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Bye-Bye, Box Office

Movies are changing, and I’m not sure how to feel about it.

Box office numbers don’t mean what they used to mean. Take the Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story, a movie that is getting massive acclaim both from critics and audiences, but is struggling to sell tickets. In its first weekend, the film made a little more than $10 million domestically. Now to a lot of us, ten million dollars is a fortune, a life-changing amount of money. But for a movie directed by the most popular director in the world with a beloved and recognizable IP and released in the lucrative December frame by a studio that is now owned wholly by the Walt Disney Corporation, Shadow Government, and Dairy-Free Frozen Dessert Emporium, it seems like a disaster.

But how much does the box office actually matter anymore?

Like so much in our lives, the pandemic has caused a massive, seismic shift in movies, and like so much in our lives, I don’t think it’s going to go back to what it was. Let’s look at 2019, the last pre-pandemic year. What were the highest-grossing domestic movies? According to Box Office Mojo, and rounded to the nearest million, they were:

  1. Avengers: Endgame ($858 million)
  2. The Lion King ($564 million)
  3. Toy Story 4 ($464 million)
  4. Frozen II ($430 million)
  5. Captain Marvel ($426 million)
  6. Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker ($390.7 million)
  7. Spider-Man: Far From Home ($390.5 million)
  8. Aladdin ($356 million)
  9. Joker ($334 million)
  10. It Chapter Two ($212 million)

(Side note: Anyone else notice that the top eight movies that year were all Disney or, in the case of Spider-Man, a Disney co-production? That’s crazy.)

Again, these numbers are domestic, not worldwide, as my point is mostly about the American movie business. If someone wants to examine global numbers and add to the discussion, I welcome their input, but I’m doing one thing at a time. Anyway, 2019 is a little bit of an outlier, as Endgame was the culmination of a decade-long storyline and resolved the threads of 23 movies, so it was a sort of once-in-a-lifetime event. However, it’s still part of the blockbuster machine that studios (especially Disney) were pushing so heavily at the time. By contrast, the highest grossing movie of 2021 so far is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at $225 million. It was never going to make Avengers numbers, of course, as it’s a fairly obscure Marvel character and doesn’t have any huge stars in the cast, but the fact that this year’s number ONE would be NUMBER TEN on the 2019 list is pretty astonishing. 

Obviously, the major factor here is the pandemic. A lot of people are still reluctant to go to movie theaters. A lot of theaters are still limiting attendance to prevent crowds. A lot of theaters never reopened at all. So it was inevitable that the box office was going to be down this year. But it’s not that people aren’t watching movies anymore, it’s that the way we watch movies has changed. When the pandemic hit, moviegoing shifted to a streaming model in a huge way. Studios had movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make sitting on the shelf with no way to recoup their investment, so something had to change. That change, for many companies, was making major releases day-and-date on video on demand or on streaming services, and while that factor is evolving now that theaters are back, it is not returning to what it was. 

The practice of putting a film out on VOD or streaming instead of theaters has been around for a while, particularly with smaller companies or studios. For the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers to do it, though, was a major shift. A few different things were tried. Disney had their “premiere access,” where you could pay an extra thirty bucks to watch a new release on Disney+ before the movie was available to those peasant subscribers who were only paying the studio’s regular monthly charge for the service. Warner Brothers took the bold choice to put every major release for the year on its HBO Max service for a month starting the same day it hit theaters. Both Paramount  and Universal also experimented with putting theatrical releases on their streaming services (Paramount+ and Peacock, respectively) on the same day they went to theaters. That’s not going to stay exactly the same next year, but it won’t be what it used to be either. Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal have all announced that in 2022, theatrical films will hit their streaming services 45 days after their theatrical release (another format experimented with this year). For those of us who used to wait six to twelve months for a VHS tape to come out after a movie left the theaters, this is enormous. Waiting an entire year to watch a movie… that’s too much. Grab the kids, Sondra, we’re going to the theater. But waiting just a month and a half? In a lot of cases, people consider that doable. 

I don’t think that movie theaters are ever going to go away. Studios still make too much money from them, plus it still carries a degree of prestige that you don’t get by going straight to VOD. But the box office numbers don’t mean what they used to anymore either. Earlier today, I heard one of my students ask another if she had seen Disney’s newest animated movie, Encanto, and she replied that she was waiting for it to hit Disney+ (which it is scheduled to do on Christmas Eve). How can we measure exactly what that mindset did to Encanto’s box office? Similarly, there’s no way of telling how many people have actually seen Shang-Chi, because it hit Disney+ 45 days after it was in theaters, and a lot of people (myself included) waited and watched it then. And to bring things back to West Side Story, which is where you may remember I actually started, how many people figured that it would be on Disney+ soon enough, so why rush to the theater?

We can look at ticket sales and DVD sales, but the streaming services notoriously refuse to release their numbers, except for rare occasions where you get a braggadocious and often vague announcement like “More people have watched Generic Christmas Movie #12 in the first 19.6 hours than any other generic Christmas movie in Netflix history!” Obviously somebody is watching these things, because otherwise the studios wouldn’t keep making them, but how many? Who? How is the investment recouped? It’s a mystery. But however it’s working, it’s working, and it’s cutting the box office charts off at the knees.

This paradigm shift causes mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, as I’ve said before, I treasure the movie theater experience, and I miss it terribly, since the circumstances of both my life and the world in general have made it a premium instead of a constant. On the other hand, the greater availability of movies is a good thing too, and I think it’s possible that this shift may even be the salvation of mid-level movies that have been dying out as studios pursue the blockbuster and shove everything that doesn’t fall into that category into a box where the budget is pennies and every minute of exposure is a bloody fight for survival against every other microbudget feature made that year. Plus, it would be great if people stopped looking at box office receipts as a measure of quality instead of what it actually is – a measure of how much money a film made. The two things are not the same. And once people finally realize THAT, we’ll start working on convincing them that stupid Rotten Tomatoes score is meaningless, too. 

I’m not trying to predict anything here. I’m not smart enough for that. But I think we can all recognize that things for the movie business are changing – in fact, that they have no choice but to change – and I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what permutations it goes through before it eventually settles down again. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. The last movie he got to see in a theater was Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and he’s damn glad that he did.