What will attract broader audiences back to North American cinemas in 2023? 

'John Wick: Chapter 4'

Source: Lionsgate

‘John Wick: Chapter 4’

The global industry is willing on a North America box‑office rebound as the pandemic recedes and there is a fuller schedule of wide releases compared to last year, broad theatrical commitments from two streaming giants, and early 2023 hits. 

However distributors and cinema owners descending on Las Vegas for Cinema­Con (April 24-27) know Hollywood is not out of the woods yet, in spite of the heroics of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (which opened over Easter weekend with a six-day $224.7m take in North America and is the highest-grossng film of the year to date), John Wick: Chapter 4 ($148.5m at time of writing), Creed III ($153.5m), Scream VI ($104.4m) and M3GAN ($95m), and last year’s $7.54bn total box-office haul, which Comscore says marked a 64.5% gain on Covid-­impacted 2021.

The pandemic has changed cinema­going forever, leading to the closure of around 5% of North America’s formerly 41,172 screens and forcing exhibitors to trim the fat. Regal parent Cineworld has filed a reorganisation plan with a Texas bankruptcy court and expects to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the first half of the year. The industry is watching closely the fate of the world’s largest chain AMC Theatres, which continues to be financially challenged.

Also of concern are the where­abouts of two key demographics. The older crowd, especially susceptible to health risks, has not fully returned to the cinema. They would have been part of the audience going to see awards contenders TÁR and The Fabelmans, both of which disappointed at the box office in late 2022.

Meanwhile, families have grown used to viewing from the comfort of their homes, weaned on a Covid-era strategy that left studios like Disney little choice but to send films straight to Disney+ during the Bob Chapek era. Recently reinstated CEO Bob Iger wants to restore the primacy of theatrical, but has said it should only be for the right films and he will send other titles directly to the streaming service.

There has been a dearth of theatrical films for these two groups and the industry wants to see more. Executives will be encouraged by Universal/Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie (which sent stocks rising at plex chains AMC Entertainment and Cinemark, and Imax); however, April and August offer slim pickings in terms of new tentpole releases. Simply put, exhibitors and the theatrical community want to see more films.

Encouraging results

'Super Mario Bros. The Movie'

Source: Universal

‘Super Mario Bros. The Movie’

Comscore has forecast there will be around 100 wide releases this year compared to 71 and 67 in 2022 and 2021, respectively. Its data showed year to date box office by April 13 was $2.199bn, 36.6% ahead of 2022 by the same stage. However, year to date trails 2019 at the same stage by 19.7%.

Distribution executives have been encouraged by the growing annual box office, but they are not getting carried away.

“When we can compare summer of ’23 to summer of ’17, ’18, ’19, then we’ll have a decent idea where we are,” says Paramount Pictures’ president of domestic distribution Chris Aronson. “There are reasons for optimism, but I don’t believe we’re going to have a true temperature check until we finish summer.”

Aronson orchestrates the release of all Paramount Pictures films including Top Gun: Maverick ($718.7m) last year and Scream VI. He says the release schedule through the end of summer looks more like it was in pre-pandemic times. Anticipated titles include Disney/­Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 (May 5), Universal’s Fast X (May 19), Disney’s The Little Mermaid (May 26), Sony’s Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (June 2), Disney/Pixar’s Elemental (June 16), Paramount’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One (July 14) and Warner Bros’ Barbie (July 21).

Among those scheduled to open later in the year are Disney/­Marvel’s The Marvels (November 10), Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes (November 17), and Warner Bros’ The Nun 2 (September 8), Dune: Part Two (November 3), Wonka (December 15) and Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom (December 20).

Providing a broad array of content is key. “The most solid times at the box office were when there was something for everybody,” Aronson notes, adding that tricky mid-budget films can work in cinemas. “We proved that with The Lost City, which is a good example of that mid-range film that is not a tentpole nor a rom-com but an action-adventure comedy. It worked because we gave people something they wanted and it had star power. But those films are very difficult to execute successfully.” The 2022 feature starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum grossed $105m in North America.

Aronson would like to see more experimentation around pricing. Earlier this year, Paramount launched “$8 For 80”, a variable pricing initiative tied to the comedy 80 For Brady starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sally Field and Rita Moreno. Pre-­release screening tickets cost $8, well below the national average of $10.53. In some cases, exhibitors charged $8 for all showtimes once the film opened. It has grossed close to $40m.

Some believe variable pricing confuses audiences and makes them think certain films are better than others. There may be broader support for dynamic pricing, whereby exhibitors change the ticket price for the same film depending on the day of the week or the time of day.

Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features, emphasises the importance of building a slate for all ages, male and female, and says well-made content is the key. This year the studio will release We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor’s Sundance entry Polite Society, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, Book Club: The Next Chapter and Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, to name a few.

These days the average exclusive theatrical run has settled in the 45-day region, although Bunnell crafts bespoke windows to best suit each film. She says the closure of revered Los Angeles sites such as ArcLight Hollywood and Landmark Pico were “huge losses for specialty films” because they were prime locations from which to launch platform releases and build out.

“All of us have to reinvent ourselves,” she says. “With social media, you don’t need to build [out a release in] the old way anymore. New York and LA are still extremely important but you could branch it out a bit more and accelerate that process because we’re living in a time when everything is immediate.”

Cohen Media Group CEO Charles Cohen owns Landmark Theatres, which operates 188 screens in 35 locations and 60 Curzon screens at 17 sites in the UK. As well as Landmark Pico, the pandemic saw 20 other locations close across the US. But the company has opened six new venues including Sunset 5 in Los Angeles and is assessing further opportunities.

Cohen acknowledges that while “certain cinephiles will go to the cinema no matter what and we continue to attract them”, there is that reticence among the older demographic and fewer films that appeal to them.

“We’ve had to gravitate at Landmark to more commercial films because that’s what is available and that’s what the audience seems to have an easier time responding to,” he says. Mostly tentpole, 1,000-plus screen releases include John Wick: Chapter 4, The Super Mario Bros. Movie and upcoming franchise entries such as Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3.

The exhibitor also programmes repertory and alternative content, which all cinema operators are exploring in order to fill seats throughout the week. “We need to create reasons to be all things to all kinds of people,” he says, citing the long-running The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a success story, with more to come.

Cohen is open to playing films from streaming platforms. “We do not discriminate about where films come from as long as these are films that represent a passion and craft that is deserving of exhibition,” he says.

“I believe that over the next 18 months we will see a substantial improvement in theatre­going and in accessing the right kind of content to encourage people to come back to the movies,” Cohen concludes.

In an encouraging sign for exhibition, Amazon Studios has pledged to spend $1bn a year releasing 12 to 15 theatrical features, and at press time had just opened Ben Affleck’s Nike film Air (debuting with $20.2m) prior to streaming on Prime Video. Apple, likewise, is investing the same amount on producing films for theatrical releases and is understood to be lining up a 45-day exclusive theatrical release for Martin Scorsese’s Cannes selection Killers Of The Flower Moon through its theatrical partner on the film, Paramount Pictures. Neither Apple nor Paramount had confirmed the length of the exclusive theatrical window at time of writing.

By contrast, Netflix appears set on sticking to limited theatrical releases to raise awareness of titles on the platform for its members. Executive chairman Reed Hastings admitted late last year that the one-week exclusive run of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery last November left money on the table.

Complementing content

Jackie Brenneman, president of The Cinema Foundation, a non-profit sister organisation to US trade group National Association of Theatre Owners, describes herself as “incredibly bullish” about theatrical, and stresses that streaming and theatrical are not in competition, rather they can complement one another.

Brenneman’s comments reflect the view of a growing cohort in Hollywood including David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros Discovery which owns Warner Bros and HBO Max (relaunching in the US on May 23 as Max, a combined service with Discovery+). He has said repeatedly that a theatrical release adds value throughout the revenue waterfall.

The Cinema Foundation launched National Cinema Day in the US last year on September 3, when tickets at participating venues cost $3. Brenne­man says more than 8 million people came out on the day, and the initiative’s hashtag was used more than 20 million times on TikTok.

One-quarter of people who turned out had not been to a cinema “in years”, says Brenneman. “We polled audiences and over 60% said they’ve been going more often after National Cinema Day, so that’s an interesting point we should think about for next time.”

Breakout contenders

In addition to big franchise films this year, sleeper hits will help cinemas broaden appeal and target all audiences. Here are 10 contenders for breakout status:

Past Lives

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘Past Lives’

Past Lives
Dir. Celine Song
Multiple Oscar winner A24 has an impressive slate for 2023 and there will be high hopes for Past Lives after Song’s feature directing debut wowed critics and festival audiences at Sundance and Berlin. The romance follows two childhood friends who were torn apart and reunite decades later. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro star. The feature is released on June 2.

Asteroid City
Dir. Wes Anderson
Anderson’s pastel-drenched slice of whimsy about a Junior Stargazer convention could be just the ticket for a summer crowd eager to escape tentpoles. Regulars Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Ed Norton et al join Anderson newcomers Scarlett Johansson, Margot Robbie and Tom Hanks on the Focus Features release. Reportedly heading for Cannes at press time, like the director’s The French Dispatch in 2021, Asteroid City opens on June 16.

The Blackening
Dir. Tim Story

Hopes are high for Lionsgate’s The Blackening, a meta comedy horror featuring an all-Black cast that made noise in Toronto’s Midnight Madness last year, with the mini-major holding it back for a summer release over the Juneteenth holiday weekend. X Mayo, Sinqua Walls and Dewayne Perkins star in the tale of friends on a Juneteenth holiday getaway trapped in a cabin with a killer. Story directed the Ride Along franchise, Barbershop and 2005’s Fantastic Four. The film will be released on June 16.

No Hard Feelings
Dir. Gene Stupnitsky
Jennifer Lawrence flexes her comedy chops in Sony’s raunchy No Hard Feelings, playing a hard-up woman who responds to a Craigslist advert from a couple who want their awkward teenage son to have sex before he goes to college. Matthew Broderick, Andrew Barth Feldman and Natalie Morales also star in the potential summer hit. Out on June 23.

Joy Ride
Dir. Adele Lim
Oscar-nominated Stephanie Hsu from Everything Everywhere All At Once is one of the leads in Lionsgate’s comedy about Asian American friends who embark on an international adventure in search of their birth mothers. Crazy Rich Asians and Raya And The Last Dragon co-writer Lim makes her directing debut. Lionsgate is screening Joy Ride at CinemaCon, which is usually a sign of confidence. The film is released on July 7.

Theater Camp
Dirs. Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman
Evoking Christopher Guest at its funniest moments, Sundance hit Theater Camp will be a magnet for the musical theatre crowd and a broader audience looking for good-natured laughs. Ben Platt from Dear Evan Hansen, Amy Sedaris and co-director Gordon star in Searchlight Pictures’ tale of camp instructors whose founder falls into a coma on the eve of summer season. Released on July 14.

Talk To Me
Dirs. Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou
The Philippou brothers found fame making comedy horror videos for their RackaRacka YouTube channel, so can they translate that 6 million-plus following into feature film success? A24 is betting they can after snatching up the Sundance hit about youngsters who summon spirits through an embalmed hand. Out on July 28.

Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Guadagnino turns his sights on the world of professional tennis as three top players who knew each other as teenagers reunite on the circuit. Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist star in the MGM/UAR drama, with a September 15 release.

The Holdovers
Dir. Alexander Payne
The long-awaited reunion of Payne and his 2004 Sideways star Paul Giamatti could be just the ticket for discerning audiences. The Holdovers was the off-market sensation of Toronto 2022 after Focus forked out $30m for most of worldwide rights to Miramax’s 1970-set tale of a prep school principal, school cook and unruly student snowed in over Christmas. Released on November 10.

Next Goal Wins
Dir. Taika Waititi
Everybody loves an underdog story and Waititi follows a coach (Michael Fassbender) charged with improving the American Samoan football team after their 31-0 drubbing by Australia in a 2001 World Cup qualifier. Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, the Searchlight Pictures film also stars non-binary Samoan actor Kaimana, Elisabeth Moss and Will Arnett. Out on November 17.