February 27, 2024

Where would the 2023 box office be without the bomb and the bombshell?

“Barbenheimer” may have started as a meme, but the two seemingly different blockbusters with twin release dates became the moviegoing phenomenon of the year. All that social media chatter translated into ticket sales (and then some), with the Warner Bros. comedy “Barbie” capping off 2023 as the highest-grossing movie ($1.44 billion) and Universal‘s historical biopic “Oppenheimer” as the third-biggest hit (a staggering $951 million).

Studios were (finally!) rewarded for bucking the overly familiar and embracing the new and novel. Remarkably, the top three movies of the year — Universal’s animated “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” ranks as No. 2 with $1.35 billion — were original properties. Sure, “Barbie” is based on the world-famous doll, Mario is arguably video games’ greatest mascot and J. Robert Oppenheimer is a real person who changed the course of history. So even if they weren’t whole-cloth creations, these movies weren’t sequels or part of pre-existing film franchises. And, on paper, none were foregone box office winners.

There are always the inevitable bombs, and 2023 will be remembered as the year superheroes lost their Midas touch at the box office. Beyond the embarrassment of “The Marvels” and “The Flash,” there was plenty of red ink spilled from “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.” The misfires of Harrison Ford’s fifth go-around as the swashbuckling adventurer and Tom Cruise’s latest bout as globe-trotting spy Ethan Hunt were particularly shocking because not only were they two of the most expensive movies ever made, but they were etched onto the release calendar as guaranteed successes, only to wildly miss expectations. Can’t say we blame Paramount for renaming “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two.”

Overall, the domestic box office has collected $8.58 billion, according to Comscore. It’s the highest-grossing year since COVID upended the movie theater industry — far above 2022 ($7.46 billion) and 2021 ($4.56 billion). But it hasn’t rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, a time when the stateside box office comfortably reached $10 billion to $11 billion annually. Part of the problem is that Hollywood studios have been releasing fewer and fewer films, whether that’s because of strike-related delays or other hiccups in the production process. Only 88 movies debuted in theaters in 2023 compared to 108 in 2019 when ticket sales reached $10.5 billion.

It may get worse before it gets better. Major blockbusters like “Mission: Impossible 8” and “Captain America: Brave New World” were pushed into 2025 and, as a result, North American revenues are expected to drop by 11%, to $8 billion, in 2024. Of course, there could be surprise billion-dollar blockbusters in the vein of “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” to boost the box office’s bottom line. But analysts don’t expect the movie theater industry to fully recover until 2025, at the earliest.

Before this year comes to a close, Variety took a look at how the major studios fared at the global box office.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Disney

Highs: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” ($845 million), “The Little Mermaid” ($569 million), “Elemental” ($496 million)
Lows: “The Marvels” ($204 million), “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” ($383 million), “Wish” ($126 million)
Grade: C+
Takeaways: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Well, relatively speaking, of course. Disney is still a leader in terms of market share (although it’s worth noting that James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” released at the end of 2022, grossed more in 2023 than most of the studio’s would-be blockbusters). After a stunning box office streak in 2019 that will perhaps never be replicated, Disney showed the crack, crack, cracks in its once-invincible armor. Only one movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” was an unmitigated hit. And even though Pixar’s “Elemental” and “The Little Mermaid” swam to respectable tallies by the end of their box office runs, neither lived up to expectations. “Indiana Jones 5” cost $300 million, becoming one of the most painful flops of the year and a reminder that movies simply shouldn’t be that expensive.

But none of those headaches compared to the nosedive of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It started with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and culminated with “The Marvels” breaking the wrong kind of records as the lowest-grossing installment in the franchise’s history. Disney’s CEO Bob Iger has admitted the studio has suffered by mistakingly leaning toward quantity over quality. Disney, at one point, could mint a billion-dollar movie by tossing any recognizable property onto the big screen. But this year has proved the company’s brand familiarity is no longer enough to get audiences to theaters. The long-reigning box office titan remains well-stocked with its arsenal of properties like Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar. However, Disney needs a serious internal reckoning to recapture the sparkle that’s been missing from the Magic Kingdom.

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Paramount

Highs: “Scream VI” ($169 million), “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” ($197 million), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” ($180 million)
Lows: “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” ($567 million), “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” ($208 million)
Grade: B-
Takeaways: Many studio executives thought Cruise, riding high off “Top Gun: Maverick,” would be the king of the box office for the second consecutive summer with “Dead Reckoning Part One.” But the latest “Mission: Impossible” failed to ignite in its opening weekend and then got demolished by the one-two punch of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” Compounding the pain, COVID delays and disruptions pushed the budget of “Dead Reckoning Part One” to a staggering $291 million, making it a very expensive misstep. It’s also a sign that the seven-film series might be running out of steam with at least one more (nearly completed) movie yet to be released.

And “Dungeons & Dragons” won’t be filling the void if Ethan Hunt decides to turn in his IMF badge. The plan was for the Chris Pine-led adventure to kick off a new film series. But despite strong reviews, the generations of moviegoers who grew up with the role-playing game failed to show up in force. That left the $150 million production without a clear path to profitability.

There were some bright spots for Paramount. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” which cost an economical $70 million and made more than twice that at the global box office, should become a valuable new family franchise, while “Paw Patrol” continues to draw crowds. The “Scream” series has also successfully been rebooted. The only problem there is that the franchise has been mired in off-screen controversies involving cast shakeups and firings, which means Ghostface may not be back any time soon. Paging Neve Campbell!

©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Sony

Highs: “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” ($690 million), “Equalizer 3” ($190 million), “Napoleon” ($188 million)
Lows: “Dumb Money” ($20 million), “65” ($60 million)
Grade: B
Takeaways: “Across the Spider-Verse” illustrated that superhero fans haven’t given up entirely on multiverses, becoming one of the rare comic book movies this year to fly high at the box office. Next up: “Beyond the Spider-Verse.” “Equalizer 3” grossed $190 million globally (almost exactly the same as its two previous installments), demonstrating Denzel Washington’s commercial resilience. “Napoleon” isn’t a box office success, per se, given that it cost $200 million to produce. However, Sony only acted as a distributor-for-hire on the Apple-financed historical epic, so it’s all plunder for the studio. Plus, that’s a pretty respectable gross for a movie about a long-dead military genius who should have steered clear of Moscow (and Waterloo).

But not everything paid off for Sony. The studio tried to get in on the GameStop craze with the “Big Short”-like “Dumb Money,” only to find that the market had turned. It didn’t help that a star-studded ensemble that included Pete Davidson, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen and America Ferrera couldn’t promote the film during the strike. Then there was “65,” a movie that somehow involved Adam Driver and dinosaurs (we didn’t see it and, based on its ticket sales, you didn’t either). The $45 million production earned $60 million globally. Considering that movie theaters take half of all ticket sales, and that it costs tens of millions to market a film, “65” was a financial wipeout. Some things are better left extinct.

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Universal

Highs: “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” ($1.36 billion), “Oppenheimer” ($951 million), “Five Nights at Freddy’s” ($289 million), “M3GAN” ($180 million)
Lows: “Fast X” ($704 million), “Book Club: The Next Chapter” ($29 million), “Renfield” ($26 million), “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” ($21.8 million)
Grade: A
Takeaways: What a year! Two of the 2023’s three biggest hits, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Oppenheimer,” belong to Universal. Meanwhile, “M3GAN,” a $12 million movie that made $180 million, as well as “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” which converted its $20 million budget into $289 million globally, were two of the most profitable. What makes it more impressive is that Universal doesn’t have the deep library of IP that Warner Bros. or Disney commands. Instead, the studio assembled its killer lineup by leaning into everything from historical biopics to low-budget horror flicks and video game adaptations, most of them arriving without a Roman numeral in their title. Points for creativity and execution.

There were misfires, to be sure. “Fast X” showed its age and suffered from a crippling case of gargantuan budget-itis. With a massive $340 million budget, Dom Toretto’s latest adventure struggled to break even. Elsewhere, the vampire comedy “Renfield” got a stake through the heart, “Book Club: The Next Chapter” was all too easy to put down and “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” sank without a trace.

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett C

Warner Bros.

Highs: “Barbie” ($1.44 billion), “The Nun II” ($268 million), “Meg 2: The Trench” ($395 million), “Wonka” ($280 million to date)
Lows: “The Flash” ($270 million), “Blue Beetle” ($129 million), “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” ($133 million), “Aquaman and the Lost City” ($118 million to date)
Grade: B+
Takeaways: Warner Bros. deserves a lot of credit for pulling off the Barbie-core movement that swept the globe and became movie monoculture. Thanks to director Greta Gerwig’s inventive mind, Margot Robbie’s pitch-perfect take on the Mattel doll and a marketing campaign for the ages, “Barbie” is far and away the biggest success of the year. Meanwhile, the spooky sequel “The Nun II” was wildly profitable on its $38 million budget. And “Wonka,” with its $100 million price tag, cemented Timothee Chalamet’s star power and proved a worthy revisit to the world of pure imagination.

But a certain blonde bombshell can’t erase the complete collapse of four big-budget DC movies. Warner Bros. spent over $660 million (not including marketing) to bring those comic book films to the big screen — only to collectively earn less than 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” ($874 million) at the global box office. DC’s new bosses, James Gunn and Peter Safran, already announced plans to reset the sprawling superhero universe. If only they could enter the Speed Force to travel back in time and prevent the release of those comic book duds.

Photo provided by Camerimage

Apple

Highs and lows: “Killers of the Flower Moon” ($156 million), “Napoleon” ($188 million)
Grade: B
Takeaway: What to say about Apple? The tech giant isn’t looking to make money at the box office, which is great, because with budgets in the $200 million range, neither “Killers of the Flower Moon” nor “Napoleon” are in any danger of doing that. But both of those movies saw their profiles enhanced by the decision to release them in theaters instead of dropping them on streaming, resulting in more people being actually aware of their existence. That’s in contrast with many previous Apple films (apologies to the “Spirited” hive). Cinemas were basically serving as expensive billboards for Apple TV+. Plus, pulling out all the stops on a big theatrical push will please auteurs like Martin Scorsese (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) and Ridley Scott (“Napoleon”) and help lure top talent. For most studios, that kind of logic would be ruinous. But Apple’s $3 trillion market cap means it isn’t like any other company. So thanks, Tim Cook, for subsidizing the movie business.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Lionsgate

Highs: “John Wick Chapter 4” ($440 million), “Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” ($300 million), “Saw X” ($109 million), “Jesus Revolution” ($54 million)
Lows: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” ($21 million), “Joy Ride” ($15 million), “The Marsh King’s Daughter” ($2 million)
Grade: B+
Takeaway: Props to Lionsgate for keeping budgets in check. “John Wick Chapter 4” and “The Hunger Games” prequel each carried reasonable $100 million price tags, so they were well positioned to turn a profit at the box office. The fourth “John Wick,” starring Keanu Reeves as the nunchuck-wielding assassin, became the highest-grossing of the action franchise. It bodes well for the Ana De Armas-led spinoff “Ballerina,” due in theaters next year. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” charmed its way to $300 million and counting, an encouraging sign that moviegoers still care about Panem even without the presence of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Expect Lionsgate to greenlight another entry in the post-apocalyptic franchise.

None of Lionsgate’s misses were catastrophic. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” the long-awaited adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal novel, and “Joy Ride,” a raunchy R-rated comedy, didn’t do much to justify their budgets despite glowing reviews from critics. But they’re not the kind of losses that result in heads getting lobbed off. As for “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” well, at least Lionsgate probably saved by spending next to nothing on the marketing budget. Do you remember the film even playing in theaters? Neither do we.

1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3
4
5
1
2
3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *