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‘Barbie' wins the summer box office, but fall looks gloomy — even with Taylor Swift

Courtesy: Warner Bros.
  • Fresher films such as "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" fueled summer movie ticket sales this year.
  • The summer movie season, which ranges from the first Friday in May through Labor Day, tallied $4 billion domestically.
  • "Barbie" generated $612.3 million between its July 21 release and Labor Day, representing 15% of the total summer box office.

Hollywood bet big on blockbuster franchise sequels to revive its summer cinema business, but it was fresh fare such as "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" that fueled the industry's haul of $4 billion, a 19% jump from last year.

Starting the first Friday in May and running through Labor Day weekend, the summer movie season, on average, represents 40% of all movie ticket sales for the year. Studios typically pad this part of the release calendar with superhero spectacles, franchise sequels and action-packed flicks in an effort to capture audience attention during the hottest months of the year.

Fall is looking gloomy, however.

Movie theaters are already contending with less content than previous years. Missing titles such as "Dune: Part Two" will exacerbate that issue. The industry got some good news in the form of Taylor Swift's Eras Tour concert film, arriving in theaters in October. Expectations are set high for its debut, with many box office analysts expecting a $100 million opening. Swift won't be able to balance the scales by herself, however.

Still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, Hollywood has entered a chaotic period of recovery. As studios are desperately trying to lure moviegoers away from their couches, they are also contending with dual labor strikes that have limited their ability to market their slate.

Top summer movies of 2023, domestic

  • Warner Bros.' "Barbie" — $612.3 million
  • Sony's "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" — $381.2 million
  • Disney's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" — $358.9 million
  • Universal's "Oppenheimer" — $310.6 million
  • Disney's "The Little Mermaid" — $298.1 million

Source: Comscore

Summertime gladness

Following pandemic-related shutdowns, Hollywood has fewer titles to offer up to theaters. This summer, there were 10 fewer wide-released films than in 2019, a nearly 24% decline. Still, the 2023 summer box office managed to trail pre-pandemic levels by just 5.9%, or a little more than $200 million, according to data from Comscore.

"Perhaps the most notable aspect of the summer movie season of '23 was its volatility," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Costly franchise installments, which were supposed to tap into audience nostalgia, fell flat.

Paramount's Tom Cruise vehicle "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One," Warner Bros.′ DC Comics tentpole "The Flash," Universal's "Fast X" and Disney's "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" all fell flat at the domestic box office. Each generated less than $200 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Instead, cinema patrons opted for original storytelling, leaning toward the bubblegum pink "Barbie" and dark and intense "Oppenheimer."

"Barbie," a partnership between Warner Bros. and Mattel, generated $612.3 million between its July 21 release and Labor Day, representing 15% of the total summer box office.

In addition to titles from major studios, the summer haul was fueled by ticket sales for "Sound of Freedom" from Angel Studios, which became a surprise hit with audiences. It has generated nearly $200 million since its July 4 release.

Fall pall

Warner Bros.
Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson star in Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of "Dune."

The summer season also showed a growing desire from audiences for tickets to premium format showings, said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. He said the industry can learn a lot from the performances of titles such as "Barbie," particularly the appeal of grassroots communal experiences in cinemas.

"The caveat, however, is that the release calendar has thinned out slightly due to the ongoing strikes," he said. "While this could create an opportunity for certain studios and films, it's a headwind that nonetheless presents an increasing number of challenges for theater owners and audiences who don't want to see more delays of movies they're looking forward to."

Over the longer term, it would become an increasing worry for next year as productions remain halted, Robbins added.

It comes as the theater industry is reigniting, with the overall box office from January through Labor Day up about 25% from last year.

However, it still lags from 2019 levels by 13%, and the fall movie season looks to be a tepid one, even with Swift's concert movie on the calendar.

Already, films such as Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment's "Dune: Part Two" and Sony's "Kraven the Hunter" and the "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" sequel have all departed for 2024 as writers and actors strike against studios.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.

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