Perhaps Tom Cruise couldn’t singlehandedly save the movies after all.
Despite a summer marked by the high-flying theatrical performance of Cruise’s long-delayed sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” the world’s second-largest exhibitor and owner of Regal Cinemas, Cineworld Group, is reportedly preparing to file for bankruptcy.
How could this have happened, after a summer that, in addition to “Maverick,” produced such hits as “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Doctor Strange 2” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru”? The fact is, the banner performances of titles like “Maverick” have helped obscure the crisis brewing for the theatrical business.
Recently, theater owners have been expressing concern about the dearth of new releases in the coming months. But they should be even more concerned about what will happen next year.
There are plenty of potential blockbusters in the pipeline for 2023, from Marvel’s third “Guardians of the Galaxy” film to the long-awaited “Indiana Jones 5” to Cruise’s next feat of death-defying stuntwork, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.” But the overall number of films being released will remain below pre-pandemic levels, a concerning sign for the industry’s health.
Currently, there are 40 wide theatrical releases slated for the first six months of 2023 in North America. That represents a 37 percent decline from the same timeframe in 2019 — the last year unaffected by the pandemic — when 63 wide releases hit U.S. theaters, per Comscore. (In this context, “wide release” refers to films that played in at least 1,000 domestic theaters.)
Additional films could, of course, be added to the schedule in the months ahead, but it’s unlikely there are many major releases not currently on the slate that will ultimately be released in the first half of 2023. That means next year will look an awful lot like this year: The first six months of 2022 produced just 41 widely released films.
That’s bad news for theater owners, who are increasingly facing periods of feast or famine based on the number of tentpole films being released each month. This fall is a particularly dead zone for blockbusters, with the next major tentpoles, Warner Bros.’ supervillain story “Black Adam” and Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” not arriving until late October and early November, respectively.
There will be films rolling out in the interim, of course, some of which have a decent chance of breaking through with strong word of mouth. But a closer look at the year’s box office chart reveals more cause for concern: a case of movie income inequality, if you will.
The top 10 highest-grossing films made up 64 percent of the domestic box office total this summer; “Maverick” alone made up more than a fifth. Tentpoles were, of course, increasing their overwhelming dominance at the box office even before the pandemic.
But the gap between the top earners and the rest of the slate has widened substantially in the COVID era. In the summer of 2019 (the first Friday in May through Labor Day weekend), the top 10 films accounted for only 53 percent of the total box office; by the end of the year, they accounted for less than 40 percent.
With fewer movies and less money flowing into the box office overall, each individual film carries more weight — weight that some films are simply ill-equipped to support. A Cowen research note last month bemoaned “the almost complete non-performance of attempted alternative programming such as ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Men,’” concluding, “It’s not clear that adding more films to the release lineup would be terribly additive to overall box office.”
Yet this analysis ignores the fact that mid-budget hits are still happening. This year’s “Elvis,” “The Lost City” and “Nope” each cost between $65 million and $85 million and have all grossed more than $100 million domestically. Even Blumhouse’s latest low-budget horror play, “The Black Phone,” scrounged up almost $90 million.
Not for nothing, “Firestarter” scored a 10 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while those four films scored in the high 70s to low 80s. Audiences will show up for counterprogramming if the movies are good or feature a notable star (like Sandra Bullock in “Lost City" or “Elvis” with Tom Hanks).
Indeed, pumping additional films into theaters could very well be additive to the box office — provided they’re the right movies. And there are movies dropping on streaming that would be exactly the right movies.
One that’s been frequently touted of late is “Prey,” the newest addition to the “Predator” franchise, which scored Hulu’s biggest premiere ever for any movie or TV show. Horror, particularly IP-based horror, has performed strongly even in the current box office climate; look to January’s new “Scream” entry, which grossed over $81 million.
Disney’s calculus for sending “Prey” directly to Hulu was reportedly to prevent the film from streaming on HBO Max as well, under the terms of an old deal for Fox releases. This amounts to cutting off a potentially lucrative revenue stream out of spite. How much financial value is “Prey” really going to generate just on Hulu?
And that’s to say nothing of Netflix, which could open up a new source of income by making theatrical plays of its own. Star-driven films like “The Gray Man,” the upcoming “Knives Out” sequel “Glass Onion” and even Adam Sandler’s well-reviewed “Hustle,” released in June, would have theatrical potential if Netflix could be bothered to mount serious big-screen releases. (A24’s “Uncut Gems” proved that audiences will still show up for Sandler if the material is good.)
And they should be bothered. With old revenue streams like home video and TV syndication drying up, and Wall Street increasingly skeptical of going all in on streaming, it would behoove studios to rethink their release strategies for films. At this point, forcing theaters to continue to struggle for survival isn’t doing anyone any favors.