By Frank Pallotta, CNN Business
Last year was a dress rehearsal for the future of movie theaters. This year will show if movies theaters are back for real.
After a terrible 2020 that ravaged the movie theater industry, cineplexes turned on their projectors in 2021 for big hits like “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
Other films like “Black Widow” and Warner Bros’ entire slate of movies went with a hybrid approach, releasing films in theaters and at home via streaming simultaneously.
Overall, the North American box office snagged $4.5 billion in 2021, a 101% increase over 2020, but a nearly 60% drop from 2019, according to Comscore.
But the fact that theaters were able to show any films at all should be considered a victory given that in 2020 some were predicting the end of movie-going as we know it.
“Recovery has no straight-line”
“Recovery has no straight-line progression in this instance, especially with Covid variants and vaccine hesitation prolonging the health crisis,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business.
He added that 2022 could be a better year given “a stronger movie release slate, pandemic fatigue in general, and fewer films expected to be siphoned off to streaming immediately upon release.”
Ultimately, though, the fate of this year’s box office will depend on what theaters can offer moviegoers. And luckily for them, there are plenty of big films on the 2022 docket.
Marvel Studios — the biggest blockbuster brand in Hollywood — has “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Horror — one of Hollywood’s most reliable genres — returns with big names like Jordan Peele’s “Nope” and “Halloween Ends,” the next installment in the Michael Myers franchise.
Action films will get a double dose of Tom Cruise with “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Mission: Impossible 7.” Audiences will again return to Jurassic Park with “Jurassic World: Dominion” and the Justice League will try to save the world multiple times with “The Batman,” “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” and “The Flash.”
There also will be potential animated hits this year with Pixar’s “Lightyear,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse — Part One.”
Oh yes, James Cameron’s “Avatar 2” — the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time — is also set for theaters this year.
“On the release schedule for 2022 is an incredible array of potential hits, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told CNN Business. “And studios are once again faced with making the big decisions on not only when, but also how to release their film.”
To stream or not to stream
All of these films are currently set to be released in theaters, but it may not stay that way. Streaming has given studios the opportunity to decide whether to boost ticket sales by releasing films theatrically or try to boost subscribers by sending films to streaming services.
Disney — Hollywood’s most significant studio — has already made its choice for one of its 2022 films by pushing the next Pixar movie, “Turning Red,” directly to Disney+.
But after roughly two years of premiering big films at home, do consumers want to stream blockbusters from home? Will we see more of it in 2022?
“The ebb and flow of the popularity of streaming is mainly determined by the ups and downs of the pandemic,” Dergarabedian said. “That has created not only a conundrum for studios, but also for consumers who are torn between their desire to see blockbuster films on the big screen at their local multiplex or from the comfort of the couch at home.”
Robbins maintains that while an increasing number of star-driven films with high production value are being released by streamers, “very few of them have tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in the way major theatrical releases with strong word of mouth still do.”
“Although certain viewing habits are changing and evolving, I believe at the end of the day the right content at the right time clearly separates the experiential quality of watching something on TV or on a mobile device from that of a state-of-the-art theatrical setting with a live audience,” he added.
Robbins continued, “A myriad of factors determine what audiences want and where they want it from. Theatrical and streaming can coexist.”
The $40 billion question
In 2019, the global box office topped $40 billion thanks to hits like “Avengers: Endgame,” “Joker” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
That number was wiped out in 2020, and 2021 will likely reach only half of that. Which begs the question: Given the lingering pandemic, will theaters ever get back to those box office heights?
“Absolutely possible,” says Robbins. But the question for him is when.
“I don’t think anyone can confidently answer that yet until the pandemic has a less dominant presence in global news headlines and a diminished impact on everyday lives,” he said. “Until then, the overall consumer base will continue to be abnormally divided between those going back, those wanting to go back, and those who won’t go back nearly as often as they used to.”
The 2022 box office has its first test this weekend with “Scream,” the fifth installment in the horror franchise. The film, which brings back original stars like Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox, is projected for roughly a $25 million domestic opening.
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