There will be blood at the box office in 2024.
And not the type that comes with two studio tentpoles going at each other. Nah, as Barbenheimer showed this past year, that’s actually great for business.
We’re talking the red-ink kind, and it will be felt on both sides, studios and cinemas, with the latter sector experiencing a potential collapse come spring among midsized circuits due to the erratic pipeline of product.
While this year counted 124 wide theatrical releases (opening in 1,000-plus theaters), the dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes forced a bulk of tentpole delays that are leaving 2024 with only 107 wide titles. Craters abound on the release schedule, with six weekends currently sans wide entries: January 26, March 15, May 31, October 11, December 6 and December 27. The domestic box office this year, after being +21% over 2022 with a near $9 billion, is expected to shed at least $1 billion in 2024 to $8 billion, -11%.
After exhibition and the major studios were wounded during Covid due to cinema closures between March 2020-March 2021 and features stuck in post-production during fall 2022, this year saw a return to some form of normalcy due to a conveyor belt of tentpole releases every weekend starting back in mid-February with Disney/Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania ($106.1M opening, $214.5M domestic) and through post-Labor Day with New Line’s The Nun II. The supply of wide releases was so great in 2023 that there’s only one weekend without ’em: this upcoming New Year’s weekend.
An indication of the new year’s success at the box office is always determined by the spillover of the previous year’s pinnacle Christmas release; in recent years that was 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home delivering $232M to the 2022 domestic B.O, and 2022’s Avatar: The Way of Water fueling this year with $283M. There’s no FOMO movie on the marquee this holiday season that will continue to rain cash next year, thanks to the the lackluster $38M+ four-day Christmas launch of Warner Bros/DC’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, coupled with a slew of titles posting high-single-digit grosses during the post-holiday midweek. Wonka‘s $8.9M was the second-lowest gross for a No. 1 movie on December 26 in the millennium after 2020’s Wonder Woman 1984 ($5.8M) — and that’s when a majority of the nation’s cinemas were shuttered due to Covid.
“We should be nervous about the first half of 2024,” sweats one studio exec who wanted to speak confidentially to Deadline.
“There’s no way that a labor stoppage as prolonged as chaotic as this wasn’t going to have consequences,” the suit explains. “Fire comes through and burns a forest and a town, and then the fire is over. But the consequences of the fire aren’t over: There’s mudslides, and there’s damaged infrastructure.”
“The fire is over: Now we’ve gotta rebuild the town,” they add.
The weakest part of the 2024 theatrical schedule is arguably in its first four months. Through the end of April 2024 there are 30 wide releases (north of 1,000 screens) on the calendar, compared with 44 for the January-April 2023 span.
The first four months of 2023 grossed $2.65 billion built on the backs of five movies: Super Mario Bros Movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, John Wick Chapter 4, Creed III and Scream VI. Touching that figure would be a miracle, especially with nothing on the calendar looking like the half-billion plus success of Super Mario Bros.
When it comes to Q1 2024, the stress is on Warner Bros/Legendary’s Dune: Part Two to truly deliver and fire up the year when it arrives March 1; some rival distributors believe the sequel could be a billion-dollar-grossing movie. Dune 2 is one of six titles that could clear $100M+ in the quarter, in addition to Bob Marley: One Love (on February 14), DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 4 and Angel Studios’ Cabrini on March 8, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire on March 29, and Legendary and Warner Bros’ Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire on April 12.
There are another 31 wide titles set for summer 2024 (down from this year’s May-Labor Day season of 38 wide entries) and another 25 booked for the fall and holiday corridor (down from 2023’s post-Labor Day frame of 44). While there are some who pine at Dune: Part Two breaking the year’s sluggish dam and the box office, some cynics believe the uneven distribution pattern of tentpoles won’t find its footing until Marvel Studios/Disney’s Deadpool 3 opens July 26.
In total, exhibition sources are projecting 30 movies that could do more than a century-sized worth of business or more at the domestic box office (see that list of films below). But don’t get excited: Last year at this time we forecasted that 33 movies would click past $100M, and that number fell short by 10: Three of them moved to 2024 (Dune 2, Kraven the Hunter and Ghostbusters), while the other seven missed the mark (Haunted Mansion, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, Blue Beetle, Trolls Band Together, Wish and The Nun II). With Wonka crossing $100M today, there’s technically 22 movies that crossed the century mark stateside in 2023, not counting carryovers Avatar: The Way of Water and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
However, the broken rhythm of big product next year poses further questions about when the theatrical marketplace might return to a place of strength. The consequences are profound trying to rebuild the audiences’ interest in theatrical in getting the business healthy again.
“The issue is: What’s happening with the audience,” says another major studio boss concerned about the collapse in superhero movies this year, exemplified by Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and early November’s The Marvels. “These are far bigger issues for me: The failures of this year and beyond, coupled with the lack of originality and the need for newness that actually works. The risk is that we’re boring the audience with the same old sh*t.”
These are far bigger issues for me: The failures of this year and beyond, coupled with the lack of originality and the need for newness that actually works. The risk is that we’re boring the audience with the same old sh*t.
Myriad stats from the National Research Group’s recent study on 2024 support studio bosses’ anxieties. NRG’s polling shows that 69% of moviegoers want more original movies. Meanwhile, 41% agree that movie franchises “are getting better,” down from 56% in February 2022. There’s also declining sentiment that franchises are a “safer choice to spend money on” and are “must-see in theaters.”
That said, if the audience is to expand for original movies, studios need to put their money where their mouth is, and that resides in a studio commitment of marketing dollars and zeitgeist promotion, coupled by long theatrical windows. Consider the three top-grossing movies in 2023 that weren’t based on pre-existing IP, franchises or brands (i.e., Pixar): The auteur Christopher Nolan-fueled Oppenheimer at $326M, the red-state-led Sound of Freedom ($184.1M) and Blumhouse’s dancing bot, girl-promoted M3GAN ($95.1M).
Amazon MGM’s Saltburn ($11.1M after its November opening; already on Prime Video) and Searchlight’s Poor Things (current gross $7.2M in the middle of week 3) are original, edgy, director-driven movies with a vision, style and a voice. But what gets them to the next stratosphere at the box office? Oftentimes, while studios cry “we need original,” they only spend to the specifics of a movie’s budgetary economics and the limitations of a movie’s audience. It takes gut and faith to break the mold, not necessarily a calculator and a P&L statement.
Despite the box office boom this year and the Barbenheimer weekend that grossed $310.9M overall, NRG found that Americans aren’t attending movies as frequently as they did pre-pandemic, off by close to a third from pre-pandemic levels. Hence, the box office is down in spite of ticket price increases. The challenge the industry faces is getting quality, theatrical product out there on a continuous basis to consistently engage the habit of moviegoing.
Another takeaway from the NRG study: Compared with other out-of-home activities (i.e., amusement parks, sporting events, restaurants), moviegoing ranks lowest on providing “a lot of value” for consumers’ money spent. That said, “cheaper tickets” and “cheaper concessions” are points that prospective customers cite most often as a way to get them back to theaters, a sentiment up significantly over the past two years, likely driven by inflation concerns.
Post-Covid, moviegoing continues to be challenged by the comfort of the home-viewing experience, which has improved over the past five years as high-quality tech has dropped in price, internet speeds have improved, and streaming services and shortened windows proliferate. Per NRG, around two-thirds of Americans prefer watching movies at home (64% at home vs. 36% in theater) versus 2018, when the preference of cinema viewing outpaced that of the home (57% theater vs. 43% home).
Many continue to assess how Barbenheimer became the event that it was. But what’s clear is that we need more out-of-body experiences as such. There were reports and photos of girls and guys going on dates during the opening weekend for both titles; women dressed in Barbie evening dresses and dudes in Oppenheimer soft-brimmed hats. The bare essentials to why both worked boiled down to a movie about American’s most popular doll that had never been made before, tricked out with the right cast aimed squarely at women, teamed with a movie from a beloved fanboy director in Christopher Nolan complemented male moviegoing on that July 20-22 weekend. In the case of Barbie‘s marketing, the social media meme of it all enabled fans to take ownership of the promotion. It might be good to have more of that in the future.
But There Is Hope
In recent weeks there have been several additions to the 2024 theatrical calendar including Lionsgate’s Saw VI, The Strangers and White Bird: A Wonder Story as well as Amazon MGM’s Dwayne Johnson-Chris Evans movie Red One, Universal’s Wolf Man, Apple Original Films’ untitled Greg Berlanti-directed space race movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum, and the George Clooney-Brad Pitt noir Wolfs via Sony. And there’s still more to be dated including Lionsgate’s reboot of The Crow and its Guy Ritchie-directed The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare with Henry Cavill, Henry Golding and Eiza Gonzalez; Joe Carnahan’s action movie Shadow Force; and Alexandre Aja’s Halle Berry horror thriller Never Let Go.
Despite the Debbie Downer points presented above, none of the major studios are looking to put the toothpaste back in the bottle and practice theatrical day-and-date releases on streaming. Given that jump in home viewing, theatrical continues to be the best way to lead with a movie’s chin and to raise its profile, delivering ancillary riches in the long run. Wall Street is fully aware of this, and the fact that Apple has arrived to the table to launch $200M movies in theaters (this past year’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon) and Amazon MGM’s return to the big screen further underscores the belief in the theatrical model.
Says Lionsgate Motion Picture Group Vice Chairman Adam Fogelson, whose studio broke $1 billion worldwide for the first time in five years this past year: “There’s no question about the value of a theatrical release. Even if a movie doesn’t overperform in theatrical; the stamp of quality, the value that theatrical provides is significantly important for downstream revenues.”
“Starting in the middle of 2024 into the next few years, you’re going to see a healthy, thriving movie business,” adds Fogelson, who is confident about the future of theatrical. “One of the great things that we’ve seen even during these complicated periods is how much people still love going to the movies, as long as you give them a movie they truly want to see.”
Movies That Could Gross $100 Million-Plus At 2024 Domestic Box Office
|Bob Marley: One Love
|Dune: Part Two
|Kung Fu Panda 4
|Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire
|Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire
|The Fall Guy
|Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga
|Warner Bros/Village Roadshow
|Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes
|Inside Out 2
|Bad Boys sequel
|A Quiet Place: Day One
|Horizon: An American Saga – Part I
|Despicable Me 4
|Horizon: An American Saga – Part 2
|Joker: Folie a Deux
|Amazon MGM Studios
|Untitled Disney Animation feature
|Wicked – Part 1
|The Karate Kid
|Mufasa: The Lion King
|Sonic the Hedgehog 3