Where have all the billion-dollar movies gone? So far, only Mario’s been super this year

Business

Chris Pratt and Charlie Day voice Mario and Luigi in Universal and Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
Universal

LOS ANGELES — It’s the billion-dollar question: Why are mega blockbusters in short supply this year?

Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is the only movie released in 2023 to so far eclipse the $1 billion mark at the global box office. It doesn’t look like there could be another one, even with some big titles on the calendar.

“If you would have given 10 people a release schedule at the beginning of the year and said, ‘We will have just one billion-dollar movie out of all of these and can you pick which one it will be?’ I don’t think anyone would have taken ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ as the one,” said Mike Polydoros, CEO at cinema marketing firm PaperAirplane Media.

The lack of billion-dollar grossers marks a dramatic change in the industry. In years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and even last year, there were multiple megahits eclipsing $1 billion in global grosses.

The lack of these kinds of blockbusters in 2023 is especially apparent at Disney, which has Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and legacy fairy tale franchises. While the studio is on track to be the box office ruler this year, it has had a string of misfires in recent months that have drummed up concerns that audience preferences are changing too quickly for Hollywood to adapt.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” failed to lure in audiences beyond the staunchest Marvel fans in February, tallying just $214.5 million domestically and under $500 million worldwide. “Elemental,” released just last month, currently holds the second-lowest domestic haul of any Pixar film in the history of the studio, barely outpacing 2020’s “Onward,” which saw its box office run cut short due to the pandemic.

At Disney’s Lucasfilm, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” which hit theaters June 30, is expected to struggle to recoup its nearly $300 million production budget. So far, it has generated $122.1 million at the domestic box office and $221.4 million globally.

“On the whole, I see Disney in a position that’s been mostly expected coming out of the pandemic and having gone through another leadership change,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Those two massively influential factors have reshaped the studio’s position in a number of ways, especially at the box office when considering the last decade saw their top franchises and brand fire on all cylinders. That kind of momentum was never going to be sustainable without the occasional ebb and flow.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger told CNBC’s David Faber on Thursday that the company would cut back on its Marvel and Star Wars content as it seeks to cut costs and rejuvenate its brands.

A bright spot for Disney has come in the form of James Gunn’s final bow at Marvel Studios. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is the third-highest grossing domestic release so far this year, with $357.5 million. It trails just behind Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Gunn now helps lead Warner Bros. Discovery’s DC Studios.

The third Guardians film has managed to secure $834.2 million globally since its May release, but likely won’t hit the coveted billion-dollar threshold.

Notably, Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” has generated more than $1 billion in global ticket sales in 2023, but because it was released in 2022, it doesn’t count as a billion-dollar movie for this year.

“The billion-dollar club seems to have become even more exclusive in 2023,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Despite numerous high-profile titles boasting some of the biggest movie brands and franchises in filmdom, thus far, this year’s crop has lacked either the global footprint or the utter dominance of the marketplace to cross the $1 billion threshold in what has been a very competitive global movie marketplace.”

Top-grossing 2023 films globally
  1. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Universal) — $1.34 billion
  2. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (Disney) — $834.2 million
  3. “Fast X” (Universal) — $702.8 million
  4. “Full River Red” (EDKO Films) — $647.8 million
  5. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (Sony) — $643.5 million
  6. “The Wandering Earth 2” (China Film Group Corporation) — $585.5 million
  7. “The Little Mermaid” (Disney) — $542.9 million
  8. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Disney) — $471.3 million
  9. “Lost In The Stars” (Alibaba Pictures) — $428.5 million
  10. “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Lionsgate) — $432.5 million

*This list does not include films released in 2022 that have generated ticket sales in 2023.

The Chinese market, in particular, was a major driving force in previous billion-dollar box office hits, but the region has been more selective about what Hollywood films it allows to be shown in the country. China has also developed its own lucrative film market.

For example, most Marvel films released pre-pandemic saw 15% to 22% of ticket sale totals from China. In the wake of the pandemic, only a handful of these comic book films have played on screens in the country and those that have, have seen significantly less receipts.

The first two Ant-Man films, released in 2015 and 2018, generated about 20% of ticket sales from China. Meanwhile, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” saw just 8% of tickets sold in China.

“Globally speaking, China’s evolution into a market that can no longer be counted on to deliver massive blockbuster performances by some films and franchises that used to do so leaves a hole that may be too big to fill in the short term,” said Robbins.

A dry spell

Fewer Chinese tickets sales coupled with slower-than-expected return from domestic moviegoers has stunted big blockbusters in 2023, leading to fewer billion-dollar films.

In the last decade, the number of billion-dollar global earners has increased significantly, with Disney responsible for the majority of chart-topping titles. In fact, the studio has had at least one billion-dollar release every year since 2014 through 2019, when it had seven billion-dollar films.

It did not produce a billion-dollar film in 2020 or 2021 due to pandemic restrictions, but 2022’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” topped $2 billion.

“As 2019 was an anomaly on the high side, I think 2023 can be looked at as an anomaly the other way,” said PaperAirplane’s Polydoros. “As they say with testing, throw out the highest and lowest and go from there. And I think that same theory applies to overall box office as a whole.”

Polydoros’ sentiment was shared by numerous box office analysts who spoke with CNBC. They noted that while many Disney releases have fallen below expectations, the studio remains a strong competitor at the domestic and global box office.

“It’s unlikely Disney will have a $1 billion global performer this year,” Dergarabedian said. “But, to be fair, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’ and ‘Elemental’ have collectively earned over $2 billion globally.”

Still on top

Despite tepid results from the typically stalwart Disney, the studio has generated more domestic ticket sales than any other studio so far this year.

Through June, Disney’s releases represent 30% of all domestic ticket sales, or $1.3 billion, according to data from Comscore.

The studio also has four of the top 10 highest-grossing domestic film hauls so far this year.

Highest-grossing domestic films so far in 2023
  1. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Universal) — $573.7 million
  2. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (Sony) — $357.6 million
  3. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (Disney) — $357.5 million
  4. “The Little Mermaid” (Disney) — $289.2 million
  5. “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) — $283 million
  6. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Disney) — $214.5 million
  7. “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Lionsgate) — $187.1 million
  8. “Creed III” (MGM) — $156.2 million
  9. “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” (Paramount) — $146.8 million
  10. “Fast X” (Universal) — $145.9 million

“As always, it comes down to the content,” said Polydoros.

It has yet to be seen if upcoming Disney releases, such as “Haunted Mansion,” “The Marvels” or “Wish,” will be able to generate the benchmark billion-dollar sum, but a diverse slate bodes well for the company.

“2024 does look more promising on several fronts, and their original animated film, ‘Wish,’ could be a big hit later this year if it lives up to its potential with audiences that helped make the ‘Frozen’ series so successful,” said Robbins.

Upcoming Disney releases
  • “Haunted Mansion” — July 28
  • “Vacation Friends 2” — Aug. 25
  • “Poor Things” — Sept. 8
  • “A Haunting in Venice” — Sept. 15
  • “The Creator” — Sept. 29
  • “The Marvels” — Nov. 10
  • “Next Goal Wins” — Nov. 17
  • “Wish” — Nov. 22
  • “Magazine Dreams” — Dec. 8

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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