 1 and a separate sequel to 2018’s animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” out later in October, on top of the DC Extended Universe and MCU each seeing three releases themselves, 2022 will be an intense year for shared universes.
“F9: The Fast Saga” and “A Quiet Place Part II,” the top-grossing 2021 franchise entries for Universal and Paramount, respectively, do have spin-off sequels in the works by way of another “Hobbs & Shaw” installment and a “Quiet Place” offshoot set for 2023, but neither studio has yet to launch a shared-universe endeavor as extensive as its three rivals. This may be the year that forces them to adopt the approach in full.
Dual Theatrical and Streaming Releases Will Be Scheduled More Carefully
Warner Bros. took the biggest strategy gamble in 2021 by committing its entire slate to streaming releases on HBO Max alongside their theatrical dates, but muted gross for “The Matrix Resurrections” is ending this move on a low note at the box office.
The return of Warner Bros.’ popular sci-fi actioner starring Keanu Reeves was overshadowed not only by “Spider-Man” but also Universal’s “Sing” sequel from animation studio Illumination. Exclusive to theaters, “Sing 2” grossed more in five days than the entire $57 million run of another kid-skewing animated film, “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” which had a simultaneous release on Peacock back in July, per Comscore.
Likewise, Disney and Marvel’s “Black Widow” was the best dual-release performer of 2021 with its $80 million opening, as no other tentpole competed alongside its July 9 release.
Warner Bros. is sticking to an exclusive theatrical window for 2022, but Universal’s Jennifer Lopez-led romcom “Marry Me” will release on Peacock alongside a low-key Feb. 11 theatrical date, where it will only go against 20th Century’s long-delayed “Death on the Nile.” If other films get day-and-date releases, their releases will likely fall in the gaps between the year’s biggest tentpoles.
Pronounced Drops in Gross After Big Weekends Will Continue, Validating New Windowing Deals
It’s tough to compare 2021 to any pre-pandemic year, but its latter-third months managed to mostly resemble the frequency of lifts and dips seen during the same period in 2019, with one caveat: much sharper drops from the highs.
“Shang-Chi” kicked off September in 2021 with a $76 million 3-day opening, but the following weekend’s 3-day gross fell 45% from Sept. 3, as opposed to the 19% drop seen the weekend after “It: Chapter Two” opened Sept. 6 in 2019.
Even when “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” achieved what was then a record pandemic opening over Oct.r 1, the weekend box office fell 16% upon Oct. 8, despite “No Time to Die” bowing in theaters then. By contrast, weekend box office on Oct. 11 only fell 6% after the Oct. 4 release of "Joker" in 2019.
Furthermore, the Nov. 12 weekend following the debut of “Eternals” fell 36% vs. the 12% dip seen for the equivalent period in 2019. And while the 2021 box office didn’t pick up much heading into Thanksgiving unlike 2019, it was missing “Top Gun: Maverick,” which had been delayed to 2022 from its planned Nov. 19 release, a decision likely motivated by concern the film would not sustain sufficient gross beyond opening weekend.
Sony’s web-slinging hero wasn’t immune. After “Spider-Man” lifted the Dec. 17 weekend above $280 million, the next 3-day fell 49%. In 2019, the pre-holiday weekend was led by “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and brought in less gross than its 2021 equivalent, but the following weekend only saw a 20% drop.
This proves studios were smart to strike deals shortening theatrical windows by half or further of the prior 90-day norm, allowing films to hit VOD and retail sooner before they then go to studios’ respective streaming services once Pay-1 windows kick in.
If “Spider-Man” can’t even buck the trend of sharp weekend drops after a big opening, there’s little chance this is not the new normal of film exhibition.