In addition to the chaos of the strikes, Hollywood is facing a moment of reckoning because some of the most expensive sequels in history were washed out to sea at the summer box office in 2023, while original movies like Barbie and Oppenheimer caused a surprise cultural wave.
A fan of the box office would have to go back years, if not decades, to find another summer when two of the five highest-grossing movies in North America were new, original tentpoles that weren’t part of a series. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is the best movie of the 2023 season so far. It has made more than $600 million in the United States and more than $1.38 billion internationally. The movie has broken a lot of records, including becoming Warner Bros.’s highest-grossing movie ever, beating out the last Harry Potter movie, and not taking inflation into account. And over the Labor Day weekend, Barbie beat out the spring hit The Super Mario Bros. Movie to become the most popular movie of the year so far.
Universal’s Christopher Nolan movie Oppenheimer has made more than $300 million in the U.S. and more than $850 million worldwide. This makes it Nolan’s third-biggest movie, after the two Dark Knight fantasy movies. Then there’s Sound of Freedom, an independent movie about child trafficking that has made $182 million in the U.S. because Utah-based Angel Studios marketed it to religious conservatives.
Comscore says that for the first time since the outbreak, summer sales in the U.S. have gone over $4 billion. This is mostly because of three very different movies. By the end of Labor Day weekend, the final numbers for the season show that sales reached $4.091 billion. This is a 19.1% increase over 2022’s $3.434 billion and a 5.9% decrease from 2019’s $4.348 billion. “Without Barbie and Oppenheimer, our conversation would be very different. “It would have been a pretty dull summer,” says Eric Handler of MKM Partners, a Wall Street expert. “Disruption comes in many forms,” says Comscore researcher Paul Dergarabedian, “and the audience has spoken by going to or not going to the movies that came out this summer.” Before Barbenheimer came along, summer sales were down 7% from 2022 and 15 % from 2019.
The Barbenheimer movement is shaking up Hollywood because it questions the idea that long-running series are the best way to make money. “Has it changed the way you talk to yourself? One top studio official says, “You bet.” “I’ve been to at least three meetings where we talked about how we need to look for something special. It’s scary because you have to be sure that your beliefs and gut feelings are correct. It’s all about reaching a certain number of people. Never before had that happened.”
The local head of marketing at Warner Bros. Jeff Goldstein: “Before the pandemic, the world was different. The most important difference is how many shows you can watch on streaming. When it comes to theater, you need to be more creative and better. There is no top and there is no bottom. You need to be smart and brave.”
Even though Barbie is based on a well-known IP, no one in Hollywood, including Warners, knew how viewers would react to Gerwig’s playful, feminist take. And Oppenheimer is a three-hour movie about the life of a real person. “It’s a good sign that people who have recovered from the pandemic are eager to go out and see new movies that grab their attention. We’ve all been talking about how to get adults to watch again after the outbreak. Jim Orr, head of domestic marketing at Universal, says of Oppenheimer’s amazing results, “Wow, did we ever do that to an amazing degree.”
Analysts who looked at the summer lineup in the spring focused on more standard, all-audience tentpoles like Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One.
When Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 opened the summer on a high note, there was no sign that the series was in trouble. The superhero movie has made about $845.5 million worldwide, which is almost the same as what the sequel made, which was $863.7 million. And Sony’s cartoon Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse did very well at the box office. By August 29, it had made $688 million around the world, which was a lot more than the $384.2 million that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made.
But something bad started to happen. Fast X only made a total of $146 million in the U.S., which is the third-lowest total of the series. However, the movie made up for it overseas, where it made a huge $719 million. Then came DC’s bomb The Flash, which came out in June and made less than $268.5 million around the world. One source says that Warners’ biggest mistake was putting all of its attention on DC’s new age, which is led by James Gunn and Peter Safran. “It made the titles that were left in DC’s stable boring,” says the source. Blue Beetle, a family-friendly movie that came out more recently, is another example. It has made more than $100 million worldwide through its third weekend.
Dial of Destiny, made by Disney and Lucasfilm, was also a major failure. It only made $381.1 million worldwide on a $300 million budget, which was much less than the $790.6 million that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull made in 2008.
Then came Dead Reckoning, which may have been the biggest psychological blow of the summer, since Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick helped the box office recover in 2022. The latest M: I movie also cost $300 million to make before marketing. By the end of August, it had made $551.9 million around the world, which is the lowest total for the series since Mission: Impossible III in 2006. It opened a week before Barbie and Oppenheimer.
Like many other big summer movies, the latest Mission: Impossible movie had a hard time at the box office in China, where Hollywood movies are having a hard time. Outside of China and Russia, Dead Reckoning Part One is doing just as well as Mission: Impossible — Fallout, if not better. (Fallout made more than $181 million in China, while Dead Reckoning only made about $47 million.)
Late in June, Cruise once again played the part of a theater advocate when he asked viewers to support Oppenheimer and Barbie. (It’s likely he had no idea what would happen).
One person in charge of making movies says that no amount of money can match what happens when a movie becomes popular, as Barbie and Oppenheimer show. He says, “It’s like putting lightning in a bottle.”
The Eras Tour, a musical film about Taylor Swift, will try to do just that, given how popular she is. Starting on October 13, the movie will be shown over the course of several weekends. In the first 24 hours after tickets went on sale, AMC Theatres made a record $26 million in advance sales. People who work in the movie business think that the music movie could make more than $100 million in its first weekend and maybe even $150 million by the end of the year.
The heads of studios say that controlling costs is now a must after this summer. Another top studio executive says, “You have to figure out how to make movies for a reasonable price, and then choose the ones you want to go all out on.” Another studio insider with a lot of experience says, “This business has always been risky and unpredictable, but the big-budget movies are bigger than ever.” When they don’t work, it’s terrible.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, a family film released in August by Paramount, cost only about $70 million to make. It has made more than $153 million so far and, according to studio sources, has successfully brought back the brand. In the family market, other summer highlights included The Little Mermaid, which came in at No. 5 on the domestic summer chart with more than $297 million, one of the best showings for a Disney live-action remake (it made more than $569 million worldwide).
Elemental, made by Pixar and Disney, was a success in that it made more than $478 million at the worldwide box office despite having a slow start. However, because it costs at least $200 million to make, a financial win is hard to come by.
Disney, with its stable of big-name film studios like Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, still has the biggest market share. It was the only major company whose summer ticket sales in North America went over $1 billion. Market share doesn’t have much to do with making money, as Sony’s head of movies, Tom Rothman, likes to say. Disney has had a rough summer, but it’s proud of how it helped the company win $4 billion overall.
“It’s great to see that the summer box office is almost back to where it was before the pandemic, as moviegoers of all ages are once again going to see a wide range of movies,” says Disney’s head of global marketing, Tony Chambers. “And all of this despite the fact that some games from all studios may not have lived up to what we all had hoped and expected at first.”
What Went Well This Summer
Freedom’s Sound The independent film from Angel Studios came out of nowhere and made more than $180 million in the United States. This put it ahead of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and the latest Mission: Impossible movie on the list of highest-grossing summer movies.
Barbie is a doll. The Lego Movie was the previous record-holder for a toy-to-movie remake, but Greta Gerwig’s fresh, female take on the doll beat it by 187 percent. This is in addition to the other records Gerwig has broken, such as being the highest-grossing female director working alone of all time. Goldstein says, “No one could have guessed what Barbie would turn out to be.” “People will tell you exactly what they like and don’t like.
Oppenheimer was a scientist. No one could have predicted that this three-hour biography would become Christopher Nolan’s biggest movie in more than 50 foreign countries, not counting those that haven’t come out yet. (It’s the third most popular movie in North America, after the last two Dark Knight movies. “Oppenheimer has been very successful abroad. “It’s the biggest Nolan film of all time in more than 50 territories, which is interesting because it shows a wide range of cultures and tastes in both upmarket and downmarket territories,” says Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, president of international distribution at Universal.
What Didn’t Work
The Ghostly House The movie has made $100 million worldwide as of Labor Day, making it the second-lowest-grossing adaptation of a Disney theme park ride or feature after 2002’s The Country Bears, which made only $18 million, not accounting for inflation.
The Flash (The Flash) It was a total flop, making less than $270 million around the world, which was less than last year’s superhero flop Black Adam. Blue Beetle, the other DC movie coming out this summer, has made less than $85 million, making it the lowest-grossing movie in the DC Extended Universe. Ouch.
Comedies rated R So much for the raunchy entertainment coming back. No Hard Feelings, which starred Jennifer Lawrence and cost $45 million to make, made the most money at home with $50.5 million, followed by Strays, which has made $21.5 million so far, and Joy Ride, which has made less than $13 million.