The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Changing tastes, new futures: The state of the domestic box office in 2023

Illustration by Maya Oclassen

The Christmas season tends to be the busiest time of the year for movie theaters. With the cold weather preventing outdoor activities and the holidays allowing many people breaks from work & school, theaters provide easy entertainment for the entire family – as long as the films are able to entice audiences.

Despite a holiday week with a 14% increase over 2022’s record over the same week, audiences generally shied away from the movie theater in 2023. The year rounded out with a total of $9 billion at the domestic box office, still a 20% decrease from the blockbuster year that was 2019. 

A myriad of high-profile bombs contributed to the lower total. “Renfield and “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” sucked away a combined $80 million in losses for Universal, “Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny” whipped up a $100 million loss for Disney, and “The Flash” zapped $200 million from Warner Brothers’ checkbook. 

J.D. Connor, associate professor of Cinematic Arts at University of Southern California and author of “Hollywood Math and Aftermath,” commented on the current trends of the theatrical market.

“[The domestic box office] is still significantly off from 2019, and it’s off even worse if you consider inflation,” Conner said.“We’re talking a third off from the pre-Covid era, even if it doesn’t look that bad.”

A dependence on “tentpole” releases (large budget films that are designed by the studio to function as box office successes) from major studios has led to a market much more reliant on specialty releases, with “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon becoming two of the biggest success stories of the year. 

“The exhibitors [theater owners] are going to need a lot of weird one off successes, maybe it’s one weekend, maybe it’s two, in order to fill out [next year’s] release calendar,” Conner said. 

DePaul associate professor and producer of films such as “American Psycho” and “Marmaduke,” Tim Peternel, stated that many of the small to midsize films that would fill out a theatrical calendar in between larger tentpole releases have now been relegated to streaming.

 “As an investor, if you get into a theatrical release, you then have to stand behind the production and the advertising costs,” Peternel said. “For a little indie film, you spend maybe $20 million on advertising, and that doesn’t get you much. If the film doesn’t work at the theatrical level, there’s an additional financial hole you have to dig yourself out of.” 

Without those smaller films, theater owners become more reliant on blockbusters to bring in customers. When the blockbusters begin to flop, it means less attendance and ticket sales, less revenue from concession stands, less regular customers and the unfortunate death of a movie theater. 

Alek Sacinski, a DePaul student and avid moviegoer, commented on what’s kept himself and cinephiles like him away from the tentpole franchises that dominated the previous decade.

“I think at the moment it’s like the five stages of grief,” Sacinski said.“They’re just trying to figure out some way of keeping it alive before they accept that no one really wants to watch it anymore, right?” 

 While franchises still carry a lot of power in terms of marketing, with 6 of the top 10 films on the domestic box office for the year being either sequels or remakes, it’s clear audiences are less willing to accept sub-par material. 

“The idea of Barbie being the biggest thing of last year is great,” Sacinski said. “Everybody who watches it can get something out of it. I feel that’s something that people are going to appreciate more now.”  

Connor agrees – to some extent. 

“The theatrical releases, when you’ve got the infrastructure in place, only help the streaming performance,” Connor said. “For about a year we had people greenlighting movies they thought sucked because they thought it would attract streaming audiences. All that does is make everybody think that the movies are bad. It turns out that people just want you to make better movies.” 

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