Box Office: Warning Signs Amid Summer’s Big Highs

In addition to the chaos of the strikes, Hollywood is facing a moment of reckoning after some of the costliest franchise installments in history were washed out to sea at the 2023 summer box office, while such original fare as Barbie and Oppenheimer created a surprise cultural tsunami.

A box office aficionado would have to go back years, if not decades, to find another summer where two of the five top-grossing movies in North America were fresh and original nonfranchise tentpoles. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie tops the 2023 season with a current domestic haul north of $600 million and more than $1.38 billion worldwide. The movie has shattered numerous records, including becoming the top-grossing movie in Warner Bros.’ history after passing up the final Harry Potter pic, not adjusted for inflation. And over Labor Day weekend, Barbie became the biggest film of the year to date at the global box office after eclipsing spring blockbuster The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, from Universal, has earned more than $300 million domestically and north of $850 million globally to rank as the filmmaker’s biggest film behind the two Dark Knight superhero pics, among other honors. Then there’s Sound of Freedom, the indie movie about child trafficking that’s earned $182 million domestically after Utah-based Angel Studios tapped into its faith-based conservative audience.

Thanks in large part to the trio of very different films, summer domestic revenue has crossed $4 billion for the first time since the pandemic, according to Comscore. Final numbers for the season show revenue clocking in at $4.091 billion by the close of Labor Day weekend, a gain of 19.1 percent over 2022’s $3.434 billion and narrowing the gap from 2019’s $4.348 billion to 5.9 percent. “Without Barbie and Oppenheimer, we would be having a very different conversation. It would have been a rather mundane summer,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. Adds Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian, “Disruption comes in many forms, and the audience has spoken by their presence and absence for the movies released this summer.” (Before Barbenheimer, summer revenue was down 7 percent over 2022 and 15 percent behind 2019.)

Hollywood has reason to be rattled by the Barbenheimer phenomenon, which challenges the notion that established franchises rule above all else. “Has it changed the internal dialogue? You bet,” says one top studio executive. “I’ve been in at least three meetings where we’ve talked about how we need to look for something special. It’s scary because you have to make sure your convictions and instincts are right. It’s all about creating a critical mass. That was never the case before.”

Notes Warners domestic president of distribution Jeff Goldstein: “The world is different than it was pre-pandemic. The biggest difference is the amount of programming on streaming. In terms of theatrical, you need to be more original and have higher quality. There’s no ceiling and there’s no floor. You must be smart and take chances.”

While Barbie is based on an iconic IP, no one in Hollywood — including within Warners — knew whether Gerwig’s irreverent, feminist take would sync with audiences. And Oppenheimer, well, it’s a three-hour biographical drama. “It’s a great sign that audiences coming out of the pandemic are eager to come out and see original titles that captivate their imagination. We’ve all been discussing getting adult audiences back after the pandemic. Wow, did we ever just do that to an amazing degree,” says Universal president of domestic distribution Jim Orr of Oppenheimer‘s stunning results.

Heading into summer, analysts looking at the lineup this spring were focused on more traditional, all-audience tentpoles such as Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One.

There was no sign of franchise trouble when Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 kicked off the summer on a high note — the superhero pic has grossed roughly $845.5 million globally, nearly on par with the sequel’s $863.7 million haul. And Sony’s animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse impressed as it soared to $688 million at the worldwide box office by Aug. 29, well ahead of the $384.2 million earned by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

But a disturbing trend developed. Fast X topped out at just $146 million domestically, the third-lowest showing of the series (though the film made up ground overseas with a huge $719 million). Then came DC’s June bomb, The Flash, which earned less than $268.5 million worldwide. One source says the biggest mistake Warners made was focusing on DC’s new era under James Gunn and Peter Safran. “It rendered the leftover titles in the DC stable uninteresting,” says the insider. (The more recent Blue Beetle is another example, although the family friendly movie is showing some staying power, earning north of $100 million globally through its third weekend.)

Disney and Lucasfilm’s Dial of Destiny was also a serious stumble, grossing just $381.1 million globally against a $300 million budget and badly trailing the $790.6 million brought in by 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Then came Dead Reckoning, which was perhaps the biggest psychic blow of the summer, considering Cruise had played a key role in box office recovery with 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick. The latest M:I film — likewise costing $300 million to produce before marketing — had earned $551.9 million worldwide by the end of August, the lowest showing of the series since 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, after opening a week ahead of Barbie and Oppenheimer.

Like numerous other summer tentpoles, the latest Mission: Impossible movie was hit hard by dramatically declining returns from the China box office, where Hollywood fare is struggling. Excluding China — and Russia — Dead Reckoning Part One is running on par, if not ahead of Mission: Impossible — Fallout, internationally. (Fallout grossed north of $181 million in China, versus roughly $47 million for Dead Reckoning.)

In late June, Cruise played the role of theatrical ambassador once again when urging moviegoers to support Oppenheimer and Barbie. (He likely never anticipated what was to follow).

One production executive says no amount of marketing money can replace what happens when a movie breaks out socially, as evidenced by Barbie and Oppenheimer. “It’s like catching lightning in a bottle,” he says.

The newly announced Taylor Swift concert pic The Eras Tour hopes to do just that, given her clout. The movie will play over the course of several weekends, beginning Oct. 13, and has already whipped up a record $26 million in advance sales for AMC Theatres in the first 24 hours after tickets became available for purchase. Exhibition sources believe the concert pic could earn north of $100 million in its first weekend alone, and perhaps ultimately $150 million.

Studio executives say cost control is a new imperative after this summer. “You have to figure out how to make movies at a reasonable price, and then pick those movies that you want to take a big swing at,” says another top studio executive. Adds another veteran studio source: “This has always been a speculative, volatile business, but the big [budget] movies are bigger than ever. It’s a killer when they don’t work.”

Paramount spent a relatively modest $70 million to make its August family pic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which has grossed north of $153 million to date and, according to studio insiders, has successfully relaunched the franchise. In regards to the family marketplace, other summer highlights — led, of course by Across the Spider-Verse — included The Little Mermaid, which came in No. 5 on the domestic summer chart with north of $297 million, one of the best showings for a Disney live-action remake (its global earnings are more than $569 million).

Pixar and Disney’s Elemental was a win in terms of overcoming a soft opening and enjoying strong legs to gross north of $478 million to date at the worldwide box office, but its pricey production budget of at least $200 million makes a financial victory difficult.

Disney and its stable of marquee film stables, including Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, continues to lead in terms of sheer marketshare, and was the only major studio whose summer ticket sales crossed the $1 billion threshold in North America. Marketshare has little to do with profitability — as Sony movie chief Tom Rothman is fond of saying — and Disney has certainly taken its lumps this summer but is proud of its overall contribution to the $4 billion victory.

“It is terrific to see the overall summer box office coming in close to pre-pandemic levels as moviegoers from all audiences once again embrace a robust and diverse slate of titles,” says Disney global distribution chief Tony Chambers. “And all of this despite a number of titles across all studios possibly not delivering to the levels that we all had originally hoped and expected.”

Sept. 5, 5:00 p.m.: Updated with final summer revenue via Comscore.

Summer Bummer: Franchise Fare (Mostly) Lags Predecessors (infographic)
Summer Bummer: Franchise Fare (Mostly) Lags Predecessors (infographic)

Summer Scorecard: What Worked

Sound of Freedom The indie film from Angel Studios arrived out of nowhere to earn north of $180 million domestically, putting it at No. 6 on the list of top-grossing summer films, ahead of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and the latest Mission: Impossible feature.

Barbie Greta Gerwig’s fresh, feminist take on the doll came in 187 percent ahead of the previous record-holder for a toy-to-movie adaptation (The Lego Movie). That’s on top of other records Gerwig smashed, including the top-grossing solo female director of all time. “Nobody could have guessed what Barbie would turn out to be,” says Goldstein. “Audiences will tell your clearly what they like and what they don’t like.

Oppenheimer No one could have foreseen that this three-hour biopic would become Christopher Nolan’s biggest film in more than 50 overseas markets when factoring in current exchange rates and excluding unreleased territories. (It’s No. 3 in North America, behind the final two Dark Knight films. “Oppenheimer has been phenomenally strong overseas. And what’s particularly interesting is that it’s the biggest Nolan film of all time in more than 50 territories, representing a cross section of different cultures and tastes in upmarket and downmarket territories alike,” says Universal president of international distribution Veronika Kwan Vandenberg.

What Didn’t

The Haunted Mansion The movie, with a global haul of $100 million through Labor Day, marks the second-lowest-grossing title in Disney’s stable of theme park rides or attractions adapted for the big screen behind 2002’s The Country Bears ($18 million), not adjusted for inflation.

The Flash It was a total flameout, grossing less than $270 million worldwide, behind even last year’s superhero disappointment Black Adam. And DC’s other summer entry, Blue Beetle, is the lowest-grossing title in the DC Extended Universe, with less than $85 million. Ouch.

R-Rated Comedies So much for the return of the raunchy comedy. The Jennifer Lawrence starrer No Hard Feelings topped out at $50.5 million domestically against a $45 million production budget, followed by $21.5 million to date for the canine romp Strays and less than $13 million for Joy Ride.

A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe

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