Theaters owners are trying everything in their powers to recover some revenue: from special offers, to simultaneous screenings, to dead-days discount. Still – there is an issue with content. If we take a look at the numbers, the market is kept alive by capes, sequels – and China. How much is this sustainable in the long term?

Movie theaters are going to recover – partially. The global box office is some 50% below pre-pandemic levels: Gower Street claims that by mid-December the planet was at 19.9 billion USD globally (20.2. projected full year), which is about a half of the 2017-2019 average. Still, the same Gower Street claims that in 2022 the global box office will hit 33.2 billion USD. It is still far from the pre-pandemic 41.9 billion average, a level that might be reached only in 2023.

And this is wonderful news, but not for everybody. If we observe the top titles of the year, we have to conclude that going to a movie theater is a form of entertainment worth the expense if the film includes a superhero (o a super-villain) or is Chinese. The first twenty films of the year grossed a total 9.5 billion USD and 60% of the revenue belonged to either of the two. “Normal” blockbusters (listed below as “BB”) got the rest of the shares, for a total 3.9 billion – with 1.5 from just two titles, “No TIme to Die” and “F9: The fast saga” (Imdb data). 

There is more to it. If we exclude Chinese titles, a mere 1.1 billion of the other films are based on truly “original” stories. I included “Dune” (grossing 0.4 billion ) although it’s a remake, but we can safely assume that few people remember the original (and even fewer enjoyed it).

All the rest (5.2. billion) is either a franchise (James Bond, Fast & Furious, Spiderman) or a sequel or the filming of known subjects. The risk of bringing a big film to the big screen is such, that already-popular subjects are preferred. 

Actually, this tendency was already clear before the pandemic. In 2019 out of the first twenty films a mere two were “new” stories (“The Wandering Earth” and “The Captain”) and one was a super-hero film from China (“Ne Zha”). In 2018, there were four originals and a Chinese. The last time an original story was the highest-grossing film was 2013 with animated film “Frozen”; and the last original fiction film to lead the list was “Avatar” in 2009. 

To this extent – streamers are proving to be much more risk-prone and subsequently creative. Of course this is a safer bet: it works on home-viewership and people are forced to stay home (lately). Still, streaming producers appear to be in the process of creating that bases of “cultural references” that might translate into franchises: this is already happening for series, and is partially happening for films. Last September, Netflix released the list of its most popular productions by viewership and out of the first ten, just one could be considered a “sequel” (and very loosely: “Army of the Dead” by Zack Snyder). 

In terms of series, Netflix publishes an interesting list of the “total hours watched in the first 28 days” of all its productions. It is a celebration of originality: 

  1. Squid Game – First season – 1.65 billion hours
  2. Bridgerton – First season – 625 million hours.
  3. Money Heist (part 4) – 619 million hours.
  4. Stranger Things (season 3) – 582 million hours.
  5. The Witcher – First season – 541 million hours.
  6. 13 Reasons Why (season 2) – 496 million hours.
  7. 13 Reasons Why – First season – 476 million hours.
  8. Maid – limited series – 469 million hours.
  9. You (season 3) – 468 million hours.
  10. You (season 2) – 457 million hours.
  11. Stranger Things (season 2) – 427 million hours.
  12. Money Heist (part 3) – 426 million hours.
  13. Sex Education (season 3) – 419 million hours.
  14. Money Heist (part 5) – 395 million hours.
  15. Ginny & Georgia – First season – 381 million hours.

It is not just about the success of “first seasons”, but also the fact that all the productions are “original”. Not by chance, total Netflix revenue in 2021 is above 28 billion USD. This means that Netflix alone grosses 44% more than all the cinemas of the planet combined. 

One might claim that this is the normality of things. Still well in the 2000s it was normal for a successful TV show to become a movie distributed in theaters: take “The A-Team”, “The Addams Family”, “Batman”, “The Avengers”, “The Flintstones” (see here for a complete list). 

But this is not going to happen with streaming. Big screen film productions are feeding on other creative environments in order to reduce risk, and superheroes/franchises are the way to go. But is this going to last forever? TV is not there to feed the theater dragon anymore. There is no connection between streaming and cinemas, not even reversed: distributors are biding farewell even to same-day streaming (see the disaster of “Matrix: Resurrections“). 

If anything, it is not just a question of pandemic: film productions have to reinstate a creative cycle. If we take a look at the highest-grossing films in history (adjusted for inflation), there is a robust presence of “new” content: eight out of ten are original stories, led by “Gone with the Wind” from 1939; “Avengers: Endgame” is a good 5th and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” from 2015 is at the 10th position.

This is good news. film for theaters can work because there is a lot of unexploited opportunities: those of original content. Will teh pandemic crisis bring the shake-up that the industry needs?