In 2023, Movie Audiences Wanted Comfort, Not Superhero Spectacle

Hollywood’s movie factories run on conventional wisdom — entrenched notions, based on experience, about what types of films are likely to pop at the global box office.

This year, audiences turned many of those so-called rules on their heads.

Superheroes have long been seen as the most reliable way to fill seats. But characters like Captain Marvel, the Flash, Ant-Man, Shazam and Blue Beetle failed to excite moviegoers. Over the weekend, “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which cost more than $200 million to make and tens of millions more to market, arrived to a disastrous $28 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada. Overseas moviegoers chipped in another $80 million.

In the meantime, the biggest movie of the year at the box office, “Barbie,” with $1.44 billion in worldwide ticket sales, was directed by a woman, based on a very female toy and spray-painted pink — ingredients that most studios have long seen as limiting audience appeal. An old movie-industry maxim holds that women will go to a “guy” movie but not vice versa.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” collected $1.36 billion, a second-place result that also stunned Hollywood; studios have a troubled history with game adaptations. “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour period drama about a physicist, rounded out the top three, taking in $952 million and contradicting the prevailing belief that, in the streaming era, films for grown-ups are not viable in theaters.

“Without question, change is afoot — audiences are in a different mood,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on box office numbers. “The country and the world are not in the same place. We’ve had seven years of divisive politics, a severe pandemic, two serious wars, climate change and inflation. Moviegoers seem less interested in being overwhelmed with spectacle and saving the universe than being spoken to, entertained and inspired.”

The biggest box office surprises of the year fell into the “spoken to” category. “Sound of Freedom,” a crime drama that cost $15 million to make, catered to the far right, an audience largely ignored by Hollywood, and generated $248 million in ticket sales, on a par with “The Eras Tour,” which targeted Taylor Swift fans and also cost about $15 million.

“Sound of Freedom” came from Angel Studios, an independent company in Provo, Utah, that supported the film with an unorthodox “Pay It Forward” program, which let supporters buy tickets online for those who otherwise might not see it. In a big break from Hollywood norms, Ms. Swift cut out the middle company (a studio) and made a distribution deal directly with AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest theater operator.

“Our phone has been dancing off the hooks since the day we announced the ‘Eras Tour’ project,” Adam Aron, AMC’s chief executive, told investors on a conference call in November, referring to “alternative content” opportunities.

Comscore, which compiles box office data, projected on Sunday that North American ticket sales for the year would reach about $9 billion, a 20 percent increase from 2022. (Before the pandemic, North American theaters reliably sold about $11 billion in tickets annually.) The average price for an adult general admission ticket in the United States was $12.14, up from $11.75, according to EntTelligence, a research firm.

Worldwide ticket sales are expected to exceed $33 billion, an increase of 27 percent, partly because of a surge in Latin America. (Before the pandemic, worldwide ticket sales easily exceeded $40 billion annually.)

Hollywood’s climb back from the pandemic is expected to stall in 2024. With fewer movies scheduled for release — studio pipelines were disrupted by the recent strikes — ticket sales will decline 5 to 11 percent next year, depending on the market, according to projections from Gower Street Analytics, a box office research firm.

Reading box-office tea leaves is like pontificating about symbolism in works of fiction: Any halfway plausible theory works. But studio bosses need something, anything, to guide them as they make billion-dollar judgment calls for the seasons ahead.

Here are five takeaways from this year:

People reach for nostalgia in times of stress, and movies that reminded audiences of the past — while also managing to feel fresh — have been succeeding. “Barbie,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Wonka” and the retro-feeling “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” allowed people to revisit their childhoods. “Insidious: The Red Door” hit pay dirt by bringing back the franchise’s original stars.

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” could have tapped into nostalgia to become a hit. Instead, a huffing and puffing Harrison Ford, 81, simply reminded Indy fans that they, too, are getting old. “Dial of Destiny” cost Disney $295 million to make and took in a flaccid $384 million. (Theaters keep roughly 50 percent of ticket sales.)

Sophisticated dramas with modest budgets and aimed at older audiences have been showing signs of life after two years in the box office I.C.U.

The streaming era has forever shifted the bulk of prestige film viewing to the home, analysts say. But theaters found a modicum of success in 2023 with offerings like “Past Lives,” a wistful drama with some Korean dialogue, and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated “The Boy and the Heron.” The bespoke “Asteroid City” managed $54 million.

Early box office results have also been promising for Oscar-oriented films like “Poor Things,” a surreal science-fiction romance, and “American Fiction,” a satire about a writer who puts together a fake memoir that turns on racial stereotypes.

For the past decade, Hollywood has kept audiences interested in sequels by making each installment more bloated and often nonsensical than the last. Bigger! Faster! More!

That strategy may need rethinking — it’s just too expensive, analysts say, especially with Chinese moviegoers souring on American blockbusters. “Fast X,” the 10th movie in the “Fast and Furious” series, cost an estimated $340 million and took in $705 million worldwide, including $140 million in China. By comparison, “Furious 7” in 2015 cost $190 million and collected $1.5 billion, including $391 million in China.

Tom Cruise’s seventh “Mission: Impossible” spectacle, released in July in the wake of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” cost roughly $290 million to make and collected $568 million, including $49 million in China. The sixth “Mission: Impossible” in 2018 cost $178 million and generated $792 million, with Chinese ticket buyers chipping in $181 million.

Increasingly, franchise sequels and spinoffs need to feel fresh to succeed. Lionsgate, for instance, delved deeper into the High Table underground crime organization in “John Wick: Chapter 4” and introduced “Hunger Games” fans to a new story line (and cast) in the prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” Both movies were hits. Lionsgate even revived its “Saw” horror franchise by shifting the narrative back in time.

“Each of those movies did something different than the prior,” said Adam Fogelson, vice chair of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “It wasn’t just ‘spend more, make it bigger, make it louder and cram in more action.’”

Horror continued to be a reliable performer, with “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and “M3gan” starting new franchises for Universal and its Blumhouse affiliate. Together, the two films cost $32 million. They collected a combined $469 million. Also notable was “The Nun II,” which cost Warner Bros. about $38 million and took in $268 million.

Superheroes may be down, but they’re not out. Marvel’s rollicking, well-established “Guardians of the Galaxy” series returned for a third chapter and generated $846 million against a $250 million budget. Sony’s bold, anime-influenced “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” cost an estimated $150 million and collected $691 million.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood has been that movie stars are essentially part of the past. A celebrity name above the title no longer carries that much weight with ticket buyers. The underlying “intellectual property” is what fills seats.

People pay to see Barbie, not Margot Robbie.

Except that Mattel and various studios tried for at least 20 years to turn the toy into a live-action movie star. It took Ms. Robbie in the role (and Ryan Gosling as Ken) to finally make it happen. Other movies that benefited from star power in 2023 included “Wonka,” with Timothée Chalamet, and “Creed III,” anchored by Michael B. Jordan.

Stars don’t have heft? Try telling that to the producers of “Gran Turismo,” “Haunted Mansion,” “Dumb Money” and “Strays,” all of which disappointed at the box office and arrived when their casts were barred from promoting their work because of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

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