In the final two years of the 2010s, the domestic box office hit yearly hauls of $11.8 and $11.3 billion, with the former gross in 2018 being the biggest single-year gross ever in North America. It was an encouraging sign for the North American box office and the state of theatrical cinema, a sign that people were not abandoning movie theaters even with a plethora of entertainment options out there. All that momentum got derailed with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down theaters in March 2020, which immediately got people wondering when the box office landscape will recover to its pre-2020 levels.
By April 2021, Deadline reported that analysts were bullishly projecting that the global box office in 2022 would only be down by 8-10% compared to 2019, while one analyst quoted by the outlet projected the 2023 box office to be up 6% from the 2019 box office. In other words, 2023 was eyeballed as the year the box office would reach pre-pandemic levels. Even with two months to go in the year, though, that looks impossible to hit. As of this writing, 2023 has amassed $7.3 billion domestically and should crack $9 billion before the year’s end, which would still be the lowest yearly domestic box office since 2005. The sad part of this situation is that these box office struggles aren’t because audiences aren’t done with theaters. Tons of movies have recently shown people love the big screen. The recent instance of the AMPTP walking away from negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild to resolve the ongoing actors strike underlines that the real problem here is corporations and studios. These entities constantly undercut the box office and prevent it from reaching pre-pandemic levels. If theatrical cinema dies, companies like Disney, Warner Bros., Netflix, and other members of the AMPTP will be the ones holding the knife.
The AMPTP stands for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade association founded in 1924 comprised of major TV and film producers. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll be focusing on the latter group, which includes all the major studios (like Disney, Warner Bros., Universal) and the biggest streamers like Netflix, Apple TV+, and Amazon. None of these companies have navigated 2023’s barrage of strikes with any sense of grace or tact, as evidenced by reports in July 2023 that the AMPTP didn’t want to negotiate with writers until they were in danger of losing their homes. Let’s just cut through the clutter here: the actions of the AMPTP are all about the rich wanting to maintain their ludicrous wealth while the gap between the upper and lower classes gets larger and larger. The initial proposed costs to resolve the Writer’s Guild of America’s concerns would’ve been $429 million in total, a drop in the bucket for corporations like Apple and Amazon. In the interest of undermining union efforts and holding onto the wealth, though, the folks comprising the AMPTP have made 2023 a nightmare for working-class people.
This short-sighted and selfish thinking extends to these studios shamefully walking away from negotiations with SAG on how to resolve the actor’s strike, but it’s also apparent in actions from the major studios undertaken from 2020 to 2022. Such actions have permanently impacted the box office landscape and have helped to ensure that it’ll be tougher than ever for the box office to reach pre-pandemic levels. Most notably, Warner Bros. abruptly opted to send all of its 2021 titles to simultaneous theatrical and streaming releases on HBO Max. This drastic shift in how to release movies was done without advanced warning to any of the artists involved in 2021 Warner Bros. titles like Dune or The Suicide Squad.
Not a single movie that Warner Bros. released in 2021 made over $110 million domestically and only two of its titles managed to crack $100 million at all in North America. Scattered throughout the year are a slew of titles that could’ve been valuable moneymakers to theaters if they’d been given theatrical exclusive releases and debuted when more theaters were open (titles like The Little Things opened in multiplexes when New York and Los Angeles theaters were still closed). Instead, Warner Bros. rushed everything out to 2021 in a stupid bid to boost HBO Max subscriber numbers. Ironically, HBO Max no longer exists, it’s now Max, a service that is vehemently against streaming exclusive movies. Warner Bros. burned its 2021 slate, alienated filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, and destroyed countless potential sources of strong box office for a temporary subscriber boost for a defunct streaming service.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, studios like Warner Bros. responded to the uncertainty of this global health crisis by embracing short-term profits associated with streaming services. WB wasn’t alone in this pursuit, as Disney also sent a slew of Pixar titles like Soul and Turning Red to streaming. In the process, a family-friendly brand name that used to be a guaranteed box office draw was now associated with streaming entertainment you could watch in the comfort of your home. Disney got a day or two of positive Wall Street buzz for pushing Luca to Disney+, but in the process, they hurt the box office landscape in unspeakable ways. Not only did theaters lose possible revenue from titles like Soul, but they also lost further revenue on subsequent Pixar titles that tried to go back to theaters. The short-sighted business practices of these studios already signaled a selfish streak demonstrating a remarkable unwillingness to look even a little bit into the future. Studios were willing to destroy relationships with filmmakers and movie theaters themselves if it meant making a quick buck.
COVID-era releases aren’t the only thing demonstrating why studios have become the greatest enemy of movie theaters. In the post-March 2020 world, studios have also shown extreme hesitance towards delivering constant new movies to theaters occupying a wide array of genres, which would allow for a slew of different audience members to come to theaters. Variety reported in December 2022 that the unwillingness by studios to commit to consistent year-round theatrical releases in 2022 likely cost the domestic box office in 2022 at least $1 billion. Major movie studios have always been risk-adverse entities, but the lack of confidence in trying new things by 2023 movie studios makes mainstream movie companies from the 1980s look like United Artists!
Without a steady slate of titles around, the domestic box office keeps getting into deadly lulls like September 2022, where movie theaters become ghost towns. Of course, this dearth of new movies is a byproduct of possibly the biggest way major movie studios have screwed over the theatrical film industry: consolidation. In recent years, movie studios and media companies have been merging like crazy in an ill-advised attempt to “match” the scale of Netflix. Most notably, this means Disney bought up 20th Century Studios, a company that, under its 20th Century Fox name, delivered 20 theatrical releases over $1.3 billion to the domestic box office landscape. In 2023, the studios only released four new movies and haven’t been able to crack $400 million even with the might of Avatar: The Way of Water making $283 million domestically in the new year. That gap between 20th Century Studios in 2017 and 2023 is roughly $1 billion, which means $1 billion has been removed from the domestic box office equation (or roughly 10% of 2019’s yearly haul) thanks to Disney going merger-crazy.
Looking at the biggest studios of 2019, it’s also important to remember that STX Entertainment (which provided $318.8 million and ten theatrical releases to that year’s slate) is also gone, now reduced to being an arm of Lionsgate. WarnerBros., under its new WarnerDiscovery parent company, has also slimmed down tremendously, with the studios slate of 25 major new theatrical releases in 2019 winding down to just 11 in 2023 (and that’s being generous and counting Mummies, a foreign animated title that never went into wide release). The current 2023 box office haul for Warner Bros. ($1.14 billion) is roughly $900 million beneath the $2 billion yearly domestic gross for the studio in 2018. Examining the box office shifts in these studios that have gone under new management or shrunk down considerably in recent years, one can immediately see why the theatrical landscape is struggling to match pre-COVID numbers. The fall-off for Warner Bros. and 20th Century Studios alone accounts for $1.9 billion in lost revenue. It’s impossible to imagine a domestic box office landscape being able to hit $10 billion again without these studios around, a harsh reality made possible by big conglomerates just gobbling up media companies like they’re Skittles.