In the 2021 films, “Spider-Man” triumphs over Will Smith, “West Side Story”

LOS ANGELES — top stars. Enthusiastic reviews. Distribution strategies that rely solely on the big screen.

Even the biggest prints failed to draw audiences away from home and to the theaters for many films in 2021.

Will Smith’s “King Richard”, Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and more than a dozen other titles will end the year in a graveyard of disastrous big money, questioning whether the studios will continue to release so many films for adults in rooms at all.

The difficulty for such films was highlighted earlier this month by the seismic success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which had the second-highest opening weekend ever. with $ 260 million in the United States and Canada earlier this month and has therefore grossed over $ 1 billion worldwide.

The result proved that moviegoers will always turn to a superhero flick, even if low budget movies are heading into the holiday season with little to no traction. As studio heads weigh what to do with their 2022 roster, some are already planning to ship even more of their non-tentpole titles to streaming services while keeping their stock prices afloat.

The main culprit: an older cinephile population, still reluctant to return to the cinema. The 2021 blockbuster films have been geared towards a younger audience – “Spider-Man” as well as his similar counterparts, “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. The annual box office has rarely formed such a tiered system, with a single adult-oriented drama – “House of Gucci” – making it into the top 30 grossing films of the year.

The 2021 blockbuster films such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home” have been geared towards a younger audience.


Sony Pictures / Associated press

“It’s the casual moviegoer who hasn’t returned,” said Tearlach Hutcheson, vice president of cinema at Studio Movie Grill, a 21-site movie theater chain with 226 screens in seven states.

Many of those consumers who may have seen a movie or two a year no longer see them, he added, even though younger and more frequent guests have returned.

Reluctance among older moviegoers is expected to increase with the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which has proliferated in the days leading up to the all-important holiday season. Over the Christmas weekend, “Spider-Man” continued to dominate ticket sales at record levels, while several films appealing to older audiences, such as “The Matrix Resurrections,” “A Journal for Jordan “and” Licorice Pizza “, have withered. .

The new “Matrix” movie, released almost 23 years after the original film premiered, drew an older audience – about half of its opening weekend audiences were over 35.

“If you’ve got a demographic that’s a little older than us, that audience is a little more reluctant,” said Jeff Goldstein, president of national distribution at Warner Bros. “There are really haves and have-nots.”

To that end, many of the other high-profile deceptions this year drew older crowds in smaller numbers. About 54% of “West Side Story” opening weekend moviegoers were over 35, and the film only opened around $ 10 million.

A scene from ‘The French Dispatch’ with Bill Murray (in waistcoat).


Searchlight Pictures / Associated press

The same percentage of older ticket buyers showed up for “King Richard,” Mr. Smith’s biopic of the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams, according to data from his studio, WarnerMedia. It opened at $ 5.7 million and is on its way to becoming one of the lowest grossing films of the actor’s career.

Other titles meant to appeal to adults came and went: “The Last Duel,” with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, with Andrew Garfield; and “The French Dispatch”, a film by Wes Anderson with Timothée Chalamet.

Musicals consistently strike a flat note, from “West Side Story” to Broadway adaptations “Dear Evan Hansen” and “In the Heights”. Oscar favorites “Nightmare Alley,” “Belfast” and “Licorice Pizza” are all heading into awards season with fat anemics.

There is more at stake than missed income projections. The performance of these films raises questions about the studio’s strategy until 2022, when executives must decide whether to test these types of small films in the theatrical market. When Covid-19 closed auditoriums in 2020, studios set up streaming plans and reserved theatrical releases only for the biggest films.

Most studios already divide the difference between theaters and home services. Walt disney Co.

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“Encanto,” an animated film about a magical family, premiered in theaters on November 24 but launched on the company’s Disney + service on December 24, giving consumers an in-home option during a typically week’s vacation. popular for family movies.

As next year approaches, Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures. also narrowed the gap between theatrical release and streaming premiere for much of its upcoming roster.

“Encanto,” premiered in theaters on November 24 and launched on the Disney + service on December 24.


Disney / Associated press

The studio will ship many of its 2022 films to its sister streaming service, Peacock, as early as 45 days after their theatrical debut, the company said.

Films affected by the plan include the January action thriller “The 355”, starring Jessica Chastain, as well as Jennifer Lopez’s romantic comedy “Marry Me”, due for release in February. “Ticket to Paradise,” starring box office bets Julia Roberts and George Clooney, could arrive on Peacock after just over a month and a half, along with the next installment of the lucrative “Halloween” and “ Downton Abbey “from Universal. series.

In announcing the change, the studio did not include its top priorities “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” the two sequels of the studio’s renowned franchises.

Going forward, exhibition insiders say studios will look to such high-profile films to reliably draw crowds, even if smaller films don’t.

“It’s not so much about consumption habits as whether it’s an event or not. People want to be part of a global event, ”said Richard Gelfond, managing director of IMAX Corp., the high-end auditorium company. “People are going to want to go out for something they can’t get at home.”

More Netflix viewers have watched dubbed versions of the South Korean drama “Squid Game” than subtitled versions. WSJ caught up with one of the show’s English voice actors to see how foreign dubbing is fueling the streaming giant’s growth. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi

Write to Erich Schwartzel at [email protected]

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