Hollywood closed out an up and down 2023 with “Wonka” regaining No. 1 at the box office, strong sales for “The Color Purple” and an overall USD9 billion in ticket sales that improved on 2022's grosses but fell about USD 2 billion shy of pre-pandemic norms.
The New Year's weekend box office this year lacked a true blockbuster. (This time last year, “Avatar: The Way of Water” was inundating theatres.) Instead, a wide array of films – among them “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” “The Boys in the Boat,” “Migration,” “Ferrari,” “The Iron Claw” and “Anyone But You” – sought to break out over the year's most lucrative box-office corridor.
The top choice, though, remained “Wonka,” Paul King's musical starring Timothee Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka. In its third weekend, the Warner Bros. release collected an estimated USD 24 million Friday through Sunday and USD 31.8 million factoring in estimates for the Monday holiday. That brings the film's domestic total to USD 142.5 million.
That bested Warner Bros.' own “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which, like previous DC superhero films, is struggling. James Wan's “Aquaman” sequel starring Jason Momoa took in USD 19.5 million in its second weekend to bring its two-week haul to a modest USD 84.7 million including New Year's Day estimates.
The original “Aquaman,” which ultimately surpassed USD 1.1 billion worldwide, had grossed USD 215.4 million over a similar period in 2018 – more than double that of the sequel. Internationally, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” added USD 50.5 million.
Weekend sales only tell part of the story this time of year. From Christmas through New Year's, when kids are out of school and many adults aren't working, every day is like Saturday to film distributors.
“The Color Purple,” Blitz Bazawule's adaptation of the 2005 stage musical from Alice Walker's novel, debuted on Monday and led all movies on Christmas with USD 18 million. Through the week, the Warner Bros. release has grossed USD 50 million, including USD 13 million Friday through Sunday. That's a strong start for the crowd-pleaser starring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks. Audiences gave it an “A” CinemaScore.
The roughly USD 100 million production, which boasts Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones (all from the 1985 film) as producers, should play well through awards season. It's nominated for several Golden Globes and expected to be in the Oscar mix.
“We saw this opportunity to go wide at Christmas since there were so few movies and we were confident the movie would be well received,” said Jeffrey Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros. “Going into the competitive landscape that's so thin in January and February, the excitement of awards season could really help ignite a bigger box office.”
Despite a blockbuster-less holiday frame, the last weekend of the year pushed the industry past USD 9 billion in box office for the year in U.S. and Canadian theatres for the first time since before the pandemic. Ticket sales on the year were up 21 per cent from 2022, according to data firm Comscore.
Still, it was a mark that seemed more easily within reach during the summer highs of Barbenheimer when both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were breaking box-office records.
The enormous success of those two films changed the trajectory of Hollywood's 2023, but so did the monthslong actors and writers strikes. Those forced the postponement of some top films (most notably “Dune: Part Two” ), diminishing an already patchwork fall lineup with few guaranteed ticket-sellers. One exception was the last-minute addition of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” which set a new record for concert films.
This year, Hollywood needed Swift and every penny to reach USD 9 billion. It crossed that threshold Saturday, with one day to spare. That total, though, still doesn't come close to the USD 11 billion-plus years that preceded the pandemic. The number of wide releases in 2023 came about 20 films shy of those released in 2019.
The production delays caused by the strikes could have an even greater impact on 2024. Several top releases have already been postponed until at least the following year, including “Mission: Impossible” and “Spider-Verse” sequels. After a rocky year for Marvel and a string of less predictable hits, Hollywood will have to hope it can adapt to changing audience tastes – and that another “Barbie” is lurking somewhere.
"It's an USD 11 billion business. We're climbing our way back," said Goldstein. “This next year is going to be a big challenge because of the strikes. But we're seeing very clearly in 2023, when there are movies out there that people want to see, they come.”
Meanwhile, a host of releases sought to capitalise over the holidays – and most succeeded.
“This crop of seven wide releases at the end of the year, they got us over the hump of USD9 billion,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. “This final push of the year provided great insight into what audiences are looking for. It's movies big and small. It's different types of movies."