What 2023 Teaches Us About the Film Business

Nader Elhefnawy
3 min readMay 17, 2024

Reviewing Deadline’s findings about the most and least profitable films of the year (and especially the ways in which the list of the most profitable offered some surprises) had me thinking again about the lessons of 2023 for those looking to make a profitable film. Considering this there seem two fundamental changes to take into account, first and foremost.

1. The cinematic market has shown considerable evidence of having shrunk significantly and over the long run. North Americans went from making 4–5 trips to the theater before the Great Recession, to 3–4 in the 2010s, to from 2022 on making just a couple of trips a year — this “the new normal.” Meanwhile the foreign markets offer no chance of rescue as others similarly go to the movies less (and the China market that looked so promising a few years ago becomes increasingly closed to American fare).

2. The genres and brands that were long the foundation of Hollywood profitability — sci-fi action-adventure spectacle of the superhero, space opera and spy-fi types, and the splashy family-oriented animated adventures; Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar and the rest — are offering rather less return on investment than before within the shrunken market, partly because filmgoing is less casual, the threshold for getting people to the theater higher (at least partly because they have been so heavily exploited for so long).

Of course, registering this is comparatively easy (much as it seems to have eluded much of the commentariat). It is harder to say what can be done about it, but the list of films that were profitable in particular offers some hints, not least in how relatively low-grossing films managed to be very profitable. Specifically, with the general audience tougher, it seems that the bottom line-minded studio has more than ever before to look for film projects that have a deep appeal to portions of that audience big enough to be worth bothering with, especially where they can offer more than the ticket sale to the bottom line (i.e. buy merchandise), and keep costs down as they go about it. Thus did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which was ranked only #34 in gross, end up the #4 profit-maker on Deadline’s list, with the strategy similarly working for movies from Five Nights at Freddy’s to Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. Here it seems no accident that the list is dominated by movies aimed at the young (more susceptible to such enthusiasms), and by tie-ins to video games and other toys, with these indeed the basis of the top full-blown blockbusters in a year in which a Super Mario Bros. movie got the #1 spot and a film about Barbie ranked just behind it at #2 (with nostalgic appeal likely helping with older persons here). One can see Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse as to some extent benefiting from the same logic — a cartoon as a way of telling such a story a tougher sell than the live-action films internationally, but the first film won a loyal following, and animation helped keep costs down (the “mere” $100 million spent on it enabling this movie to rank at #3 on Deadline’s “Most Valuable Blockbusters” list even as the significantly higher-grossing Guardians of the Galaxy film ended up at only #9).*

Does this betoken a revival of cinematic art? Alas, no. Rather it seems to me an evolution of the high concept model of filmmaking so long in decay — albeit one more demanding than the strategy of just buying up brands like Star Wars and Marvel and pouring money into them, the canny studio executive now having to select their projects more judiciously, and do more such selection given the proportion of the disposable capital to the number of projects to be funded, than when circa 2019 Disney seemed capable of mass-manufacturing billion-dollar hits.

* Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse had a production cost of $100 million, and with prints, ads, interest and overhead counted in outlays a bit over $200 million in these categories — whereas for Guardians of the Galaxy 3 the comparable figures were $250 million for production and north of $450 million for the equivalent outlays. The result was that Spider-Man’s $690 million gross permitted it a “studio net” of $328 million according to Deadline’s calculations, whereas Guardians’ nearly $850 million gross left it with a net of just $124 million (not quite two-fifths as much in a poorer rate of return and smaller overall mass of profit).

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.