Last year, I argued that Hollywood’s release strategy was no longer workable, not within the parameters of a world profoundly changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That post came before the vaccines, the Delta and Omicron variants, and society’s attempts to return to some semblance of a pre-pandemic life (with mask and vaccine mandates). It was also before Warner Bros. shocked (and outraged) Hollywood by releasing its entire 2021 film slate—including Dune and The Matrix Resurrections—in theaters and on HBO Max.
One could argue that my post was woefully premature; Hollywood has weathered crises before, and people would eventually return to the unique communal experience of watching movies in theaters.
So, one year later, is that true? What is the state of the pandemic-era Hollywood box office headed into 2022?
What Worked: Marvel (Mostly)
If one studio could rebound from the pandemic, it was the House That Feige Built. Marvel Studios dominated this year’s box office, claiming four of the five highest-grossing films: Spider-Man: No Way Home (co-produced with Columbia Pictures), Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, Black Widow, and Eternals. No Way Home obliterated all pandemic-era box office numbers in its opening weekend, becoming the year’s highest-grossing film and scoring the third-highest domestic opening ever. Marvel’s ironclad grip over the moviegoing populace is no surprise and greatly appreciated by weary studio executives and theater owners. Still, the studio proved that it wasn’t wholly immune to pandemic-era shifts. Only one of its films crossed the $250 million mark – a bar Marvel used to clear frequently – and its 2021 box office haul pales in comparison to previous years (before No Way Home, it barely met half of Avengers: Endgame’s total domestic gross). Eternals, which was supposed to shift towards more prestigious storytelling, underperformed with audiences and critics.
What Worked: Genre Films
2021 was a great year to be a genre film. Horror fans turned out for A Quiet Place Part II (despite a near-day-and-date release on the Paramount+ streaming service), Halloween Kills, Candyman, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, all of them grossing above $60 million. Parents brought their children to see family-friendly films, led by the Dwayne Johnson-Emily Blunt vehicle Jungle Cruise. Teenagers and anime-loving millennials turned out en masse for Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, which became the highest-grossing anime film since 1999’s Pokémon: The First Movie.
The year’s biggest box office stories came from the sci-fi genre. Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds’ charming video game send-up, survived its August release to become a top grosser. Dune proved that the day-and-date streaming model could work with the right project by having the best of both worlds: extended cultural relevance from streaming and genuine box office success.
What Didn’t Work: Adult Dramas
Theatergoers enjoyed scares, explosions, and giant sandworms, but they struggled to connect with adult-skewing dramas. HBO Max releases like Hugh Jackman’s Reminiscence, Angelina Jolie’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, and King Richard were labeled box office disappointments or flops. Ridley Scott had a boomerang of a year, helming both the genre’s biggest success with House of Gucci and the biggest failure with the $100 million medieval epic The Last Duel.
What Didn’t Work: Musicals
2021 was a disastrous year for movie musicals. None of them caught on with theater audiences despite oodles of hype and critical acclaim (for two of them). In The Heights stunned Hollywood when it flopped over the summer, putting Warner Bros.’s HBO Max strategy under intense scrutiny. Dear Evan Hansen, a theater exclusive, did even worse. The greatest tragedy of them all will likely be Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated adaptation of West Side Story. The critically acclaimed musical opened to $11 million, a disaster for a project budgeted at $100 million. It is doubtful that it will break even. Streaming was kinder to Tick, Tick…Boom! and Annette, but memorable songs and intricate choreography were not enough to entice potential theatergoers.
What Does it Mean?
In the pandemic, theatergoing audiences are more discerning than ever. There are endless amounts of content outside the theater, meaning they will only venture inside it if they know a film will offer an excellent—not just good—time. Comic book blockbusters—like the record-breaking No Way Home—are the most immediate beneficiaries of this mindset. Films that can promise immersive cinematic experiences also stand to gain: Dune’s cast and crew heavily promoted the film’s IMAX-worthy spectacle, while House of Gucci‘s robust marketing campaign convinced moviegoers of its delicious campy bona fides.
Movies sitting outside of those parameters – most adult dramas and musicals – will struggle in theaters for the foreseeable future. Hollywood’s intense focus on intellectual property has led them to squander what was once its most valuable asset: the movie star. Unless Angelina Jolie, Hugh Jackman, or Will Smith are starring in a franchise, general audiences are sadly not interested. Reputation and legacy are also non-factors, as proven by the failures of movie adaptations of beloved Broadway musicals. (The fact that studios haven’t convincingly linked musicals to the theatrical experience – singing along with friends, clapping after musical numbers – is a missed opportunity.).
So I ask again, a year later: does Hollywood’s future lie in streaming?
Even with eleven $100 million-grossing films this year, I’d still say yes. (To note, there were 29 of them in 2019). Several films are languishing in unfilled theaters and marred by negative headlines. Audiences that would’ve traditionally uplifted these films are staying home, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll return. Why couldn’t these films be released digitally through streaming or video-on-demand services? Audiences could enjoy them without compromising their health, and studios could mitigate the significant losses of their films floundering in theaters. Digital accessibility could breed word-of-mouth that could extend a film’s shelf life rather than dying on the vine of a truncated theater engagement.
Every story deserves a shot at finding an audience, but the how has changed. This year, moviegoers have shown Hollywood what they will and won’t watch in theaters. The question is, will they pay attention and adapt, or will they continue to lose millions, embarrass filmmakers, and alienate audiences who can easily find art and entertainment elsewhere?