Is Hollywood heading for another problem year at the box office?

The huge success of Spider-Man: No Way Home was an anomaly in an otherwise disappointing season and with release dates shifting, 2022 could bring more woe

Last modified on Thu 6 Jan 2022 16.15 EST

Movies are back! Or so we thought back in 2021 when, after a year of shuttered cinemas, it seemed like a dormant industry was hurtling back to life. Last spring, Godzilla vs Kong led the charge, the first genuine hit of the pandemic, and soon A Quiet Place Part II, F9, Black Widow and Free Guy followed, many of them making less than initial expectations but still more than enough to encourage studios that, despite previous fears, the cinema was not going the way of the video store.

The year closed out with the biggest hit of them all, Spider-Man: No Way Home, a record-breaker regardless of release date, already up to over $1.3bn globally in less than a month and likely to be one of the most successful films of all time. But buried underneath the headline was some troubling bad news – surprise flops, safety concerns from older cinemagoers, shifting release strategies – and now, as 2022 kicks off, history is on the verge of repeating itself.

While January has long been seen as a dumping ground in the US, pandemic or no, the success of Spider-Man was viewed as a sign that audiences were willing to risk Omicron infection to go see a movie and so a more robust start to the year was tentatively anticipated. As the year closed out, the campaigns for January releases started to amp up – the delayed Jessica Chastain-led actioner The 355, the much-anticipated return of Scream, Sony’s Jared Leto-starring Marvel horror Morbius – but at the same time, Covid rates increased and the country’s biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, showed signs of a return to an early pandemic state. Restaurants and bars started to close, the majority of Broadway shows took a hiatus (with some permanently closing), live TV shows were cancelled or changed hosts while filming halted on others, premieres and press tours were tweaked (The 355 star Lupita Nyong’o pulled out of interviews after a positive result while next week’s Scream premiere has been nixed), awards shows like the Grammys and the Critics Choice awards were postponed and life in general suddenly started to shrink.

Then this week, Sony decided to move Morbius, an understandable yet worrying sign for the near future, January’s biggest bet moving all the way to April. It’s the seventh release date change for the vampiric scientist adventure, originally slated for July 2020, and marks the first major Covid-affected film of the year. A day later, the Celine Dion-inspired biopic Aline also announced a shift away from January to an unspecified date in spring. In the UK, Universal has moved Joe Wright’s Cyrano back a month. Separately, this month’s Sundance – the most influential US film festival of the year – has just decided to cancel its physical component out of safety fears. Cinemas in the US remain open, with either mask or vaccination mandates for most states, but in other countries, a shuttering has begun once again. The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and parts of Canada have already imposed shutdowns with other territories expected to follow.

But the red flags were flying low back in 2021. The monstrous success of Spider-Man helped paper over the cracks of what was an underwhelming final quarter at the box office. The long-awaited sequel The Matrix Resurrections, Steven Spielberg’s rapturously reviewed remake of West Side Story, Guillermo del Toro’s starry noir Nightmare Alley, Denzel Washington’s sappy romance A Journal for Jordan, the action prequel The King’s Man, the video game reboot Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, the formulaic tennis biopic King Richard, Edgar Wright’s throwback thriller Last Night in Soho, Ridley Scott’s historical drama The Last Duel and the much-maligned musical Dear Evan Hansen were just a few of the many major flops. There are, of course, plenty of reasons why these films could have struggled regardless (from franchise fatigue to Ben Platt) but the throughline was clear: certain audiences were still reluctant to head back to the multiplex.

The overall picture is still murky. US box office in 2021 was down 60% from 2019. Spider-Man’s total is over $300m more than the year’s second-place film (it’s also, ya know, a Spider-Man film). A December survey showed that cinemagoers aged 45 to 64 were still concerned about safety, with 39% less likely to go to a movie as a result. There’s also, of course, another key reason why some might be less thrilled at the prospect of an expensive night out at the movies. The pandemic forced studios to be more dynamic than ever before, pushing theatrical films on to digital platforms with unusual speed, either demanding a $20-plus rental cost, selling them to Netflix or Amazon or using the circumstances to redirect consumers to an in-house streaming platform like Disney+ or HBO Max. It meant unprecedented day-one living room access to major films like Dune, Black Widow, Halloween Kills and The Matrix Resurrections, a new normal that would have seemed impossible back in 2019.

It was a short-term fix that might be turning into a long-term problem. Even pre-pandemic, audiences were increasingly spoilt for choice but the new pace at which they can see new films at home has shifted habits and expectations in a way that will probably never go back to how it was before. In the UK last year, the home entertainment market rose by a considerable 13% while an August 2021 survey showed that only 36% of US consumers say they will mostly watch new films in cinemas from now on. Most of the biggest films of the awards season, such as The Power of the Dog, Don’t Look Up, Being the Ricardos, The Lost Daughter, Coda, Tick, Tick … Boom! and The Tragedy of Macbeth were all released virtually straight to streaming (with token two-week theatrical showings for some).

Even as US cinemas were open for business, studios were already looking ahead to the future. Universal’s much-delayed romantic comedy Marry Me, starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, will be available on its in-house streaming platform Peacock at the same time as its theatrical release next month. The WarnerMedia chief executive, Jason Kilar, announced last summer that 10 Warner Bros films will premiere exclusively on HBO Max this year. The last two years have also firmed up deals that will reduce the theatrical-to-home window for films going forward. This year, for example, The Batman will be available on HBO Max within 46 days of a cinema launch while this month, Universal’s new window deal – just 17 days for films that open under $50m and 31 days for those over – means that Sing 2 is already out to rent despite still making money in cinemas.

Whether the Morbius shift is indicative of what’s to come is still to be seen. Sources have claimed it could well be a direct result of Spider-Man’s heroic haul. The film is the latest attempt to expand a limited yet profitable Marvel universe (based on the select properties owned by Sony) after the success of the Venom series and with Spider-Man overperforming (it’s already become Sony’s biggest hit ever), the studio perhaps wanted time to build up more buzz. The performance of The 355 this week (currently tracking to open to a measly $6m in the US) and Scream the next will help other studios in deciding what to do with February’s first wide releases: Lionsgate’s sci-fi thriller Moonfall and Paramount’s sequel Jackass Forever. For now the news is clear: certain audiences are willing to risk the cinema experience for certain movies. Spider-Man might have found a home but for those without superpowers, a new way forward is needed.

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