Sony Struck Box Office Gold With Spider-Man in 2021 – But Not Much Else

2021 Box Office Report Card: Sequels to ”Spider-Man,“ ”Venom“ and ”Ghostbusters“ made up nearly all of the studio’s $1.1 billion year

In August, Sony Pictures’ top execs pledged to theater owners at CinemaCon that it would not jump into the day-and-date streaming experimentation that other major studios had used throughout 2021.

“Debuting movies simultaneously in theaters and at home is devastating to our collective businesses. Our movies will be seen exclusive first in our movie theaters,” Sony Motion Picture Group President Josh Greenstein said. “Movie theaters and the theatrical movie experience will triumph.”

And boy did Sony triumph. Just five weeks after Greenstein made that promise, Sony began a streak of success that lasted throughout the final quarter of the year. Starting with “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” in October, then “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” in November, and the record-smashing “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in December, the studio finished just below Disney with $1.1 billion in North American grosses, according to The Numbers. (This story will be updated with end-of-year data from Comscore when it is published.)

But while the last three months have been nothing short of spectacular for Sony, the recent victories hide some big questions about the studio’s long-term prospects outside of its web-slinging moneymaker; and Greenstein’s commitment to theatrical exclusivity doesn’t change the fact that the studio still had to pull what would have been some successful family films from its slate due to the pandemic.

Let’s focus on the good news first, starting with Sony’s smart move to push up the release date of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” to October 1, a week ahead of the U.S. release of MGM’s 007 film “No Time to Die.” Free from any major competition, “Venom 2” opened to a then-pandemic record $90 million and went on to gross $212 million in North America, matching the domestic total of the first “Venom” in 2018.

Then came “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” a film with a more modest $44 million opening in mid-November but which legged out to $123 million, enough to put it in the top 10 for 2021. But then, of course, was “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the blockbuster that shrugged off the Omicron surge to become only the third movie to earn a domestic opening of over $250 million and the first film of the pandemic era to gross over $1 billion worldwide. (Remarkably, it managed to top recent pre-COVID hits like “Black Panther,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Frozen II.”)

But before those three hits came along in Q4, Sony didn’t have much of a presence at the box office. “Afterlife,” “Venom 2” and “No Way Home” combined for 86% of the studio’s 2021 total. In fourth on the studio’s annual chart is “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” which grossed just $40 million domestic over the summer. Meanwhile, the studio’s horror films from Screen Gems failed to reach either critical or commercial success: Sequels to “Escape Room,” “Don’t Breathe” and “Resident Evil” failed to top $35 million in their domestic runs.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster