In 2023, movie audiences wanted comfort, not a superhero spectacle

Hollywood’s film factories operate according to conventional wisdom – ingrained notions, based on experience, about the types of films likely to perform at the global box office.

This year, the public has shaken up many of these so-called rules.

Superheroes have long been considered the most reliable way to fill seats. But characters like Captain Marvel, Flash, Ant-Man, Shazam and Blue Beetle failed to excite moviegoers. Over the weekend, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which cost more than $200 million to make and tens of millions more to market, hit a disastrous $28 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada. Foreign moviegoers contributed another $80 million.

Meanwhile, the year’s biggest box office film, “Barbie,” with $1.44 billion in worldwide ticket sales, was directed by a woman, based on a very feminine toy and spray-painted pink — ingredients that most studios have long considered to limit audience appeal. An old film industry maxim is that women should go see a “guy” movie, but not the other way around.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” » took in $1.36 billion, a second-place finish that also stunned Hollywood; studios have a troubled history with game adaptations. “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour drama about a physicist, rounds out the top three, raking in $952 million and contradicting the prevailing belief that, in the age of streaming, adult films are not viable in theaters.

“There’s no question that change is a foothold: Audiences are in a different mood,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on ticketing numbers. “The country and the world are not in the same place. We’ve had seven years of political division, a serious pandemic, two serious wars, climate change and inflation. Moviegoers seem less interested in being overwhelmed by the spectacle and saving the universe than in being talked to, entertained and inspired.

The biggest box office surprises of the year fell into the “interviewee” category. “Sound of Freedom,” a crime drama that cost $15 million to make, aimed at the far right, an audience largely ignored by Hollywood, and generated $248 million in ticket sales, tied with “The Eras Tour,” which targeted Taylor Swift. fans and also cost around $15 million.

“Sound of Freedom” comes from Angel Studios, an independent company in Provo, Utah, which supported the film with an unorthodox “Pay It Forward” program, which allowed supporters to purchase tickets online for those who otherwise would not be able to see it. In a departure from Hollywood norms, Ms. Swift cut out the middleman company (a studio) and entered into a distribution deal directly with AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest movie theater exhibitor.

“Our phone has been off the hook since the day we announced the ‘Eras ​​​​Tour’ project,” Adam Aron, AMC’s chief executive, told investors on a conference call in November, referring to the opportunities of “alternative content”.

Comscore, which compiles box office data, projected Sunday that North American ticket sales for the year would reach about $9 billion, a 20% increase from 2022. (Before the pandemic, (North American movie theaters reliably sold about $11 billion in tickets annually.) The average price of an adult general admission ticket in the United States was $12.14, compared to $11.75, according to EntTelligence, a research firm.

Global ticket sales are expected to exceed $33 billion, an increase of 27 percent, partly due to a surge in Latin America. (Before the pandemic, global ticket sales easily exceeded $40 billion a year.)

Hollywood’s recovery from the pandemic is expected to stall in 2024. With fewer films scheduled for release — studios have been disrupted by recent strikes — ticket sales will decline by 5 to 11 percent next year, according to the market, according to Gower’s projections. Street Analytics, a box office research company.

Reading tea leaves at the box office is like pontificating about symbolism in works of fiction: any halfway plausible theory works. But studio bosses need something, anything, to guide them as they make decisions that cost billions of dollars for seasons to come.

Here are five takeaways from this year:

People seek nostalgia in times of stress, and films that remind audiences of the past – while still managing to feel fresh – are successful. “Barbie,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Wonka” and the retro “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” allowed people to revisit their childhoods. “Insidious: The Red Door” hit the mark by bringing back the original stars of the franchise.

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Doom” could have tapped into nostalgia to become a hit. Instead, 81-year-old Harrison Ford, huffing and puffing, simply reminded Indy fans that they, too, are getting older. “Dial of Destiny” cost Disney $295 million and grossed $384 million. (Theaters keep about 50 percent of ticket sales.)

Sophisticated drama series, with modest budgets and aimed at older audiences, are showing signs of life after two years at the ICU box office.

The streaming era has forever shifted the bulk of prestige movie viewing to the home, analysts say. But theaters have seen a modicum of success in 2023 with offerings like “Past Lives,” a melancholy drama with Korean dialogue, and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film “The Boy and the Heron.” The custom “Asteroid City” generated $54 million.

Early box office results have also been promising for Oscar-oriented films like “Poor Things,” a surreal sci-fi romance, and “American Fiction,” a satire about a writer who prepares a fake memoir that exploits racial stereotypes.

Over the past decade, Hollywood has kept audiences interested in sequels by making each installment more voluminous and often absurd than the last. Bigger! Faster! More!

That strategy may be worth rethinking: It’s simply too costly, analysts say, especially with Chinese moviegoers unhappy with U.S. blockbusters. “Fast For comparison, “Furious 7” cost $190 million in 2015 and grossed $1.5 billion, including $391 million in China.

Tom Cruise’s seventh show, “Mission: Impossible,” released in July in the wake of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” cost about $290 million to make and grossed $568 million, including $49 million in China. . The sixth “Mission: Impossible” in 2018 cost $178 million and generated $792 million, with Chinese ticket buyers shelling out $181 million.

Increasingly, franchise sequels and spinoffs need to be fresh to succeed. Lionsgate, for example, delved deeper into the High Table underground criminal organization in “John Wick: Chapter 4” and introduced “Hunger Games” fans to a new story (and cast) in the prequel “The Ballad of the Songbirds.” and snakes.” Both films were hits. Lionsgate even rebooted its “Saw” horror franchise by taking the story back in time.

“Each of these films has done something different than the last,” said Adam Fogelson, vice president of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “It wasn’t just ‘spend more, make it bigger, make it stronger and put more action.’ “”

Horror continued to be a reliable performer, with “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and “M3gan” launching new franchises for Universal and its subsidiary Blumhouse. Together, the two films cost $32 million. They raised a total of $469 million. Also worth noting is “The Nun II”, which cost Warner Bros. about $38 million and grossed $268 million.

Superheroes may be down, but they’re not out. Marvel’s well-established and vibrant series “Guardians of the Galaxy” returned for a third chapter and grossed $846 million on a budget of $250 million. Sony’s daring, anime-influenced “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” cost about $150 million and collected $691 million.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that movie stars are essentially a thing of the past. A celebrity name above the title no longer carries much weight with ticket buyers. The underlying “intellectual property” is what fills the seats.

People pay to see Barbie, not Margot Robbie.

Except that Mattel and various studios have been trying for at least 20 years to make the toy a live-action movie star. It took Ms. Robbie in the role (and Ryan Gosling as Ken) to finally make it happen. Other films that benefited from star power in 2023 include “Wonka,” starring Timothée Chalamet, and “Creed III,” hosted by Michael B. Jordan.

The stars have no weight? Try telling that to the producers of “Gran Turismo,” “Haunted Mansion,” “Dumb Money” and “Strays,” all of which disappointed at the box office and arrived when their actors couldn’t promote their work because SAG-AFTRA Strike.