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Analysis: The Hits And Misses Of The 2021 Movie Year

If anything, 2021 was a unique period for film exhibitors. The year began with theater owners scrambling to show anything — even too-familiar vintage classics — due to a lack of new titles, and it ended with a blockbuster passing the $1 billion mark in glo...

Benzinga · 12/29/2021 13:18

If anything, 2021 was a unique period for film exhibitors. The year began with theater owners scrambling to show anything — even too-familiar vintage classics — due to a lack of new titles, and it ended with a blockbuster passing the $1 billion mark in global ticket sales.

Here is a look back over the often unpredictable year at the movies.

We’re In The Money: According to BoxOfficeMojo.com on data compiled through Dec. 29, a total of $4.29 trillion in U.S. ticket sales came from 429 films in theatrical release.

Clearly, one film stood out above the others in terms of box office success: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has generated $495 million at the U.S. box office since its Dec. 17 premiere. The film from Sony Pictures, a division of Sony Group Corp. (NYSE:SONY), is also playing in 61 international markets and its global gross of more than $1 billion made it the first film of the COVID-19 pandemic era to pass the billion-dollar level — a feat made all the more impressive by its absence from China, home to the world’s largest moviegoing audience.

In the U.S. market, the year’s top 10 highest-grossing films were:

1. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” $495 million from Sony Pictures
2. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” $224 million from the Walt Disney Co (NYSE:DIS)
3. “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” $212.5 million, Sony Pictures
4. “Black Widow,” $183.6 million, Walt Disney Co.
5. “F9: The Fast Saga,” $173 million, Comcast Corporation's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Pictures
6. “Eternals,” $164.4 million, Walt Disney Co.
7. “No Time to Die,” $160.7 million, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists Releasing
8. “A Quiet Place Part II,” $160 million, ViacomCBS Inc.'s (NASDAQ:VIAC) Paramount Pictures
9. “Free Guy,” $121.6 million, Walt Disney Co.’s 20th Century Studios
10. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” $120.8 million, Sony Pictures

The Disney Dilemma: Of the top 10 grossing films, only “Free Guy” was an original IP (intellectual property) offering — the other nine films were either installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or sequels to popular franchises. Following the film’s success with audiences, Disney announced that “Free Guy” is being spun off into a franchise.

Going further down the list of top-grossing films, the titles that placed in 11th through 20th place were mostly sequels, remakes or reboots of earlier works. Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” which ranked 11th with a box office gross of $116.9 million, was an expansion of the company’s popular theme park ride.

The only original IP title in the films ranked 11th through 20th was Disney’s animated feature “Encanto,” which generated $88.6 million in U.S. ticket sales for a 15th-place ranking. It was also Disney’s sole animated hit film: “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which opened on March 5 when many cinemas were still closed, only grossed $55 million at the U.S. box office while “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” which opened on Oct. 22, got lost in the autumn shuffle and brought in a mere $22 million.

Disney lost so much confidence in the commercial prospects for its animated Pixar title “Luca” that the film went straight to the Disney+ streaming service, with only a brief Los Angeles theatrical engagement to secure qualification in the next Academy Awards.

Disney’s 20th Century Studios also produced one of the year’s most surprising commercial failures: Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” which grossed only $24.8 million since its Dec. 10 premiere. This was one of three big musicals that flopped on arrival in theaters: “In the Heights” grossed $29.8 million for AT&T Inc.'s (NYSE:T) Warner Bros. following its June 11 debut and “Dear Evan Hansen” earned Universal Pictures a meager $15 million following its Sept. 24 premiere. “Respect,” a biopic on Aretha Franklin from MGM with Jennifer Hudson performing the star’s classic songs, only grossed $24 million.

Missing Data, Missing Audiences: Another musical film in release, “Annette” starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, had a brief U.S. theatrical distribution on Aug. 6 before debuting on Amazon.com, Inc.'s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Prime Video Service.

Amazon did not release box office data on its theatrical titles. Nor did Netflix Inc (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Apple Inc (NASDAQ:AAPL), which followed the same route of giving films a limited theatrical run — mostly for awards qualifications — before highlighting them as exclusive streaming presentations.

While the streaming services are not under any legal obligation to share their ticket sales data, it has created a lopsided view of whether moviegoers are willing to pay to bypass the action-adventure and horror films that topped the box office and seek out dramatic and comedy films aimed at adult viewers rather than the family market.

During the year, adult-focused films that went straight into theaters without a simultaneous or near-immediate streaming premiere struggled to find an audience. “House of Gucci” brought in $47.4 million in the U.S. market for United Artists Releasing since its Nov. 24 opening, despite an aggressive marketing campaign and an all-star cast led by Lady Gaga. The Bradley Cooper-Cate Blanchett noir drama “Nightmare Alley” from Disney’s Searchlight Pictures grossed a dismal $5.6 million, but that could be attributed to the studio’s decision to open the film while in competition with “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Even the presence of long-reliable movie stars could not guarantee a hit film. Will Smith had a rare misfire with a $14.6 million gross on Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” while Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho” gave Warner Bros. a second black-eye with only $10 million in ticket sales. Matt Damon had a double-flop year with “Stillwater” ($10.6 million for Comcast’s Focus Features) and “The Last Duel” co-starring Ben Affleck and Adam Driver ($10.8 million for Disney’s 20th Century Studios).

Little Surprises: One quirky trend at the U.S. box office involved specialty films released in blink-and-you-miss-them distribution, mostly to specific demographics.

Fathom Events scored a pair of little surprises with its faith-based Nativity drama-with-music “Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers” ($13.7 million in a brief release ahead of its TBN broadcast) and the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Boris Godunov” ($388,000, with the film landing in the top 10 for weekend box office hits when it was on the big screen for a one-day presentation on Oct. 9).

Paramount Pictures absorbed $408,937 in a brief 153-venue May re-release of the 1986 “Top Gun” in May. The studio was supposed to release the long-awaited sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” over the Thanksgiving weekend, but it moved nearly all of its autumn titles into 2022 out of concern about the potential impact of the delta variant of the coronavirus on cinema attendance.

And CMC Pictures squeezed $341,921 from a 20-screen engagement of the Chinese epic “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” While that may seem modest to other films, “The Battle of Lake Changjin” grossed more than $906 million at the Chinese box office, making it the second highest-grossing film of the year behind “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Photo: Zendaya and Tom Holland in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," courtesy of Sony Pictures