It was more of the best of times than the worst of times at the summertime box office. Coming off of three summer moviegoing seasons hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, 2023 was the first time where audiences returned to theaters for movies beyond Top Gun: Maverick. The domestic box office hit the $4 billion mark, well above last summer's total of $3.3 billion.
And while much of the credit for those numbers goes to two specific movies — Barbie and Oppenheimer — there were other surprise hits along the way, including the super sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and the indie thriller Sound of Freedom. But we still have a long way to go to match the glory days of pre-COVID summers, especially for non-franchise films and social media events like Barbenheimer. Here's our round-up of the winners and losers at the summertime box office.
WINNER: Barbenheimer was the movie event of the summer
As movie theaters were struggling and shuttering in mid-2020, we wondered if Tenet — the highly anticipated new release from Cinephile God Christopher Nolan — could be the film that saved Hollywood. Narrator’s voice: It wasn’t. But fast-forward three years and it was another Nolan release, albeit with a lot of help from a certain iconic blonde, that may have.
Ahead of the July 21 release of Greta Gerwig's Barbie and Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, there was months-worth of "Barbenheimer" hype on social media. And somehow it over-delivered... beyond over-delivered. Nolan’s three-hour opus about the father of the atom bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), opened to $82 million and has locked in $777 million internationally to date.
Meanwhile, the candy-colored Margot Robbie-starring comedy has been nothing short of a phenomenon. According to a Yahoo/YouGov poll, nearly 90% of Americans are aware of the movie — an incredible penetration, with hordes upon hordes of pink-clad fans descending upon theaters on the way to smashing all kinds of records. The film opened with $162 million and currently has raked in $594 million (and counting) in the U.S. and more than $1.3 billion internationally. Barbie even surpassed the final Harry Potter movie as Warners’ highest-grossing release of all time.
WINNER: Marvel heroes had a mostly marvel-ous summer
The House of M may have stumbled out of the gate in 2023 with the largely panned Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but the studio’s fortunes warmed up with the advent of summer. James Gunn’s trilogy-capping Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 performed on brand, finishing its run with $845 million worldwide — more than the first film, and just below the second. Meanwhile, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse doubled the international gross of its 2018 predecessor and scored the summer’s first $100 million opening until Barbie came along. With all those Marvel zombies headed to theaters, no wonder there was nobody left to stream Secret Invasion.
LOSER: The final few DCEU movies hit the ground running... but didn't get anywhere
Meanwhile, the mood over at Marvel’s Distinguished Competition was grimmer than The Dark Knight Returns. After Shazam: Fury of the Gods crash-landed in March, all eyes turned to The Flash to add some zip back into DC’s financial statements. But the combination of a problematic star and poorly executed multiversal Easter eggs left the Scarlet Speedster choking on Spider-Verse’s dust with a disappointing $270 million international gross. DC’s other summer offering, Blue Beetle, met with a more positive response from fans, but failed to deliver much business, currently falling short of the $100 million mark at home and abroad. At least Jaime Reyes will have a second chance to make a first impression. New DC Studios bosses James Gunn and Peter Safran have promised that he’ll play a role in their rebooted universe.
WINNER: The Little Mermaid captured a big part of the world’s attention
Was Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid a box-office coup? Depends on who you ask. The Rob Marshall musical led by a stunning breakout performance by Halle Bailey slightly underperformed on its Memorial Day opening weekend, earning just under $119 million after predictions it would net up to $125 million. But the movie showed major staying power, ultimately soaking in $298 million in the U.S. — making it the sixth-highest earner of the year so far — and another $270 million internationally. So yes, maybe foreign territories didn’t connect with it as strongly as those stateside, but the movie still brought in over $568 million on a budget of $250 million. Screen Rant, however, was less impressed, pointing out that the film could be considered a disappointment considering the metrics of other Disney live-action remakes like The Lion King, Aladdin and The Jungle Book making in the $1 billion range worldwide. We’ll call it a mild hit.
LOSER: Haunted Mansion didn’t scare — or entertain — anyone
Twenty years after Disney’s first stab at a Haunted Mansion movie came and went, the Mouse House tried again — this time with Tiffany Haddish, LaKeith Stanfield and Rosario Dawson front and center. But the second cinematic trip into the classic Disneyland attraction didn’t scare up much business either, grossing an anemic $91 million worldwide. It wasn’t Haddish’s only summer flop. The Girls Trip star also appeared in the largely unseen Back on the Strip and Landscape With Invisible Hand.
WINNER: Elemental rebounds to break tough-luck stretch for Pixar
Disney had plenty of highs and lows this summer, and Pixar’s Elemental initially looked like it would end up in the latter category. The acclaimed animated comedy opened in June against The Flash to only $29.5 million, the second lowest opening ever for a Pixar joint, behind only 1995’s Toy Story — released before anyone knew what the heck a Pixar was. (And that’s pre-inflation, as Toy Story sold more tickets.) But Elemental dropped only 38% in its second weekend, and stayed afloat for weeks and weeks after, ultimately completing its turnaround to the tune of $151 million in the U.S. and $468 million worldwide. It has a lot to recoup on a budget of $200 million — making it one of the most expensive animated movies ever — but that's one of the most impressive rebounds we’ve seen in a while.
LOSER: What’s happening to all the non-superhero action franchises?
We hear a lot about "superhero fatigue," but it’s not only comic book movies that are hit-and-miss these days. That trend started with May’s Fast X, where the Vin Diesel-led franchise showed vulnerability for the first time in years. The 10th installment grossed $719 million worldwide off a budget of $340 million. That’s down just a smidge from Fast 9's $726 million, but that one cost a comparatively economical $200 million to produce.
Elsewhere, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts made $439 million, making it the lowest grossing entry in the seven-movie Transformers series so far. Harrison Ford’s swan song as the titular Nazi-punching archeologist in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was supposed to be one of, if the not the, biggest movies of the summer, but fell far, far short of expectations with only $379 million taking a reported $100 million loss for Disney after marketing costs. Ouch.
Not even Tom Cruise and his death-defying stunts were safe. A summer after Top Gun: Maverick dominated the box office, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One disappointed with $552 million on a budget of $291 million — a $100 million loss for Paramount.
WINNER: Sound of Freedom made a lot of noise
The Fourth of July weekend was supposed to belong to Indiana Jones, but instead another action hero stole the fedora-wearing adventurer’s thunder. Upstart faith-based distributor Angel Studios dropped the child trafficking thriller Sound of Freedom in multiplexes on July 4 and saw it battle Indy to a standstill on its opening day. Using a unique “Pay It Forward” system where moviegoers could crowdfund free tickets for other viewers, the film went on to clean the Dial of Desinty’s clock, earning $180 million in the U.S. alone compared to its rival’s $174 million domestic gross. Naturally, that approach generated plenty of controversy, as did star Jim Caviezel’s QAnon connection. But here’s one thing that’s not up for debate: Made for only $15 million, Sound of Freedom is one of the most profitable independent releases in years.
LOSER: R-rated comedies return to theaters with little fanfare (or attendance)
This one hurt the most. Heading into this summer, it felt like R-rated comedies were finally, finally going to make a valiant return to movie theaters. Remember how much fun it was to see Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin both in cineplexes 18 summers ago?
Joy Ride. No Hard Feelings. Strays... the season was stacked with them. But one by one they faltered. Joy Ride had immaculate buzz coming out of SXSW Film Festival and CinemaCon, but only made $6 million its opening weekend, and $12 million total in the U.S. No Hard Feelings featured Jennifer Lawrence making her first big broad comedy, and it topped out at $50 million domestically on a budget of $45 million. Strays has hilariously coarse talking dogs voiced by Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx. It opened fourth at the box office, and has only grossed $16 million in the U.S. so far on a budget of $46 million.
No one’s expecting the indie comedy Bottoms to save the day, but it did open last weekend with the highest per-screen average on 10 or more screens since Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All At Once. Still, the queer Fight Club-inspired laugher only opened in four cities — New York, L.A., San Francisco and Austin — so it’s only grossed over half-a-million so far. But if it can continue that rate as it platforms across the country, it probably won’t save R-rated comedies, but it’ll be really impressive.
LOSER: Indie dramas played to mostly empty arthouses
While Sound of Freedom and Talk to Me were box-office bright spots for the eternally struggling indie film market, adult audiences got their drama from streaming services instead of art houses. Films like Past Lives — which eked out a $10 million gross — Master Gardener and Blackberry all failed to break out in a big way despite largely stellar reviews. One film did manage to lure viewers away from their TVs and back to speciality theaters, though: Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City banked $890,000 in its opening weekend, a personal best for the filmmaker. Of course, the film’s $25 million budget and major studio-associated distributor (Focus Features, which is part of the NBC Universal empire) mean that it’s indie status is questionable, but the market will take what it can get.
WINNER: Low-budget horror movies keep making high profits
Pound for pound, horror might be the most profitable genre around in filmmaking, with movies made for less than $10 million oftentimes banking many, many times that. This summer, we saw that play out with the franchise staple Insidious: The Red Door, and an upstart from the Land Down Under, Talk to Me. Insidious making bank was hardly a surprise: The first four movies collected a whopping $542 million off a combined budget of only $26 million. The fifth installment continued that trend, earning $82 million in the U.S. and $187 million worldwide on a $16 million budget. Meanwhile, after shocking audiences at Sundance, SXSW and Comic-Con, the Aussie import from YouTube stars Danny and Michael Philippou (aka RackaRacka), was made for just $4.5 million and grabbed $55 million worldwide. A sequel is already in the works, obviously.
LOSER: High-concept horror sank to box-office lows
Horror fans were apparently too busy getting a talking-to by indie horror darling Talk to Me to pay much attention to the horror offerings from the major studios. Universal admirably took a new stab at Dracula with The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which turned a chapter of Bram Stoker’s classic novel into an entire feature film. Sadly, that was a chapter that most moviegoers skipped over as the film earned an anemic $15 million worldwide gross. Disney’s The Boogeyman expanded on Stephen King’s 1978 short story and found more expansive returns — $67 million worldwide, to be exact — but that’s still on the low end of King adaptations.