Given the ongoing pandemic with regard to global box office, it’s tempting to say “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” To wit: Disney still leads all studios worldwide, piracy remains a major concern, and many markets are still in Covid-induced flux. But when looking back over 2021 versus 2020, there are some key differences and highlights. Thank heavens, or at least, thank the Toretto family, Godzilla and Kong, James Bond and phenom Spider-Man to name a few headliners who proved that when product is available in cinemas, audiences will embrace the communal experience.
Numbers were up significantly in 2021, with global box office estimated at $21.4 billion, 78% higher than 2020, according to Gower Street Analytics. The international box office hit an estimated $16.9B, an increase of 66% over the previous year. At RMB 47.26B ($7.41B), China was 44% of the worldwide haul — with 84.5% of its grosses coming from local titles as it refused release dates for some of Hollywood’s biggest films. But even without that market, Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home crossed $1B global, a truly impressive feat in these times.
To be sure, these figures overall are still well below the record-breaking tallies we saw in 2019, but they do give rise to optimism for better days ahead. This was a year of transition; in 2020, the whole world was shut, but 2021 had various pockets of up-and-down activity.
Indeed, execs say it sometimes felt like a game of whack-a-mole as offshore markets that were open on a Monday could just as easily be closed again by Friday. Says one international distribution exec, “You think things are getting better in one area and then another area blows up.”
Among the frustrations was being unable to maximize all the work that goes into releasing a movie. Another exec notes South East Asia was “a wipeout,” particularly with Indonesia and Philippines closed for months on end, and points to films having been pirated by the time they were able to release and so didn’t perform. “It was a no-win situation,” the person says, adding, “All you can do is plan, and replan, and replan as you keep going.”
On the issue of piracy, it was again a concern as domestic day-and-date streaming releases undeniably provided hackers with pristine copies to circulate. However, the impact is still difficult to quantify. One studio source suggests it could be anywhere from 10%-25% of a film’s potential international box office. “Just because someone sees a pirated version doesn’t mean they were going to see it in a theater,” this person suggests.
A lesson that’s being learned by studios, producers and more, opines a finance source, is that films can “only be released when most of the key major territories in the world are open. You can’t look just at domestic, you have to look at Asia, Europe, Brazil and Mexico to get an idea when movies can be released.” And, contends another source, you have to look beyond even the top 15 markets. But, forecasting that in the future is clearly difficult in such times.
Studios were required to be nimble in the face of such challenges. Take Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick, for example, which pivoted from November 2021 to May 27, 2022 even after a successful launch of clips and footage at CinemaCon in August. Could it have gone in November 2021? Sure, but it wouldn’t have done as much as it could next year when the situation should be better. To realize the maximum potential of these types of movies — particularly as Maverick will play to older, nostalgic audiences — the world needs to be firing on all cylinders. Tom Cruise even turned up at CineEurope in October to reassure exhibition, “We’re out here for you and we’re never going to stop.”
The biggest challenge indeed is finding that right window. Says an international distribution exec, “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen audiences return when the right titles come along and when consumer confidence is on the rise. Having those two factors plays a huge role in it.”
Looking at the top three titles worldwide amongst studio films — Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, MGM/Eon/Universal’s No Time to Die and Universal’s F9 — a big takeaway is that despite the date jockeying, finding that sweet spot was primordial.
The early part of 2021 was dominated by local Chinese titles (in the home market only as those films don’t travel) while majors like the UK and France were closed until May after roughly seven months of darkened screens. There were positive signs when they saw a strong return to cinemas at reopen. Australia, once it came back, was also firing. “The grosses were impressive considering what was going on,” says an international distribution source. Saudi Arabia as a young emerging market was a bright spot, perhaps the only to see growth in 2021 versus 2020.
China retained its overall global and offshore dominance off of its local pics, followed by Japan, the UK, France, Russia, Korea, Australia, Germany, Mexico and Spain to round out the Top 10 overseas markets in 2021.
Family films had an up-and-down ride this past year amid the uncertainty of taking kids to cinemas. And while they’re not barn-burners, Disney’s Encanto recently crossed $200M global and is the top animated movie of 2021, Universal/DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business will cross $100M international and Paramount’s Paw Patrol: The Movie did $90M overseas through the end of the year. Uni/Illumination’s Sing 2 still has a lot of markets to come.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, which hits fans and family — and evidently everyone — proved that even despite Omicron, folks would not be deterred. The timing was a sweet spot. In hindsight, No Way Home may go down as a pivotal moment, not just because people went back to the cinemas likes moths to a flame, but also because they loved the movie in the theater, not camcording it but sharing on social media the reactions in the room (within the same MCU, think back to 2019 and the moment that Captain America summons Mjolnir). Says one distribution exec, “People might forget what was the biggest film of all time, but they will remember seeing Spider-Man.”
So, no, theatrical moviegoing is not dead. As one person put it to us: “People want to feel heightened emotion in a theater, they want to feel something.”
Disney was the global, international and domestic leader for 2021 despite several of its titles going day-and-date to its premium streaming service. As compared to 2020, it’s up 131% globally and 113% overseas. The company, including its titles from 20th Century Studios, Marvel, Pixar and other labels, relied heavily on new IP in 2021. That includes Free Guy ($331.5M global box office/$209.9M international box office), Encanto ($203.6M/$113M), Cruella ($233.5M/$147.4M), Jungle Cruise ( $220.9M/$103.9M), Eternals ($401.4M/$236.8M) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($432.2M/$207.7M). The latter two are related to the MCU but feature all new characters.
Although none of the Marvel titles, including Black Widow ($379.8M/$196.1M), hit the highs of their predecessors, they were largely well-received — except in China where none released. The state-backed Global Times recently pointedly asked: “Should the Chinese film authority allow… films to enter just because they are Marvel films?
China did let in Free Guy and Cruella, the former with a great $95M result. But it also dated Jungle Cruise months after the initial rollout, and to no impactful effect. Encanto, the top animated film of the year globally, ventures to China on Friday.
Overall hiccups included The Last Duel which, despite positive scores, didn’t put a dent in the armor at $19.7M overseas — counterprogramming against No Time to Die didn’t help as the adult audience the film may have been seeking was heading out solely for 007. West Side Story has glowing reviews and is an awards contender, but grossed just $44.8M global from its December 10 release ($16.6M from international).
Coming up in 2022, Disney’s got a tantalizing slate — none of which is expected to go day-and-date to streaming — including Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Thor: Love and Thunder and Avatar 2 (a 2021 reissue of the original Avatar in China brought in $57.7M and pushed the film once again to the top of the all-time global box office chart).
Swinging in at No. 2 on the global chart, the Culver City studio was a late-breaking beast in 2021, adding more than $1.7B from October through December alone thanks to Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Internationally, where No Way Home made over $700M in December, Sony lands at No. 4 ($1.372B) — explained to a degree by the strength of its titles domestically where it was the No. 2 studio of the year. Overall, the worldwide take is up 106% on 2020.
In the run-up to No Way Home, which had been pushed out of summer and into December last spring, Sony released just a handful of titles, also selling off nine to streamers between March 2020 and August 2021 while always maintaining its commitment to preserving the theatrical window.
In March 2021, sequel Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway hit the bunny trail in Australia and New Zealand, as it hopped along on a staggered rollout that finally reached domestic — and China — on June 11. Ultimately, it grossed $113.4M internationally, led by China and the UK, and $153.7M global.
At CinemaCon in August and at CineEurope in October, Sony put a major focus on Ghostbusters: Afterlife, screening the pic for exhibition. This was always a title that was seen as more domestic-skewing given the nostalgia for the earlier films, and has so far done about 33% of its business overseas where it still has markets to come. The total at the end of the year was $61.3M offshore for $185M global.
Tom Hardy-starrer Venom: Let There Be Carnage kicked into gear with a pandemic record opening in Russia before it moved into wider release in October, and then continued on a tear to reach $501M global by Christmas. As with its predecessor, it overcame a critical drubbing, and was the No. 7 move of the year worldwide. Unlike the previous installment, it did not have a China release and ended 2021 with $288.5M from abroad where Russia, Mexico and the UK were lead plays.
And then Spider-Man: No Way Home just came out swinging. The writing was somewhat on the wall as the trailer broke all-time records when it dropped in August, but it was stunning to see it quickly become Sony’s biggest film ever globally, the third-fastest ever to $1B (getting there in 12 days), and doing so without China which is an amazing feat in itself. The Jon Watts-directed phenom ended 2021 at $1.37B worldwide, the 12th highest-grossing movie ever, and still has Japan to release this weekend.
This coming year, Sony has the continued run of NWH as well as Tom Holland’s next big movie, Uncharted, Marvel’s Morbius, Brad Pitt-starrer Bullet Train and the animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Part One.
Universal’s 2021 kicked into high gear as F9 sped into early offshore release in a handful of key markets, five weeks before its domestic bow. Doing so, it broke multiple records and logged the then-biggest Hollywood debut at the international box office during the pandemic era. The savvy rolling strategy saw it final at $553.2M overseas and $726.2M worldwide to become the No. 5 film of 2021 globally.
Later in the year, after several date changes forced by the pandemic, and when the time finally seemed optimal, Uni released MGM/Eon’s No Time to Die a week ahead of domestic beginning September 29 — and after a truly royal London premiere, it blasted past expectations. There was no way to guaranty that October was ultimately the right date, but Universal saw a corridor and learned from the previous year that the fall window is when consumer confidence is on the rise as Covid cases seemed to be coming down, before spiking again as cold weather hit moving into winter.
The industry had been speculating that if any movie could get folks back into cinemas in the pandemic era, the latest in the enduring Bond franchise was the one. There was concern that because Bond skews older it might not have pulled the numbers it did, but audiences turned up and continued to do so until the movie hit $774M global with $613M from overseas (including MGM markets).
Halloween Kills, after debuting at the Venice Film Festival, may have suffered in the shadow of Bond, coming in with $39.7M overseas, just 30% of the global total (similarly, the previous movie in the recent series did 38% of its full number internationally).
Illumination’s Sing 2 is the most recent Universal release, and has many major markets still to come. Although family titles have had some difficulty this year, Sing 2 is on a rolling release and has good word of mouth and playability ahead of it.
Under its current deal with MGM, Uni also released House of Gucci internationally where it has been doing great business to the tune of $77.5M so far overseas. Lady Gaga is a factor here, but older audiences again appear to be leaning in.
In all, Uni across its labels including Focus, Blumhouse, DreamWorks Animation and Illumination had a varied slate. Offering this kind of variety is something the studio prides itself on even if not all are winners.
There’s another broad lineup coming in 2022 including the JLo rom-com Marry Me, Focus’ Downton Abbey, Jurassic World: Dominion, Illumination’s Minions, Jordan Peele’s Nope, DWA’s Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, the Julia Roberts-George Clooney rom-com Ticket to Paradise and Illumination/Nintendo’s Mario at the end of the year.
The studio’s No. 4 global ($2.259B/+109% on 2020) and No. 3 international ($1.592B/+95%) standing of 2021 is in part owed to Warner/Legendary’s Godzilla Vs Kong, which released a week early in 38 overseas markets and at the time set a new benchmark for the biggest international box office debut by a Hollywood film during the pandemic era with $123.1M. It went on to gross nearly $458M global and over $367M abroad. It is the No. 8 movie of 2021 worldwide and No. 5 among Hollywood pics.
After a decision to put the 2021 slate day-and-date on HBO Max domestically, international had to be nimble in order to get around piracy issues. In some cases, it took its movies out early internationally (think Dune, Godzilla Vs Kong), but in some cases the studio was also forced to go day-and-date rather than having the possibility of strategically planning around competition.
Nevertheless, it excelled with GVK as well as Dune — the latter kicking off at its lauded Venice Film Festival premiere and then hitting overseas markets early to reach $288.9M international and $396.1M global. The film played more broadly than expected, and its staggered rollout plus prestigious fest play was a smart move.
The animated Tom and Jerry was a good play with $86.8M international for $132.8M global and, in a wholly different genre, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It launched early overseas and demonstrated that the communal theatrical experience of scary movies was alive and well in June. The latest in the top global horror franchise ultimately grossed over $200M worldwide with $136.4M from abroad.
The Suicide Squad was another title that opened early overseas to thwart pirates. But it ultimately, despite positive scores, missed the mark with $111.6M offshore and $167.4M global. The film released amid several Covid complications and its title wasn’t enough to delineate it from the 2016 movie. Piracy was also a factor.
The Matrix Resurrections saw its fanbase come out early in late December overseas, but grosses have thus far been low with just over $106M global ($74.6M abroad). The rising-tide-lifts-all-boats maxim didn’t seem to factor here as Spider-Man: No Way Home snared a lot of the holiday box office oxygen.
Up ahead for Warners is five DC titles including The Batman, The Flash and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom as well as Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.
The Melrose Avenue studio was in hush mode for the start of the year and then came out screaming with A Quiet Place Part II in May, riding the sequel to $137.3M overseas and $297.4M global. It hit a strong spot on the Covid calendar, confirming its importance as a franchise and just when markets were — at that moment — settling. It was also one of the rare titles to secure a China release and fully mobilized despite a short lead time.
Elsewhere, PAW Patrol: The Movie was another Paramount bright spot with over $90M offshore, despite animation’s struggle in 2021.
Going forward, Paramount has a potentially massive year in 2022 with new Scream and Sonic the Hedgehog entries as well as Sandra Bullock-starrer The Lost City; and of course, Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible 7.