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U.S. Box Office Ends Turbulent 2021 With $4.45 Billion Total

Since reopening at the end of March, movie theaters have been performing at roughly 50% of pre-pandemic levels

A turbulent year for the box office filled with COVID-19 variants, day-and-date release experiments and multiple surprise flops has come to a close, with industry estimates reporting a final annual domestic total of approximately $4.45 billion.

While that figure is down roughly 61% from the $11.3 billion grossed in 2019, it’s worth remembering that thousands of theaters were still closed for much of the first quarter of 2021, with only around $230 million being grossed during that three-month period compared to $2.4 billion for the first quarter of 2019. That changed with the release of Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla vs. Kong” on March 31, with the majority of theaters reopening with capacity restrictions in time for the release of the kaiju blockbuster.

So when the domestic grosses for April to December are compared, 2021’s total is down 53% compared to 2019. Compared to the total for April to December 2017 — a year when there wasn’t an “Avengers” film to boost numbers — 2021 is down 48%.

Regardless, such a result is what studios and movie theater execs had expected when theaters reopened after nearly a year of closures due to COVID-19. With some families and many moviegoers over 45 reluctant to return to theaters for fear of contracting the virus, only blockbusters that drew interest from younger audiences — particularly male audiences — were able to generate any sizable profit from theatrical grosses alone.

This can be seen from the year’s Top 10 highest grossing movies, the Top 4 all being Marvel movies: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Venom Let There Be Carnage” and “Black Widow.” After those films comes the “Fast & Furious” installment “F9,” the tepidly received MCU epic “Eternals,” James Bond’s “No Time to Die,” Paramount’s horror sequel “A Quiet Place — Part II,” Jason Reitman’s sequel “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” and the sole original film in the Top 10, 20th Century’s “Free Guy.”

With COVID-19 infection rates hitting all-time highs thanks to the Omicron variant and the early release schedule looking threadbare, 2022’s box office will likely get off to a sluggish start in January and February, with Oscar contenders like “West Side Story” and “Belfast” performing on streaming if they get any public interest at all once Academy Award nominations are released. It will once again be up to superheroes to get business going as Warner Bros. will release “The Batman” on March 4.

Unlike Warner’s 2021 release, that DC film and all of the studio’s other theatrical releases will not be released simultaneously on streaming as Hollywood will largely — but not entirely — leave the day-and-date models it used to get through last year behind. Instead, the industry will begin to settle into a new normal where the 90-day theatrical window long defended by theaters will be cut in half as studios like Warner, Paramount and Disney move forward with plans to release their films on streaming 45 days after they are released in cinemas.

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 (hopefully) enters its endemic stage, Hollywood will finally begin to get an understanding of just how much the pandemic has changed moviegoing habits for good. 2018 and 2019 saw record business not just because of significant blockbuster success, but also because films like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Upside” and “Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again” provided smaller support by drawing more diverse audiences from various ethnic and age demographics.

But if older moviegoers have become comfortable with seeing films they’re interested in on streaming and do not return to theaters in pre-pandemic numbers, the theatrical model may find itself permanently diminished. It could find itself stuck between Boomer and older Gen X audiences that have kicked the moviegoing habit and Gen Z adults that never built the habit to begin with as video games and online media has become their favorite entertainment platform.

As 2021 has shown, franchise blockbusters and low-budget horror films should continue to make big bucks at theaters, and the recent success of “Sing 2” and “Encanto” gives reason to believe that family films should also make a comeback. But whether there’s an appetite to see anything else on the big screen will soon become apparent.