When “Everything Everywhere All At Once” premiered last spring, Alamo Drafthouse offered special screenings where attendees were gifted with packets of googly eyes. The peepers were a reference to a central character’s habit of putting the gag item on everyone and everything he can. Then when “Nope,” 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 equine-wrangling siblings at the center of the extraterrestrial thriller. And when “The Menu,” a horror film that sends up haute cuisine, debuted last November, Alamo offered up multi-course feasts featuring slow-poached oysters and biodynamic wines for guests so they could dine in style as the character on-screen were killed off with panache.
“We’re doing everything we can to bring people back to the movies,” says Sarah Pitre, the lead 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 appears to be paying off. As a result, in a rollercoaster year for movies, Alamo has outperformed the industry by double digits. It’s a reminder of the kind of hustle that was necessary at a time when the movie business struggled, and largely failed, to re-gain its post-pandemic footing. Overall, domestic ticket sales plunged more than 30% in 2022 from pre-COVID levels and analysts expect that Stateside revenues will top out at just over $7.5 billion. That’s largely due to the fact that studios released 40 fewer films over the last 12 months than they did in 2019 as they labored to get projects back into production in the midst of an unpredictable health crisis. The drop in theatrical releases equated to roughly the same shortfall in revenue declines. Theaters need movies to show and for much of 2022, there was too much blank space on their marquees.
“It was definitely a rebound year,” says Tearlach Hutcheson, VP of film at Studio Movie Grill. “There’s still a lack of product from studios, and it’s going to take a while to change that.”
Movie theater owners believe that next summer will be stronger, with the release of sequels including “The Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Fast and the Furious.” However, they don’t expect things will return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. That’s a long time to wait for a business that has been hit hard by an extended shutdown and shifting tastes as viewers get more accustomed to watching on streaming services. It’s already resulting in closures and bankruptcies — Cineworld, the owner of Regal and the second biggest exhibitor in the world, filed for Chapter 11 protection in September and some industry observers think other chains might be forced to follow suit if things don’t improve.
“You’re going to see a wave of bankruptcies,” predicts one executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Private equity will probably come in, buy some of these theaters and shut down their underperforming screens and cut costs. They’re not going away, but it’s going to be rough.”
COVID and politics have fundamentally altered a business that, let’s face it, was retracting even before the virus upended things. It was an industry that had become reliant on spectacle and superheroes to sell tickets, and those cost a lot of money to deliver. As a result, the great changes that have taken place in a diminished global landscape for theatrical releases are making it increasingly difficult for movies to turn a profit. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means that Hollywood films are no longer released in the country — that’s a blow considering that Russia is one of the 10 largest markets for movies. Even more troubling, tensions between the U.S. and China have resulted in fewer studio films getting into the country or being saddled with unappealing release windows. And the country’s rocketing rates of COVID may have negatively impacted the results for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” one of the rare Hollywood productions to get a coveted release date in China. That’s a problem because for a major blockbuster with a budget of more than $200 million, doing well in a massive market like China can be the difference between turning a profit and losing money.
“China has been tumultuous, to say the least,” says Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of distribution for Universal Pictures International. “There’s still a lot of opportunity in China, but it’s never a guarantee. It’s more of a cherry on top.”
It was also a year of shifting fortunes, illustrated most dramatically by Paramount Pictures, which had been largely written off as a major player after a decade of corporate changes and instability. Instead, Paramount surged back into contention, fielding the year’s highest-grossing release in “Top Gun: Maverick” and rounding that out with hits such as “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” “The Lost City,” “Smile” and “Scream.” “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s $80-million look at the early days of the movie business, was its lone flop.
“It was truly a fantastic year,” says Brian Robbins, Paramount Pictures president and CEO. “And I did feel like we were living in an alternative universe.”
Indeed, Paramount’s experience seemed to unfold in another reality. Even as it prospered, most other studios were saddled with painful failures. Disney missed the mark with its two animated features, “Strange World” and “Lightyear,” both of which bombed at the box office and likely lost more than $100 million a piece. Their collapse spells trouble for family features, which had been one of the most reliable theatrical demographics before COVID upended things. There were also several attempts to launch or extend new franchises that collided with audience indifference such as Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (it turned out that nobody cared about where to find them); “Black Adam,” which saw DC’s new leadership announce that Dwayne Johnson’s anti-hero would not play a role in the next phase of its universe building; and Lionsgate’s “Moonfall,” a disaster flick that cost more than $140 million to produce and earned a catastrophic $67.3 million.
Prestige fare, the kind of titles positioned to win awards, also had a rough go at the box office. Films like “She Said,” “Bones and All” and “The Fabelmans” earned critical raves, but failed to turn those reviews into lines at the multiplexes. Those films have yet to earn $15 million globally, a dismal result that could mean that movies aimed at adults, at least ones that don’t feature special effects and explosions, will continue to migrate to streaming services where they will be better insulated from commercial considerations.
So what worked? Franchises, particularly ones with a comic book connection, continued to dominate the box office. Domestically, nine of the top 10 grossing films were sequels — the one entry that didn’t come with a Roman numeral, “The Batman,” wasn’t exactly an original movie. It’s a reboot of a character that has headlined more than a dozen films. And what worked for U.S. crowds also delivered for international ticket-buyers. Globally, eight of the highest-grossing films were also sequels, with “The Batman” and Chinese sci-fi comedy “Moon Man” proving to be the exception to the rule. These films accounted for a disproportionate amount of box office revenue. In 2022, the box office is more heavily concentrated at the top with the 10 highest grossing films contributing over 60% of the overall ticket sales compared to 47% in 2019. And that’s a problem, because those major movies are supposed to be the big draws, but for the business to keep humming, there have to be more complementary pieces.
“Studios always focused on home runs, but the singles, doubles and triples kept the distribution channels going,” said Greg Foster, an exhibition industry consultant. “In 2022, there simply weren’t enough wide releases.”
And while the summer box office got off to a hot start with “Top Gun: Maverick” and built on that success with hits such as “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” the business entered a prolonged slowdown in August, one it hasn’t really recovered from as the year ends. To be sure, there have been a few big hits such as “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” but those successes haven’t been enough to lift other new releases. They’ve also been few and far between — for too long, there weren’t any big movies to show. As a result, the likes of “Bros,” “Devotion” and “Easter Sunday” suffered some of the worst wide-release debuts in the history of movies.
“We had some problematic lulls in 2022,” said Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment. “Having a lull in August happens all the time. You can live through it. But when November and December are lulls, that’s not good.”
As for theater executives like Pitre, they’re already looking ahead to the coming months, hoping to find the kind of offbeat or unconventional offerings that can draw crowds and serve as a bridge until the next blockbuster. She thinks she may have found one in “Cocaine Bear,” a darkly comic thriller about a black bear who ingests a lot of blow and goes on a murderous rampage.
“We’ve got some pretty wild ideas for parties we can have in the lobbies of our theaters,” says Pitre. “That’s the kind of movie we love.”