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Christmas Box Office Hinges on Aquaman 2. Movie Theaters Are Worried.

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Every year around Christmas, Phoenix Theatres puts all of its chips on one major tentpole, gambling on a movie so big, so broadly appealing, it’ll keep auditoriums stocked into the new year. In the recent past, the Midwest-based chain has gone all in on 2022’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and 2019’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

But this holiday season is different. For the first time in more than a decade, excluding the pandemic-stricken 2020, there’s no surefire blockbuster with the potential to gross $1 billion globally to cap off the year.

“You can’t look at the release schedule between now and the end of the year and find one movie that stands out like ‘Avatar’ as the big film,” says Phoenix Theatres owner Cory Jacobson.

“Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom,” the follow-up to 2018’s megahit “Aquaman,” should be that big bet. Yet the sequel lands in theaters on Dec. 22 as a massive question mark. Will the Jason Momoa-led comic book adventure recapture the spark of the original? Or will it extend the string of three DC flops, “The Flash,” “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and “Blue Beetle”? The overwhelming sense of superhero fatigue has even plagued Disney’s once-bulletproof Marvel Cinematic Universe, as evidenced by the misfires of “The Marvels” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

“The holiday season is on the shoulders of ‘Aquaman,’ and that’s not a good shoulder to put anything on,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Can it cut through the negative DC noise?”

Movie theater owners, who were walloped by the Hollywood strikes as they were still recovering from the pandemic, have no choice but to accentuate the positive. “With one big film, you must stock a lot of show times to meet demands. If it doesn’t work out, you end up with a lot of empty show times,” Phoenix Theatres VP Jordan Hohman says. “With a more diverse slate of films, we can spread our bets.”

For this year’s holiday stretch, the gambles include “Wonka,” with Timothée Chalamet as the titular chocolatier (Dec. 15); Universal and Illumination’s animated comedy “Migration” (Dec. 22); A24’s sports drama “The Iron Claw,” starring Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White (also Dec. 22); and the musical adaptation “The Color Purple” (Dec. 25).

Hohman is encouraged by the number of kid-friendly movies. “That certainly helps our popcorn sales,” he says. “And these family films are under two hours. It creates turnover and puts more customers in the building.”

But unless there’s a runaway success in the mix, these films won’t offset the absence of a billion-dollar tentpole.

“It’s probably not going to be the most spectacular Christmas season,” predicts Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic theatrical distribution. “It may give other movies room to overperform.”

It would be a disappointing coda for the movie theater business, especially in a year that fielded “Barbenheimer” and the unexpected gift of Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour.” At this point, box office revenues have hit $8 billion, which is 22% ahead of 2022 but 17% behind 2019, according to Comscore.

“With the strikes, it would have been hard to do much to change this,” says Adam Fogelson, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group vice chair. Production has started to return, but he expects the release calendar to remain fluid as studios figure out which strike-impaired projects will make it to the finish line on time. “In the short run, there will be some awkward and odd bumps.”

’Tis the Season of Uncertainty: Hollywood usually ends the year with at least one surefire blockbuster, but this holiday lacks another “Avatar.”
Jaap Buittendijk

What’s worse: Without a four-quadrant title — the rare movie that appeals to men and women, young and old — theaters may be left in the lurch until “Dune: Part Two” opens in March. That’s because eventual big-screen behemoths like “Avatar” and “Spider-Man” didn’t just pop in December, they kept playing in theaters for weeks and ended up earning some serious coin in the following year. “The Way of Water,” for example, was released in 2022 but stands as the seventh-highest-grossing domestic release of 2023 with $283 million.

Jeff Logan, the owner of Logan Luxury Theatres, jokes that needing to show the same film for weeks to fill demand isn’t an issue in South Dakota, where his multiplexes are located. “In smaller towns, you’ve run out of people to see a movie after it’s playing in theaters for a few weeks.”

He adds, “We just wish there were more movies in the mix.”

“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” could certainly surprise. The first film opened to an unspectacular $67 million but eventually grossed a staggering $335 million in North America and $1.15 billion globally. But the very idea that the sequel isn’t a guaranteed smash is indicative of larger concerns in Hollywood.

“We’re seeing the collapse of these major franchises,” says Bock. “This year has proven that audiences do want original things. Hollywood can’t just put a roman numeral on things.”

If “Aquaman 2” misses the mark, it’ll join “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” and a slew of other sequels, spinoffs and reboots that appeared to be guaranteed winners, only to wildly miss box office expectations. Theater owners like Logan believe that studios may be running a good thing into the ground.

“Studios have IP, and they think it’s a golden ticket. But it’s oversaturated. We’ve seen it all before … multiple times,” Logan says. “These things aren’t events anymore. They aren’t rare. It’s just this month’s superhero movie.”

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