Movie Theaters Are Being Starved To Death

Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, is reportedly filing for bankruptcy in the U.S., blaming a lack of theatrical releases this summer and for the next three months. The multiplex chain is not going out of business; that’s why it’s called ‘bankruptcy protection.’ This is, however, a natural consequence when A) theaters are closed for 1.5 years during a global pandemic even as other industries are allowed to open much sooner and B) distributors spend the next 1.5 years withholding big theatrical releases. The overperformance of Top Gun: Maverick, racing toward $700 million domestic, was the difference between an overall theatrical season down 28% from 2019 and one down closer to 45%. The critical factor is that 1/3 fewer movies were being released theatrically. Movie theaters are being starved to death.

Even as restaurants and sporting events started to re-open in 2020, movie theaters remained closed in crucial markets like New York and Los Angeles. That was why Tenet bombed in North America ($58 million) despite earning a substantial $305 million overseas. That’s why the slew of promised post-Tenet tentpoles (Black Widow, No Time to Die, etc.) got pushed to 2021 or, as was the case with Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul, used as cannon fodder in the streaming war. Theaters were open in much of the country by late summer, but Hollywood (understandably) held back the big movies until conditions improved. Even as vaccines became available in late 2020/early 2021, the pattern became brief moments of feast followed by a distributor-caused famine. We’ve seen this from April 2021 through August 2022.

Godzilla Vs. Kong’s industry-saving success was followed by six tentpole-free weeks. Wrath of Man still became one of Jason Statham’s biggest R-rated solo actioners before A Quiet Place part II and Cruella opened over Memorial Day weekend. The next tentpole was F9 on June 25. Even after June, summer was dominated mainly by horror movies and comparatively expendable franchise flicks. Black Widow opened last July the summer so Disney+’s Hawkeye (co-starring Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova) could premiere on schedule. Comparatively speaking, Boss Baby 2 < Minions 2, Snake Eyes < Top Gun: Maverick and The Suicide Squad < The Batman. However, as we saw in September with Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and its record $94 million Labor Day weekend, the tentpoles could still pull tentpole grosses.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage opened bigger ($90 million versus $80 million) and earned more domestically ($214 million vs. $213 million) than Venom. Halloween Kills ($92 million domestic) dropped less percentage-wise from Halloween ($159 million) than did Halloween: Resurrection and Halloween II (1981) from Halloween: H20 and Halloween (1978). No Time to Die grossed 88% of Spectre’s $881 million total. Spider-Man: No Way Home scored the second-biggest opening weekend ever ($260 million). Sing 2 grossed $161 million domestic (more than Secret Life of Pets 2) while concurrently existing on PVOD for most of its theatrical run. However, with no Oscar season breakouts opening wide and Sony moving Morbius to early April, Paramount’s Scream was the only game in town for January 2022. Uncharted overperformed in February, while Death on the Nile bombed.

March was supposed to be crowded. Instead, Turning Red got sent to Disney+ and Operation Fortune got pulled, leaving The Batman alone until The Lost City opened on March 25. The media feigned confusion as to why AMC would charge a buck or two more for The Batman. April of 2022 (Sonic 2, Morbius, Fantastic Beasts 3, The Northman, Ambulance, etc.) was and remains the last ‘normal’ month for exhibition since last October. May, (Doctor Strange 2 and Top Gun 2), June (Jurassic World 3 and Lightyear) and July (Minions 2 and Thor 4) each had two biggies. We had some studio programmers (Downton Abbey 2, Elvis, The Black Phone, Nope, Where the Crawdads Sing, DC League of Super Pets and Bullet Train) intermixed, but that’s the summer slate.

It was thus catastrophic when Lightyear and Super Pets both underperformed. It stung a little when Bullet Train and Nope were only modest hits instead of blockbusters. Conversely, Top Gun: Maverick could have played like an above-average non-Mission: Impossible Tom Cruise vehicle ($125 million domestic and $400 million worldwide). Instead, it so overperformed that it helped paper over some differences for a summer season with 1/3 fewer-than-normal theatrical releases. There will have been 4.5 months between Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Adam (October 21) and four months between DC League of Super Pets and Walt Disney’s Strange World (November 23). Sony’s Bullet Train is the last remotely big theatrical release until Sony’s The Woman King on September 16 or Warner Bros. Discovery’s Don’t Worry Darling on September 23.

Post-production delays caused by Covid-era traffic jams mean Black Adam, Salem’s Lot, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse will open later than intended. It’s good to release an fx-driven film later versus overworking the CGI talent, but it doesn’t help theaters. Disney isn’t exactly all in on theaters, which means 20th Century Studio flicks like Prey are Hulu debuts. Ditto MGM now being owned by Amazon. To be fair, Disney did release Lightyear, Doctor Strange 2 and Thor 4 and will be offering Black Panther 2 and Avatar 2. Throw in general streaming > theaters mentalities, and studio programmers like The Man from Toronto, Samaritan and Shotgun Wedding being sold to streaming platforms. You now have theaters going bankrupt even amid top-tier box office results.

We’ve known since May of 2021, when A Quiet Place part II opened over the Memorial Day holiday with $57 million (on par with its pre-Covid tracking of $55 million), that audiences would show up for preordained blockbusters. We have seen this again (No Time to Die) and again (The Batman) and again (Jurassic World Dominion). Top Gun: Maverick, aimed at older and irregular moviegoers, shattered records for a Memorial Day weekend opening ($160.5 million) and is about to pass Avengers: Age of Ultron globally. Minions: The Rise of Gru, aimed at kids and families, opened with a record-breaking $128 million Fri-Mon launch over Independence Day weekend. Spider-Man: No Way Home grossed $1.91 billion worldwide without a penny from China. These aren’t ‘Covid-era milestones.’ These are all-time box office records being demolished.

It’s not just the tentpoles. Elvis has earned $270 million worldwide to become the second-biggest musical biopic ever behind Bohemian Rhapsody ($905 million). As The Batman became the biggest-grossing straight reboot ($370 million) in domestic earnings, Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum pushed The Lost City past $100 million domestic. While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Uncharted topped $400 million worldwide, Everything, Everywhere All At Once became A24’s first $100 million-plus global grosser. Marvels Thor: Love and Thunder has outgrossed Thor: Ragnarok in North America and (sans China and Russia) overseas. Both Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in November and Avatar: The Way of Water in December may join Top Gun: Maverick in the $600 million-plus domestic club. Audiences have clearly returned. It’s the movies that are missing in action.

When Cineworld files for bankruptcy protection and pundits argue that theaters need to adapt, well, adapt to what? Theaters were shut down for a year due to a global pandemic, and now they are still denied regular theater-worthy releases. Meanwhile, some in the media and investor class openly root for their demise so they won’t have to admit they were wrong about streaming being an all-eggs-in-one basket success story. However, the ‘big’ films offered have consistently matched or even exceeded pre-Covid box office expectations, with years of evidence suggesting that strong theatrical revenue boosts PVOD and streaming potential. It cannot be an either/or proposition. Killing theatrical due to malnutrition may also send streaming, at least for movies, to its own early grave. So once again, live together or die alone.