So far, 2023 has not been a good year for the box office. We have had a host of exciting films make their debut in cinemas, and yet very few have become real hits. We are now halfway through the year and only one film has crossed the billion-dollar mark worldwide, with many struggling to generate even half a billion dollars during their entire theatrical run. With the way the film industry is changing, it has led me to ponder whether cinema is doomed, and I’m trending to believe it could be.
To get the gist of the movie landscape for 2023, all you have to do is look at how much money each film has generated in cinemas this year. Aside from the behemoth that is The Super Mario Bros. Movie, none has even come close to $1 billion, with the next closest being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. So what has changed? Since the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a significant shift in the way viewers like to consume their content. Gone are the days of watching the biggest blockbuster in the theater, as many viewers are more than comfortable with waiting an extra few months until these films land on streamers. Add rising production costs and more savvy viewers, and it is clear that cinema cannot and will not survive unless something changes.
The ballooning box office
Before the pandemic, cinema was at a record high. People flocked to theaters in droves to see the latest films, so much so that between 2015 and 2019, there were an average of five billion dollar movies per year – with 2019 even nine billion earners. In that short five-year period, 27 (!) films exceeded that mega-threshold. By comparison, there have only been $52 billion movies in history. When you also start taking into account the number of films that approached the billion mark, the level of cinema fandom only becomes clearer.
“In 2019, Disney had eight of its nine billion-dollar earners, including three from Marvel Studios, two animated films, another live-action remake and one Star Wars.”
But then the world went on lockdown because of Corona. Production companies had to adapt to a world where movie theaters were not widely accessible, and this led to films trading physical launches for those of digital premieres on streaming services. Needless to say, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, HBO, and all the other streamers ended up raking in boatloads of viewers. After a long period without physical premieres, the pandemic ended and theaters became the way to revisit the latest blockbusters, but this did not see a return to pre-Covid form. Since the pandemic there have been five billion dollar films, and in 2023 alone many major films are struggling (or rather have already failed) to recoup their production costs.
Rise of streamers
There’s no denying that streamers have been part of this failed return to form for cinema. Why spend money on a cinema ticket when you can watch the same movie as part of the streaming subscription you’re already paying for? Pre-Covid, it took months and months for a film to make its DVD/Blu-ray release, and then often years before it came to a streamer. In today’s market, it usually takes a month or two before leaving theaters and landing on a streamer. For example, there are rumors that The Flash will be available on streaming platforms on July 18, just over a month after its premiere.
Then there are the patterns of a modern consumer to consider. Sure, you can jump in the car or walk to your local movie theater, sit through 20 minutes of trailers, before you can finally watch the movie at predetermined times. Or you can wait a while and then watch the same movie on your phone while sitting on the toilet – not that I’ve ever done that … Cinema is no longer the best, or rather most convenient, way to watch blockbusters and the recent pattern of box office data proves it.
Production budgets are spiraling out of control
The solution is simply to send movies to streamers then, right? Streamers don’t rake in the money for production companies the way cinemas do, which means films have to have smaller budgets to accommodate this. Unfortunately, for today’s blockbusters, a smaller budget is not something that can be afforded either, as special effects, animation, props and physical effects, sets, huge crews, expensive A-list actors, travel expenses and more, all mean that films cost an absolute fortune to make. For a point of reference, it has been reported that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny had a production budget of a whopping $295 million. The truly heartbreaking thing is that this usually does not also take into account the mega-marketing costs for a blockbuster film, often doubling the total budget. Essentially, to make Indy 5 a “success” for the film to be a success, it must earn a good $600 million at the global box office, something only three films have done so far in 2023.
The high cost of film production is also not something that only affects blockbusters, as indie films are becoming increasingly expensive to start up, and as has been the trend for the box office lately, are struggling to recoup their costs as well. Take Ari Aster Beau’s latest film is Afraid. This film was produced and financed by A24, a production house that was slowly becoming the king of indies, so to speak. Well, Beau is Afraid cost $35 million to make (minus marketing), and yet it failed to recoup even $11 million in cinemas. Will this film manage to generate tens of millions of dollars from streaming deals? Probably not, making the film a flop from a financial perspective and putting pressure on indie production companies to be even more careful about what they green-light and create.
Audiences are getting wiser
In the pre-pandemic era, audiences flocked to movie theaters to watch almost anything. Franchises were king and so were remakes. In 2019, the best-grossing film was Avengers: Endgame, but what was second? The live-action The Lion King, which to date is the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. In fact, in 2019 Disney had eight of its nine billion dollar earners, three of which came from Marvel Studios (Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Captain Marvel), two animated films (Frozen II and Toy Story 4), another live-action remake (Aladdin) and one Star Wars (Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker). Since that year, only one Marvel film has surpassed a billion dollars (Spider-Man: No Way Home), Pixar is struggling to find its footing, Star Wars is in theatrical stalemate and live-action remakes are being torn to shreds by fans before they even come close to premiering. Why? Because audiences don’t want to spend their money on the same thing they’ve been consuming for years.
The main problem is that this lack of interest in returning to cinemas also becomes a problem for original projects. John Wick: Chapter 4 had a huge premiere and earned back its production costs and then some but earned less than $430 million, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves went great with critics but barely exceeded $200 million worldwide, Pixar’s newest original IP, Elemental, will be lucky to even crack the $200 million mark itself. And these are just the “more successful” films of the year. History has already forgotten 65, Cocaine Bear, Air, The Pope’s Exorcist, Knock at the Cabin, Renfield, No Hard Feelings, Asteroid City, and a whole collection of interesting, original works that have fought tooth and nail or are still fighting to get a whiff of $100 million at the box office.
Will cinema recover?
With such a miserable year so far, the question is will cinema recover and return to where it once was? I don’t see it happening. There will always be a few films that debut and make one or two billion dollars and make everyone believe that cinema is alive and well, but if the smaller projects can’t serve as the basis for theaters around the world, there just won’t be room for these blockbusters to air in the first place. And that saddens me immensely. Cinema is a wonderful place, the best place to see the latest movies. As convenient and easy as streaming and viewing content on your phone is, it cannot replace a huge 40-foot screen with thumping surround sound audio that vibrates your entire body.
We are at a turning point for the film industry, and while I hope we can return to the pre-pandemic level of success and thrill, I think the days of theaters and cinemas as we know them are over. A quote from my favorite The Lord of the Rings character, Gothmog the Orc, “the age of cinema is over, the age of the streamer has arrived.”