Sep 2, 2023 - Economy

"Barbenheimer" can't save the movie industry

Illustration of a wooden prop dollar bill surrounded by stage lighting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The eye-popping success of "Barbenheimer" pulled the summer box office back from the brink of disaster. But its impact could be short-lived as theaters face a suspenseful future.

Why it matters: If theaters have to rely on never-before-seen cultural events to hit their numbers, they're in more trouble than we thought.

By the numbers: Year to date, the domestic box office is up 25% over 2022 with more than $6.5 billion in ticket sales.

  • Notably, the summer box office was trending behind last year through July 4.
  • But it's surged since July 21 and is now 15% over last year's summer. It'll surpass $4 billion for the first time since 2019.

Zoom in: Barbenheimer papered over the fact that many of the season's other big releases failed to launch.

  • Take out Barbenheimer's combined global haul of more than $2.13 billion, and the summer box office is a horror show.
  • Pricey misfires included "The Flash" ($268 million worldwide) and "Indiana Jones" ($381 million). Even Tom Cruise couldn't deliver as "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part 1" pulled in $552 million, the series' lowest since "Mission: Impossible III" in 2006.
  • With twin Hollywood strikes hamstringing promotion, films released after "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" struggled. Most notably, Warner Bros.' latest DC misfire is "Blue Beetle" (just $84 million over its first two weeks).

The big picture: The strikes by Hollywood's writers and actors have also derailed the near-term outlook for theaters, as they hope to return to the days of yore.

  • Already, the strikes have forced delays on the film schedule: Sony pushed back movies like "Kraven the Hunter" and the next "Ghostbusters" movie from Q4 to next year.
  • Warner Bros.' pushed "Dune 2" off from November — a blow for Imax, which was counting on the film as its next big release after "Oppenheimer."

The intrigue: AMC, the world's largest theater chain, is still in dire financial straights.

  • AMC executed a pair of controversial stock maneuvers but has been adamant those were necessary to stave off bankruptcy — something the second-largest theater owner, Cineworld, just emerged from this month.
  • AMC's next trick: Bypassing the studios for the film version of Taylor Swift's "Eras" tour and acting as both an exhibitor and distributor.

What we're watching: Whether or not studios and theaters can find the next dynamic duo from films that will be released this year. So far, studios are avoiding the competition with each other.

  • After Swift's "Eras" film was announced for Oct. 13, the release of Blumhouse's "Exorcist" sequel was moved up a week to Oct. 6. (For a brief moment, social media users dubbed the weekend "Exorswift.")
  • Martin Scorcese's next crime epic "Killers of the Flower Moon," with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, will now hit theaters with a global release on October 20. It was originally slated to have a limited release on Oct. 6.
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