Marvel Studios' 2022 releases have grossed nearly $1.7 billion between Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder. The superhero studio is also set to release its third film this year, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever on November 11, which may become the highest earner of the three after the original movie earned over $1.3 billion on its own.
In general, 2022 has been a bounce-back year for the box office after the pandemic wreaked havoc on the 2020 and 2021 theatrical film releases. There's been highlights, including Top Gun: Maverick's historic $1.4 billion performance, and Spider-Man: No Way Home shattered records while earning $1.9 billion globally before its September 2 re-release.
While high-earning blockbusters are great for the current revival of theaters, there lies a greater issue underneath the jet engine fuel and spider webs.
Are Movie Theaters Doomed?
After the early July juggernauts (Thor 4 and Minions 2) hit theaters, the box office entered a historic rough patch. As more data, tracking, and projecting are calculated, it becomes more clear that the 2022 domestic box office with earn roughly 2/3 of what was made during 2019. That's roughly $7 billion at this year's box office ($11.4 billion in 2019).
If you're not convinced, look no further than Cineworld considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. The company that owns Regal Cinemas is already $5 billion in debt and couldn't avoid this restructuring plan as the box office fountain quickly ran dry.
As Puck's Matt Belloni recently pointed out, a film may not open to $25 million at the box office until Halloween Ends or Black Adam in October. Two months of staggeringly low audiences aren't sustainable for theater companies still struggling after a near-death experience due to the pandemic.
When the drought finally ends, 2022 should end with some major successes like Black Panther 2 and Avatar: The Way of Water, but this is setting an incredibly unstable precedent moving forward for movie theater companies.
The reliance on big-budget blockbusters produced by Disney, Warner Bros, Universal, and Paramount is at an all-time high. This is mainly because the smaller budget productions produced by these companies are being sent to their respective streaming services or licensed to Apple TV+, Netflix, or Amazon.
The highest-earning films that took off during the 2010s were comic book movies. In 2019, when the global box office revenue was a record $42.5 billion, four of the top six earners were superhero movies, all grossing over $1 billion worldwide.
Hollywood is headed to a future of producing event-style films, while more streamlined direct-to-consumer content will continue to shrink the big screen. Movie theaters are falling down a path of destruction and Marvel may be either their only hope, or what puts them officially in the ground.
Marvel Studios' Future in Theaters
At San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel CCO Kevin Feige did what he does best: generate hype. Feige could write a novel, teach a class, or create a how-to guide on building excitement and anticipation.
No punches were pulled in Hall H when Feige and company presented not only the MCU's fifth phase but also teased an Avengers-filled sixth phase to wrap up the newly titled "Multiverse Saga".
This marketing tactic is a staple of Marvel Studios, teasing what is on the horizon, even if dates will most likely change, the cast may not be completed, or a project ends up being scrapped entirely. Fans don't care, and Marvel knows that. Part of keeping audiences interested in what is currently happening is the promise that major events are imminent.
These events that Marvel has generated are always held in theaters where audiences file into the biggest, baddest, premium screening they can find.
The National Association of Theater Owners may have been even more excited than fans were about Feige's Hall H promises.
Marvel Studios will tie a record it set in 2021 with four films being released by the studio in 2023. While Marvel is focusing a lot of energy on streaming to Disney+, it remains dedicated to packing theaters until at least 2025.
How Marvel Could Kill Movie Theaters
This may seem backward, but understand that the MCU is a major crutch of theaters moving forward. What happens when the crutch starts to wobble, wiggle, and possibly even snap in half?
There are no facts attached to this, but many moviegoers believe Marvel fatigue may become a real thing. So far that hasn't been the case with Spider-Man: No Way Home grossing nearly $2 billion (without a wide release in China) and Multiverse of Madness almost cracking $1 billion itself.
So, how could Marvel kill movie theaters? Slow and painfully.
At least 12 MCU films will be playing in theaters between 2023-2025. Over the past 9 months, No Way Home, Doctor Strange 2, and Thor 4 have contributed a significant percentage of total revenue at the domestic and global box office.
As previously mentioned, the future of cinemas will rely heavily on the "sure thing" hits like Captain America or The Avengers. If Marvel fatigue quickly becomes a reality, or newer characters and team-ups don't draw the same crown as they did from 2012-2019, some theaters may not survive.
While the likelihood of being big-earners at the box office are greater than not, upcoming Marvel projects like Thunderbolts, The Marvels, and Blade aren't guaranteed.
While it is not a perfect comparison due to the health climate at the time but Phase 4 films Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, Black Widow, and Eternals combined for roughly $573 million at the domestic box office. No Way Home alone made the exact same amount.
Tom Holland's third Spidey flick was an anomaly and not a sign of consistent historic exhibition earnings. Movie theater chains may need to consider downsizing, selling off property, and redefining what a trip to the movies means.
Outside of Marvel, Star Wars has gone quiet on the film front, focusing most of its attention of Disney+ series like The Mandalorian. The other major comic book movie studio, Warner Bros. Discovery and DC Films, will attempt (once again) to get a successful cinematic universe off the ground under new management. But this may take years, and 2017’s Justice League made a baffling $657.9 million, a far cry from Marvel’s The Avengers, grossing $1.5 billion worldwide in 2012.
2023 may be an improvement upon 2022, but the reliance on blockbuster hits is glaring. Marvel Studios has proven to be the premiere studio of distributing consistent hits over the past decade and could define where the theater industry heads over the next decade.