Time to wrap up 2021 with a look at the box office for the year. As usual, the list comes from Box Office Mojo.
Getting the obvious out of the way first, Marvel superheroes are represented by half the films in the list. Blockbusters are well represented on the list. With theatres opening up in 2021 thanks to vaccines and masking mandates, pandemic precautions were reduced and, in some areas, rescinded. That gave studios a chance to bring out the big guns they had waiting. Of course, the re-opening may have been too soon, with restrictions looming once again.
As can be seen on Box Office Mojo’s domestic yearly box office list, the gross at theatres is up by double over the previous year. That’s a start, but considering that 2020 saw a massive drop in theatre revenues thanks to pandemic lockdowns, double isn’t much. It’ll take time.to get people back in seats.
Back to the list, there’s an original work, Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds. The last time an original work was in the top ten was 2016’s Zootopia. With Free Guy, Reynolds is the draw. He has a charm that comes across easily in a film no matter the role. This time out, he’s playing a nameless NPC in a video game who has managed to get a glitch in his programming.
I’m adding a new category this year, the franchise sequel. The definition is still nebulous, but anything film that is part of a franchise that uses the same characters and/or situations counts as a sequel. F9: The Fast Saga is a good example of a franchise coming from an original work while No Time to Die is part of the 007 franchise. No Time to Die is also continuing the trend in 007 films of using an original story after the franchise has used almost every title it could from Ian Fleming’s works. It could be argued that some of the Marvel movies are now franchise sequels as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken on a life of its own separate from the comics’ continuity.
The two sequels of original works, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and A Quiet Place Part II are almost opposites in the approach. A Quiet Place Part II got delayed thanks to pandemic lockdowns and was kept waiting on the sidelines until things opened up a bit. The delay didn’t hurt the response, with audiences wanting to follow the family from Part I. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a sequel to Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, released thirty-two years later.
Taking the above into consideration, superheroes aren’t going anywhere any time soon. While people may be getting tired of the name Marvel, the films are staying fresh by being other genres with superheroes added. Black Widow is a spy thriller with superheroes. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is wuxia with superheroes. If one Marvel movie isn’t interesting, the next one might be. As long as the studio avoids continuity lockout, where an audience needs to have watched all of the previous films for a plot point, Marvel can keep going.
The above shows what 2022 could look like, with lockdown returning early in the year before being lifted once again when the number of COVID-19 cases drops. The real surprise was seeing an original work on the list. Granted, it starred Ryan Reynolds, but with 2021 having less than half the releases that 2019 saw, there was room for an original work to sneak in, leaving the possibility open for an original work to reach top ten in 2022.
This past year has been a royal mess of a dumpster fire. No one is going to remember 2020 fondly. A pandemic mishandled by many governments. Far too many beloved celebrities passed away. The American election just. Would. Not. End. Really, if an election lasts more than four weeks, consult a constitutional expert. There have been bright spots, such as the return of Animaniacs and Spitting Image, but those seem few and far between.
Next year, 2021, has some hope to it. There is a vaccine for COVID-19, though it may take until September to finish vaccinating the populace. The US may have a functional president in the New Year, though the UK is still stuck with Boris Johnson. The New Year isn’t going to be an immediate panacea for 2020.
Movie studios are preparing for an extended period where theatres are either in lockdown or audiences are avoiding potential contact with others. Warner will be releasing all of their films, including Dune and The Matrix 4 in theatres and on HBO Max. Disney has done the same, with Hamilton, Artemis Fowl, and Soul moved to forthcoming to Disney+ exclusives and has already released the live action Mulan that way. Studios with access to streaming of some sort are covered.
What about theatres, though? Theatres rely on the output of studios to bring in an audience. Streaming means the audience doesn’t have to leave home. While some megablockbusters may fare better in theatres instead of streaming – who wants to pay $15 to stay at home? – smaller, more personal film may work best streamed. Theatres have been on shaky finances for a while; studios get all of the film proceeds leaving theatres to increase the price at the concession stand. Movies just aren’t staying as long as they used to and no film today will ever stay a year in theatres, unlike in 1977 and 1978, when Star Wars did just that.
Theatres will have to be more than a place that shows movies. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse provide an entire evening out, adding dinner and drinks with the movie. There’s room for expansion. Not every theatre needs to be the full night out with dinner and dancing after the movie, but having a full night out once the pandemic ebbs is an option to keep in mind.
Studios, though, will still have to produce content. While megablockbusters mught get held back to when and if audience levels make it worth a release, studios will need a near certainty to draw audiences out. Megablockbusters like Star Wars and Marvel’s Avengers series are too big to risk reduced audiences because of lockdowns or imposed restrictions on the number of people allowed in a theatre. The optics of an opening that is depressed because of the pandemic could have franchise-wide effects. However, with anticipated films that might not have the pull that the megas have coming, such as /Dune/, there are some adaptations that can be put on the sacrificial altar to judge audiences or used as the canary to determine if it’s safe to bring the megas back.
Television, including streaming services, will see a few changes. Some genres of television just won’t fly right now. Thanks to social distancing, reality TV. The producers and audience of Survivor won’t want to see the contestants all come down with a severe case of COVID-19. Late night talk shows survived the summer social distancing rules by having the hosts and crew work from home where possible, interviewing guests using remote cameras. Smaller casts and crews with constant monitoring for the coronavirus can let a show be put together. Experimental formats could make inroads; the series doesn’t have to perform well, just fill a timeslot. The One Day At A Time remake had animated an episode to get around COVID restrictions.
Content is going to be sparse for a bit. Television has the advantage of being used to getting an episode done within a week, but with social distancing rules in effect, getting cast and crew together is problematic. Writers can use technologies like Skype, Zoom, and Discord to keep in touch with each other, though online meetings are more exhausting than face-to-face. It won’t take long for studios to get back to full production, though.
This coming year is going to be in flux, ultimately. The past year disrupted everything, from how people lived to how people worked, at all levels. There may be no going back to the old normal; if so, a new normal will be established through trial and error. Studios are going to lean heavily on adaptations to carry them, but the megablockbuster will wait until after audience levels are determined. Television and streaming will keep going strong; no one has to leave home to watch series on either. The aftermath of 2020 will play out through 2021, turning next year into a nice ball of unknowns that might work out as people expect or might go more pear-shaped.