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The 2022 Summer Movie Box Office In Review

Yes, the overriding takeaway from the 2022 summer movie season was the general lack of theatrical releases. Even amid several titles breaking box office records and almost every tentpole performing at least as well as expected, Cineworld has still filed for bankruptcy protection. Theaters are still being starved for content. Jaws, E.T. and Avatar are rereleasing like it’s the summer of 2020 all over again. Overall, the films offered up earned $3.06 billion domestic, down 25% from 2019 but down just 19% from 2017’s $3.77 billion domestic cume. Of course, there were just 132 releases this summer versus 276 releases in 2019 and 249 in 2017. The problem isn’t with demand, but ratehr supply. That being said, how did the individual movies that we did get in theaters between May and August perform? Well, let’s dive in.

The unmitigated box office champion of the summer:

Top Gun: Maverick so ridiculously overperformed that it singlehandedly created a summer that, domestically, was down just 25% from 2019. Had it performed to pre-release expectations, think $150 million domestic, the overall summer would be down closer to 40%. Instead, it has grossed $684 million domestic from a record-breaking $160.5 million Memorial Day weekend debut, with its sights set on Black Panther’s $700 million cume. It has, as of yesterday, passed the unadjusted $1.405 billion global cume of Avengers: Age of Ultron to become the second biggest ‘part two’ sequel of all time behind Frozen II ($1.45 billion). While Age of Ultron grossed $300 million in China, Tom Cruise’s legacy sequel didn’t even play in China, helping end the notion that Hollywood tentpoles needed Chinese box office to compete globally.

Top Gun: Maverick (which just dropped on PVOD and EST yesterday) made up 22% of the overall summer movie box office, which (not counting the summer of 2020) is the biggest percentage earned by a single summer movie since E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (23.2%) in the summer of 1982. With rave reviews, an A+ from Cinemascore, legs worthy of James Cameron and the ability to pull in older moviegoers and the sorts of irregular audiences who only show up for once-in-a-generation events like American Sniper, The Passion of the Christ, Black Panther and The Force Awakens, Top Gun: Maverick was the unquestionable savior of the summer movie season.

The biggest box office bomb of the summer:

Lightyear was the first Pixar movie to get a full-blown, uninterrupted (Onward opened theatrically just a week before the world shut down in March of 2020) global theatrical release since Toy Story 4. After two years of inclusive, original and/or ambitious titles like Soul, Luca and Turning Red going straight to Disney+, there was something grimly cynical about Lightyear, a stand-alone, Chris Evans-starring Buzz Lightyear movie getting the preferred release treatment. The movie was a visually dazzling and surprisingly melancholy critique of nostalgia and arrested development among older adults. In a world where any big-scale animated film was an automatic event, Lightyear would have performed just fine. But in the summer of 2022, it opened with $51 million and flamed out with $118 million domestic and $226 million worldwide.

Disney+ conditioning audiences to expect big-deal Disney flicks at home in 45 days ‘for free’ didn’t help. Moreover, Lightyear was Solo 2.0. It was another unrequested origin story prequel centered on a significant character from a successful franchise played by a different actor with nothing to offer those who weren’t already onboard with the pitch. Finally, did online controversy over the film’s same-sex kiss hurt? Maybe, at least just enough to keep it below The Good Dinosaur ($123 million). Audiences were so outraged that they spent their money instead on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Jurassic World Dominion and Thor: Love and Thunder (all of which featured non-white lesbian co-leads).

The least surprising surprise hit of the summer:

Elvis has just passed the unadjusted $144.8 million domestic gross of The Great Gatsby. It is now Baz Luhrmann’s biggest North American earner ever. The $85 million Austin Butler/Tom Hanks flick has earned $270 million worldwide, second among musical biopics only to Bohemian Rhapsody ($905 million) but above the likes of Walk the Line, Rocketman and Straight Outta Compton. Was it a surprise hit? Eh, Warner Bros. is the best in the business at turning less-conventional biggies into genuine theatrical hits. They’ve been doing it (at least) since Magic Mike in 2012, along with (among others) Gravity, American Sniper, It, Crazy Rich Asians, Joker and Dune. Live-action musicals and/or musically inclined melodramas were, in pre-Covid times, among the safer theatrical sub-genres, as we saw with Pitch Perfect 2, La La Land, The Greatest Showman and A Star Is Born.

In a world where marquee characters are butts-in-seats movie stars, Elvis Presley was up there (relatively speaking) with Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, Doctor Stephen Strange and Gru. Strong reviews (including some pans out of Cannes that still made it seem like a must-see) and a terrific trailer playing in front of almost every theatrical showing of Top Gun: Maverick (thus selling itself to the older, irregular moviegoers WB was chasing) did the trick. Moreover, with likely Oscar nominations on the way, Elvis’s success seemed to convince Discovery’s David Zaslov that Warner Bros.’ theatrical slate isn’t just about DC Films.

The so-called disappointments that were actually huge hits:

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has earned $411 million domestic, more than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War. It has earned $955 million worldwide, becoming Marvel’s third biggest no Iron Man/no Spider-Man flick behind only Captain Marvel ($1.128 billion) and Black Panther ($1.346 billion). It didn’t play in China or Russia. Otherwise, it likely would have passed Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far from Home ($1.13 billion). Removing those two key territories, Doctor Strange 2 earned 77% more domestically and 109% more than Doctor Strange.

Meanwhile, Thor: Love and Thunder is about to domestically pass the $333-$336 million likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Joker, Aquaman and Spider-Man 3. It has sold more tickets in North America ($315 million in 2017/$322 million adjusted) than Thor: Ragnarök. It has earned $740 million worldwide thus far, down 15% from Thor 3 but +4% (so far) if you remove Russia and China. It’s also the fourth Thor movie which, despite mixed reviews, soft buzz and a media trying to proclaim that Marvel is doomed because Top Gun: Maverick was a bigger hit (Wakanda Forever and Guardians Vol. 3 would like a word), managed to outgross every other Thor movie.

I’m sure Lionsgate will be thrilled if John Wick: Chapter 4 ends up with only 5% more than John Wick: Chapter 3’s $322 million cume.

The horror breakout and the (slight) horror disappointment:

Blumhouse’s The Black Phone has earned $89 million domestic, their third-biggest non-Jordan Peele original behind (if you don’t hold its Unbreakable epilogue against it) M. Night Shyamalan’s Split ($138 million) and the first Paranormal Activity ($107 million). It has earned over $150 million on a $19 million budget, confirming the notion that Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill didn’t need the second Doctor Strange movie (which they left over creative differences) to make a pop culture impact. The adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story, about a young boy trapped in a basement and communicating with the ghosts of his captor’s previous victims, joins Elvis as a true-blue sleeper smash, earning nearly four times its $23 million opening and continuing to thrive even as it entered the PVOD and Peacock afterlife.

Meanwhile, Jordan Peele’s Nope became the first R-rated movie to top $100 million domestic since Bad Boys for Life. It may not be a super-smash, especially on a $69 million budget, but $120 million isn’t bad for an R-rated, star-lite high-concept original. If Universal loses money on theatrical, I’d imagine they’ll make up for it on PVOD (beginning this Friday). Otherwise, well, being willing to take a slight loss on a Jordan Peele movie still works for Universal’s current ‘safe place for marquee filmmakers’ narrative. Conversely, Peele can be penalized by being ‘sentenced’ (and paid accordingly) to direct Fast & Furious 11. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Universal’s twin titans:

Partially due to covid-caused post-production delays for films like Black Adam and partially due to studio programmers like Shotgun Wedding and The Man from Toronto being sent to streaming, Comcast (Universal and Focus) sometimes seemed to be the only studio that acted like a regular studio this summer. I give Disney a lot of grief (they had a whole slate of 20th Century Studios flicks that went straight to Hulu), but they offered up three would-be tentpoles and will be ‘saving’ theaters with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water at year’s end. Even amid a famine, Universal and Focus are still releasing the likes of Beast, Honk for Jesus Save Your Soul, Bros, Halloween Ends and Ticket to Paradise.

Moreover, Amblin’s Jurassic World Dominion earned $375 million domestic from a $145 million debut. It grossed $160 million in China, below $227 million for Jurassic World and $262 million for Fallen Kingdom but second only to Godzilla Vs. Kong and Hobbs & Shaw among Covid-era Hollywood exports, for a likely over/under $995 million global cume. Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru proved that families would still show up for animated films in tentpole numbers, breaking the Independence Day record ($128 million Fri-Mon) and legging out past Minions ($336 million) and now past $350 million domestic. The $80 million toon isn’t breaking out in China, but a likely over/under $900 million global cume is still just fine, thanks.

The rest of the story:

Sony’s Where the Crawdads Sing has passed $100 million worldwide on a $24 million budget, partially by being the only big theatrical release for/from/about women this summer. DC League of Super Pets (which will likely finish with $80 million domestic and now has $130 million global) and Bullet Train ($69 million domestic and $150 million worldwide so far) probably would have been better received, in terms of commercial narratives, before the blow-out tentpole earners. Brad Pitt’s studio programmer opened on par with and is legging as well as Sandra Bullock’s The Lost City. DC Super Pets is playing like a non-tentpole Warner Bros. animated release (think Storks and Small Foot). Downton Abbey: A New Era did fine with $92 million worldwide, while Paws of Fury and Bob’s Burgers both bombed as badly as they would have in pre-Covid times.

Easter Sunday at least showed Universal’s commitment to live-action comedies. A24’s line-up (Bodies Bodies Bodies, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and Men) were more blogged about than seen. Oh, China’s delightful (and remake-friendly, natch) Moon Man has crossed $400 million in China, becoming their second big hit of the year behind Battle at Lake Changjin 2 ($611 million). And that, ladies, gentlemen and anyone else in between, is the 2022 summer movie season. The tentpoles mostly did fine, but there just weren’t enough mid and large-sized movies. Theaters cannot depend on overperformers like Top Gun: Maverick to make up the difference.


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