Michael Cieply: Increasingly Top-Heavy, The Movie Box Office Needs A Very Careful Trim

Film

As my colleague Anthony D’Alessandro has noted, the domestic movie box office, starved of product by overlapping strikes, will likely be trimmed by a billion dollars in 2024.

So here’s question worth pondering: Would the film industry be healthier if most of that pruning occurred at the very top?

There’s a case to be made.

One of the more noticeable distortions to accompany the simultaneous arrival of Covid lockdowns and a streaming revolution in the last few years was the acceleration of a trend toward extreme top-loading at the box-office.

In 2023, the three top-grossing films were Barbie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, with about $1.6 billion in ticket sales among them. Figuring the year’s box-office take at roughly $9 billion, by Anthony’s early estimate, just three films accounted for 17.8 percent of the domestic theatrical total.

To put this in perspective, that figure is a little lower than the share gobbled by the Top Three in the previous three Covid-distorted years, when the best-selling three films accounted for an average share of 22.5 percent, based on numbers compiled by BoxOfficeMojo.com.

But it is still markedly higher than the Top Three box-office share in earlier, healthier years.

In the five “normal” years between 2015 and 2019, a period that included monster hits like Black Panther and Jurassic World, the Top Three averaged only about 14.5 percent of the box office, and in none of those years did they match the 2023 share, never mind that of the outsized Covid years.

And, again based on the BoxOfficeMojo.com ticket-sale totals, the previous five years, from 2010 to 2014, saw the Top Three—even with a boost from Avatar and The Avengers—average just 10.9 percent of the total box office. So last year’s Top Three had a combined share 63 percent higher than the Top Three of a dozen years ago.

For whatever reason—the evaporation of lower- and middle-range films, the disappearance of older viewers, extreme concentration of interest through social media—the audience has been driven toward a small number of films at the very top, while the lower ranks wither.

Do a little more arcane math, and you find that last year—after subtracting what the Top Three took home—around 580 films shared the remaining $7.4 billion, for an average of $12.7 million each. While that number doesn’t mean much on an individual basis, given the extremely wide range of budgets and ticket sales across the field, it’s instructive to see that in, say, 2010, a larger group of 650 or so films had an average take of about $14.5 million. That’s about 14 percent higher than last year’s average, even without accounting for inflation.

So the box-office become deformed—it’s much heavier at the top, and much lighter at the bottom.

This makes it harder for almost everyone to do business, streaming revenue notwithstanding. And if a trim is now in order, it might be best if the overgrown parts took a little extra clipping.

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