In addition to the chaos of the strikes, Hollywood is also facing a moment of reckoning after some of history’s most expensive franchise installments washed into the sea in the summer of 2023, while such original prizes as Barbie And Oppenheimer caused a surprising cultural tsunami.
A box office enthusiast would have to go back years if not decades to find another summer where two of the top five grossing movies in North America were fresh and original non-franchise tent poles. by Greta Gerwig Barbie tops the 2023 season with a current domestic harvest of over $600 million and over $1.38 billion worldwide. The film has broken numerous records, including the highest-grossing film in Warner Bros.’ history after passing the last Harry Potter picture, unadjusted for inflation. And on Labor Day weekend, Barbie became the biggest movie of the year to date at the global box office, after eclipsing spring’s blockbuster The Super Mario Bros. movie.
by Christopher Nolan Oppenheimer, from Universal, has grossed more than $300 million domestically and more than $850 million worldwide, making it among other things the biggest movie from the filmmaker behind the two Dark Knight superhero pictures. Then there is Sound of freedomthe indie film about child trafficking that made $182 million domestically after Utah-based Angel Studios tapped into its faith-based conservative audience.
According to Comscore, summer domestic sales topped $4 billion for the first time since the pandemic, thanks in large part to the trio of very different films. Final numbers are still being added, but revenue looks set to hit $4.09 billion to $4.1 billion by the end of the Labor Day weekend, a 19 percent gain from 2022 and narrowing the gap from 2019 to roughly 5.7 percent. “Without Barbie And Oppenheimer, then we would have a completely different conversation. It would have been a pretty mundane summer,” said Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. Comscore analyst Paul Degarabedian adds, “Disruption takes many forms, and audiences have spoken of their presence and absence for the films released this summer.”
Hollywood has reason to be concerned about the Barbenheimer phenomenon, which questions the idea that established franchises rule above all else. “Has it changed the internal dialogue? You bet,” says a top studio manager. “I’ve had at least three meetings where we’ve talked about how to look for something special. It’s scary because you have to make sure your beliefs and instincts are right. It’s all about creating critical mass. That was never the case before.”
Notes Warner’s domestic distribution president Jeff Goldstein: “The world is different than it was before the pandemic. The biggest difference is the amount of programming on streaming. In terms of theatrics, you have to be more original and have a higher quality. There is no ceiling and there is no floor. You have to be smart and take risks.”
While Barbie is based on an iconic IP address, no one in Hollywood – including Warners – knew whether Gerwig’s irreverent, feminist vision would resonate with audiences. And OppenheimerWell, it’s a three-hour biographical drama. “It’s a great sign that audiences coming out of the pandemic are eager to get out there and see original titles that capture their imaginations. We’ve all talked about getting the adult audience back after the pandemic. Wow, have we ever done that to an amazing degree,” said Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution Oppenheimer‘s amazing results.
Heading into the summer, analysts looking at the lineup this spring were focused on more traditional all-audience tentpoles like Harrison Ford’s. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, part one.
There were no signs of franchise issues when Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 started the summer off right: the superhero photo grossed roughly $845.5 million worldwide, almost on par with the $863.7 million gross of the sequel. And Sony is animated Spider-Man: About the Spider-Verse made a splash when it soared to $688 million at the worldwide box office on August 29, well above the $384.2 million earned by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
But a disturbing trend developed. Fast X peaked domestically at just $146 million, the series’ third-lowest showing (although the film gained ground overseas with a massive $719 million). Then came DC’s June bomb, The flash, which earned less than $268.5 million worldwide. One source says the biggest mistake Warners made was focusing on DC’s new era under James Gunn and Peter Safran. “It made the remaining titles in the DC stable uninteresting,” the insider says. (The more recent Blue Beetle is another example, though the family-friendly movie shows staying power, grossing over $100 million worldwide in its third weekend.)
Disney and Lucas films Dial of fate was also a serious stumbling block, grossing just $381.1 million worldwide against a $300 million budget, falling short of the $790.6 million it brought in in 2008. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Then came Dead cutlerywhich was arguably the biggest psychic blow of the summer, as Cruise had played a key role in the box office recovery by 2022 Top gun: Maverick. The last MI The film — which also cost $300 million to produce prior to release — had earned $551.9 million worldwide by the end of August, the series’ lowest showing since the 2006 film. Mission: Impossible IIIafter opening a week earlier Barbie And Oppenheimer. In late July, Cruise again played the role of theater ambassador as he urged moviegoers to support Oppenheimer And Barbie. (He probably never expected what would follow).
One production executive says that no amount of marketing money can replace what happens when a film socializes, as evidenced by Barbie And Oppenheimer. “It’s like catching lightning in a bottle,” he says.
The newly announced Concert photo of Taylor Swift The Eras Tour hopes to do just that, given her clout. The film will run over several weekends, beginning October 13, and has already generated a record $26 million in advance sales for AMC Theaters in the first 24 hours after tickets became available for purchase. Sources close to the exhibit believe the concert photo alone could bring in well over $100 million in its first weekend, and perhaps as much as $150 million eventually.
Studio executives say cost containment is a new necessity after this summer. “You have to figure out how to make movies at a reasonable price, and then choose those movies that you want to put a big spin on,” says another top studio executive. Another veteran studio source adds: “This has always been a speculative, volatile business, but the big (budget) movies are bigger than ever. It’s a killer if they don’t work.”
Paramount spent a relatively modest $70 million to get its family photo taken in August Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which has grossed over $153 million to date and successfully relaunched the franchise according to studio insiders. With regard to the family market: other highlights of the summer – led by, of course About the Spider-Verse – included The little Mermaidwhich ranked No. 5 on the domestic summer chart with over $297 million, one of the top showings for a Disney live-action remake (gross grossing over $569 million worldwide).
Pixar and Disneys Elementary was a win in terms of overcoming a soft opening and enjoying strong legs to gross $478 million at the worldwide box office to date, but the expensive production budget of at least $200 million makes a financial win difficult .
Disney and its major movie stables, including Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, continue to lead the way in terms of sheer market share, and were the only major studio whose summer ticket sales in North America passed the $1 billion threshold. Market share has little to do with profitability — as Sony movie chief Tom Rothman likes to say — and Disney certainly got its loot this summer, but is proud of its overall contribution to the $4 billion win.
“It is exciting to see total summer box office close to pre-pandemic levels as moviegoers from all audiences once again embrace a robust and diverse range of titles,” said Tony Chambers, Disney’s chief distribution officer. “And all this despite the fact that some titles across all studios may not reach the level we all originally hoped and expected.”
Sound of freedom The Angel Studios indie film came out of nowhere and made over $180 million domestically, placing it at No. 6 on the list of highest-grossing summer films, ahead of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate and the latest Mission Impossible function.
Barbie Greta Gerwig’s fresh, feminist take on the doll was 187 percent ahead of the previous record holder for a toy-to-movie adaptation (The Lego movie). That’s on top of other records Gerwig has broken, including the highest-grossing female solo director of all time. “Nobody could have guessed what Barbie would turn out to be,” says Goldstein. “The audience will clearly tell you what they like and what they don’t like.
Oppenheimer No one could have predicted that this three-hour biopic would become Christopher Nolan’s biggest film in more than 50 overseas markets, taking into account current exchange rates and excluding unreleased territories. (It’s number 3 in North America, behind the last two Dark Knight movies. “Oppenheimer has been phenomenally strong abroad. And what’s especially interesting is that it’s the biggest Nolan film of all time in more than 50 territories, representing a cross-section of different cultures and tastes in both the high-end and low-end markets,” said Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of the international distribution of Universal.
The haunted house The film, which has grossed $100 million worldwide through Labor Day, marks the second-lowest-grossing title in Disney’s stable of theme park rides or attractions adapted for the big screen after the 2002 films. The land bears ($18 million), unadjusted for inflation.
The flash It was a total blaze, grossing less than $270 million worldwide, even after last year’s superhero disappointment Black Adam. And DC’s other summer entry, Blue Beetle, is the lowest grossing title in the DC Extended Universe, at less than $85 million. Ouch.
R-rated comedies So much for the return of ordinary comedy. The Jennifer LawreNce main role No hard feelings peaked at $50.5 million domestically against a $45 million production budget, followed by $21.5 million to date for the romps Gets lost and less than $13 million for it Joy ride.
A version of this story appeared in the September 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.