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More movies, more variety, more money: The box office is catching up to pre-Covid levels

For nearly three years, the domestic box office has been chasing the highs of the pre-pandemic era, hoping that blockbuster franchise films would fill seats and sell popcorn.

While superheroes, fighter pilots and blue aliens have lured moviegoers back to cinemas, it’s the recent steady stream of mid-budgeted films from a wide variety of genres that has bolstered ticket sales.

“We’re actually catching up with 2019 levels,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Remember: 2019 was no slouch. It was the second-highest box office year with $11.4 billion.”

The performance of the 2019 box office has become the benchmark for the industry in recent years as it represents the last full year of theatrical normalcy before the Covid pandemic.

Since movie theaters reopened to the public in late 2020, the domestic box office has steadily recovered, generating significantly higher ticket sales each year. Last year, the box office reached $7.5 billion, up 64% from the $4.58 billion in ticket sales seen in 2021. But, it lagged around 34% from 2019.

Industry analysts attributed the smaller box office to a more limited inventory of theatrical releases, not a general disinterest by consumers to return to cinemas. After all, the number of wide releases, those that open in more than 2,000 locations, was down just about the same percentage as the over all box-office totals.

In 2023, that volume is coming back and it’s “driving a healthier market overall,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at

Between January and March 31, studios opened 18 wide releases, a 25% drop from the 24 released during the same period in 2019. Similarly, the first-quarter box office in 2023 also lags by 25%, generating around $1.8 billion during the first three months of the year, compared with $2.4 billion in 2019.

The number of film releases is important to the industry. In 2022, there were only 16 wide releases during the first quarter, and the box office generated $400 million less in ticket sales, tallying $1.41 billion.

Both Dergarabedian and Robbins told CNBC that blockbusters and franchise films are important, but a steady stream of low- to mid-tier budget movies is also critical to the overall success of the industry.

While Disney
’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” alongside Warner Bros.
′ “Creed III” and Universal’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” were the top-performing films during the first three months of the year, original titles like “M3GAN,” “Jesus Revolution” and “Cocaine Bear” delivered strong results, boosting the overall box office.

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