When “Everything Everywhere All at Once” premiered last spring, Alamo Drafthouse offered special screenings where attendees were gifted packets of googly eyes. Peppers were a reference to a central character’s habit of placing pressed items on everyone and everything he could. Then when “No,” Jordan Peele’s twisty horror film, opened in July, the Texas-based theater chain hosted a pop-up screening at a horse ranch in Hollywood. It was a sly nod to the horse-wrangling siblings at the center of the extraterrestrial thriller. And when “The Menu,” a horror film send-up of haute cuisine, debuted last November, the Alamo offered guests a multi-course feast featuring slow-poached oysters and biodynamic wine so they could dine in style like the screen characters. Killed with a knife.
“We’re doing everything we can to get people back to the movies,” said Sara Pitre, chief film programmer at Alamo Drafthouse. “We’re passionate about movies, and we want to do more to maximize the content we’re showing It’s about rebuilding that relationship with our customers.”
Going the extra mile seems to pay off. As a result, in a rollercoaster year for movies, Alamo outsold the industry by double digits. It’s a reminder of the kind of urgency that was necessary at a time when the movie business struggled to regain its post-pandemic footing and largely failed. Overall, domestic ticket sales are down more than 30% from pre-COVID levels in 2022, and analysts expect stateside revenue to top just over $7.5 billion. That’s largely because studios released 40 fewer films in the past 12 months than in 2019 as they scrambled to get projects back into production amid an unexpected health crisis. Declining theatrical releases equate to roughly the same shortfall in revenue. Theaters need movies to show, and for most of 2022 they had too much empty space in their marquees.
“It was definitely a rebound year,” said Tierlach Hutcheson, VP of film at Studio Movie Grill. “There is still a lack of product from the studio and it will take some time to change that.”
Movie theater owners believe next summer will be even stronger with the release of sequels including “The Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Fast and the Furious.” However, they don’t expect things to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 That’s a long time for a business to wait as an extended shutdown and viewers become more accustomed to watching streaming services. It’s already resulted in closings and bankruptcies — Cineworld, Regal’s owner and the world’s second-largest exhibitor, filed for Chapter 11 protection in September, and some industry observers think other chains could be forced to follow if things don’t improve.
“You’re going to see a wave of bankruptcies,” predicted one executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Private equity will probably come in, buy some of these theaters and close their underperforming screens and cut costs. They’re not going away, but it’s going to be rough.”
Covid and politics have fundamentally changed a business that, let’s face it, was withdrawing before the virus took things out of control. It was an industry that had become dependent on spectacles and superheroes to sell tickets, and it cost a lot of money to provide them. As a result, the great changes that have occurred in a shrinking global landscape for theatrical releases are making it increasingly difficult for movies to turn a profit. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine means Hollywood films are no longer released in the country – a blow given that Russia is one of the 10 largest markets for films. Even more troubling, tensions between the US and China have resulted in fewer studio films entering the country or being stuck in unfavorable release windows. And the country’s rocketing rate of Covid could negatively affect the results of “Avatar: The Way of Water”, one of the rare Hollywood productions to get a coveted release date in China. This is a problem because for a big blockbuster with a budget of over $200 million, doing well in a huge market like China can be the difference between profit and losing money.
“China has been turbulent,” said Veronica Cowan Vandenberg, president of distribution at Universal Pictures International. “There are still many opportunities in China, but it is never a guarantee. It’s more of a cherry on top.”
It was also a year of changing fortunes, most dramatically illustrated by Paramount Pictures, which was largely eliminated as a major player after a decade of corporate turnover and instability. Instead, Paramount returned to contention, fielding the highest-grossing release of the year in “Top Gun: Maverick” and outing it with hits like “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” “The Lost City,” “Smile” and “Scream.” “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s $80-million movie debut, was a lone flop.
“It’s been a really great year,” said Brian Robbins, president and CEO of Paramount Pictures. “And I felt like we were living in an alternate universe.”
Indeed, Paramount’s experience seems to manifest in another reality. Even as it thrived, most other studios were plagued with painful failures. Disney missed the mark with two of its animated features, “Strange World” and “Lightyear,” both of which bombed at the box office and likely lost more than $100 million. Their decline spells trouble for family properties, which were one of the most reliable theatrical demographics before being sidelined by COVID issues. There were also several attempts to launch or expand new franchises that clashed with audience indifference, such as Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (it turned out that no one cares about where to find them); “Black Adam,” which saw DC’s new leadership announce that Dwayne Johnson’s anti-hero would play no role in the next phase of universe building; and Lionsgate’s “Moonfall,” a disastrous flick that cost more than $140 million to produce and grossed a disastrous $67.3 million.
Prestige Fair, the kind of titles that are meant to win awards, also did fairly well at the box office. Films like “She Said,” “Bones and All” and “The Fablemans” earned critical raves, but failed to translate those reviews into lines at the multiplexes. These films have yet to gross $15 million worldwide, a disappointing result that could mean that adult-targeted movies, at least those without special effects and explosions, will continue to migrate to streaming services where they’re better off commercial. consideration
So what works? Franchises, especially those with a comic book connection, dominate the box office. Domestically, nine of the top 10 grossing films were sequels — an entry that didn’t come with a Roman numeral, saying “The Batman” wasn’t exactly an original film. This is a reboot of a character that has headlined more than a dozen films. And what worked for the US crowd also delivered for international ticket-buyers. Globally, the eight highest-grossing film sequels were “The Batman” and the Chinese sci-fi comedy “Moon Man” was the exception to the rule. These films account for a disproportionate amount of box office revenue. In 2022, the box office is more concentrated at the top, with the 10 highest-grossing films contributing more than 60% of ticket sales compared to 47% in 2019. Draw, but to keep the business humming, there will be more complementary pieces.
“Studios are always focused on home runs, but singles, doubles and triples keep the distribution channels going,” says Greg Foster, an exhibition industry consultant. “In 2022, there just wasn’t enough wide release.”
And while the summer box office got off to a hot start with “Top Gun: Maverick” and built on that success with hits like “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” the business entered a prolonged slump in August. It never really recovered as the year ended. Sure, there have been a few big hits like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but those successes haven’t been enough to propel other new releases. They are also few and far between – for a very long time, there were no major movies to show. As a result, “Bros,” “Bhakti” and “Easter Sunday” suffered some of the worst wide-release debuts in movie history.
“We had some problematic stagnation in 2022,” said Megan Colligan, president of IMAX Entertainment. “Quiets happen all the time in August. You can live through it. But when November and December stagnate, that’s not good.”
For theater executives like Pitar, they are already looking ahead to the coming months, hoping to find offbeat or unconventional offerings that can draw crowds and serve as a bridge to the next blockbuster. He thinks he may have found one in “Cocaine Bear,” a darkly comic thriller about a black bear who takes a lot of hits and goes on a murderous rampage.
“We have some pretty wild ideas for parties in the lobby of our theater,” says Pitre. “This is our favorite movie.”