The First Six Months of 2023 at the Box Office: Hollywood’s Post-Pandemic Recovery Going into Reverse?
The first four months of 2023 showed a healthy increase in the domestic box office’s total gross over the preceding year — $2.6 billion to $1.9 billion going by the BoxOfficeMojo data, which works out to a 30 percent boost even after adjustment of the component monthly figures for May 2023 prices. However, even just in current dollars the U.S. box office took in only marginally more in May and June 2023 ($1.777 billion according to the current, likely to be revised slightly upward figure) than it did in May-June 2022 ($1.755 billion), and, even on a generous adjustment of the figure (assuming zero inflation in June 2023), down at least two percent in real terms from the year.
In other words, recovery was quite evident in the first third of the year, with the first four months of 2023 seeing the box office take in 59 percent of the average for 2015–2019 in the same part of the year, and 64 percent of what was seen in the last “normal,” pre-pandemic year of 2019 (as against 46 and 49 percent for the year before, respectively). However, so far this summer it has gone backward. Where the May-June box office in 2022 managed 68 percent of the 2015–2019 average for the same months, and 69 percent of the figure for 2019, in 2023 it has managed just 67 percent of the average for the five-year period, and of the 2019 level.*
I am sure that few expected the box office’s recovery, after (if perhaps not going as fast as many would like) still proceeding strongly in the year’s first third, going into reverse in the summer season. I certainly did not. Looking at last year’s recovering-but-not-all-the-way-there box office my thought was that the summer’s revenues reflected the relatively limited slate of films (just four big action movies rather than the usual eight, a fact which seemed to me critical in helping Top Gun 2 rack up its spectacular gross), and my guess was that this year’s comparatively would-be-blockbuster-packed summer would complete the normalization, or near-normalization, of the market. But as the flops pile up it appears that this was overoptimistic — and evidence that the road back to profitability for Hollywood is longer and harder than widely appreciated.
It also raises two possibilities.
One is the pandemic’s blow to Hollywood being harder than realized — as people continue to avoid theaters because they do not feel safe in them (perhaps to a greater degree than we realize; the media has much more interest in opposition to measures to contain the pandemic than the opposite), or moviegoing suffers for the permanent shutdown of so many theaters, or so many just falling out of the habit of going so they only come out for something really, really, really big.
The other is the extent to which Hollywood has problems besides the pandemic, and which preceded it (even if the pandemic accelerated them) — like its decreasing ability to entice people to the theater with anything but mega-budgeted brand name tentpoles, and the fact that the franchises on which it relies for those tentpoles are ever-more weary. (Putting it bluntly, the sequels and remakes that no one asked for keep coming, even as the audience’s willingness to see them declines.) Meanwhile the fact that the consumer is now so hard-pressed — that, as strikes, strikes, strikes everywhere against a backdrop of skyrocketing prices for essentials (you know, like food and housing) — may make them the more hesitant to indulge in a night out at the movies rather than just watching streaming, or anything else, at home. (This, too, is likely a greater factor than appreciated — the media no more interested in consumers’ responses to tough times than it is in those still concerned about the virus, least of all the claqueurs of the entertainment press.)
As we consider Hollywood’s domestic woes we should also remember that this is a moment in which the international markets are not providing relief — in which, frankly, that biggest and most important piece of that market, China, is ever less lucrative for Hollywood, with a glance a one underperformer after another showing lackluster or worse Chinese ticket sales as a factor. (Ant-Man 3, which may have faded fast in the U.S. but saw its biggest troubles in the international market, took a particularly big hit in China, without which its “flop” status would be a lot more disputed — and this has proven merely the beginning of a long train of disappointments this year, from Fast X to Transformers: Rise of the Beasts as the latest installments in franchises that normally do quite well there bring in disappointingly small amounts of cash.)
The result is that just as the weak grosses of the summer of 2023 (so far) ought not to be trivialized, one should also not trivialize what the summer means for the badly-battered American film industry.
* Even in current dollars Hollywood broke the $3 billion barrier in the year’s first four months in every single year of the 2015–2019 period (and blew past $3.8 billion in 2018) — while breaking $4 billion when the figures are adjusted for May 2023 prices.