2022 was a year of recovery for the box office. While the astounding success of Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water proved that audiences would turn out for “event cinema,” many independent films and mid-budget titles underperformed as audiences turned to streaming. There was no such thing as a “sure thing” at the box office, as the changing theatrical window and dominance of franchises made it harder for original films to stand out. This year proved that even seemingly “safe” franchise vehicles could underperform thanks to dismal reviews with Lightyear, Halloween Ends, and Morbius.
There is certainly reason to have hope; if something as emotionally dense as The Whale or as utterly bizarre as Terrifier 2 can find box office success, then hopefully audiences are willing to take a chance on edgier films. However, the box office story of a film often lives and dies by its opening weekend, and the rising ticket prices and simultaneous VOD releases aren’t doing anything to help theater owners. Taking a look at the year’s box office results is a grim reminder that this is still an industry in flux.
While some of these box office disasters should have been predictable, there are quite a few of the year’s financial bombs that deserved much better.
In a year filled with mega-sized running times, Damien Chazelle‘s three-hour takedown of Hollywood is one of the rare films that justifies its length. This is an indulgent, glorious spectacle that deserves the attention of a crowd that can react to every crazy moment, from the opening party spectacle to the surprisingly horrific conclusion. Chazelle’s cynicism may have hurt Babylon’s chances at capturing a mainstream audience, but it’s impressive that he wrangled such a significant budget dedicated to such challenging material.
Comedy films have been hit hard by the post-COVID box office; titles like Ticket to Paradise and Good Luck To You, Leo Grande may have found success on streaming, but the market for studio comedies on the big screen has dwindled. It’s unfortunate, because Bros is both a groundbreaking moment of representation and one of the most pitch perfect romantic comedies in years. While Billy Eichner’s commentary on masculinity is surprisingly poignant, Bros is so hilarious that it should have found success beyond its target audience.
What does it say about the state of the industry that not even Steven Spielberg can turn out a crowd anymore? The Fabelmans’ underperformance is particularly grim considering its message about the power of cinema, and one would think that the riveting familial drama at the center of Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story could generate an audience beyond cinephiles. While The Fabelmans is certain to be a favorite for award season voters, it’s sadly a reminder that one of the all-time greatest filmmaker’s most personal stories wasn’t celebrated.
No, Women Talking was never going to make Top Gun money, but Sarah Polley’s riveting seminar about sexual abuse contains the exact type of discussions that we need to hear. Perhaps audiences are simply adverse to seeing films about such grim subject material, but Women Talking may have suffered due to the glut of award season titles crammed into the end of December. However, the surprisingly low per-theater average compared to other indie titles this year suggests that not even a cinephile audience was ready for such traumatizing (and sadly relevant) material.
Michael Bay has always been one of Hollywood’s most infamous box office legends; there’s a bitter irony in the fact that Bay’s best films since The Rock are one of his few financial disappointments. Ambulance is a great throwback to ‘90s action ridiculousness, but it features practical filmmaking that elevates it above some of Bay’s other recent projects. Action fans cherished seeing Bay set aside the Transformers franchise to work on something original, but sadly Ambulance lacked the connection to a franchise that audiences apparently needed.
The fact that Robert Eggers, the filmmaker behind such wild horror films as The Witch and The Island, was given a $40 million budget to make an outrageous Viking version of Hamlet seemed too good to be true. Sadly, this was the case with The Northman, which signified that studios may not be as eager to greenlight passion projects from such non-mainstream filmmakers in the future. It’s a shame that The Northman failed to push Eggers to the top of the box office (especially after the financial failure of another medieval epic last year, The Last Duel), but the fact that this aggressively violent modern classic even exists is a victory.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal may loom over the entire industry, but it didn’t necessarily mean that audiences wanted to see the story as a narrative feature. It’s unfortunately a hard film to market, but She Said has an enthralling journalistic perspective on the story that provides new information about the most important event in Hollywood in the last decade. It’s also likely that Focus Features’ puzzling release strategy was to blame. Instead of building buzz over weeks in limited release, She Said had a wide rollout at the beginning and had one of the lowest per-screen averages of the year.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
George Miller is currently dumping all of his creative efforts into the highly-anticipated Furiosa sequel after Mad Max: Fury Road became a massive hit, despite doubts that its prolonged production was destined to fail. Three Thousand Years of Longing may have attempted to capitalize on Miller’s name, but the baffling marketing campaign seemed to advertise it as a bizarre action spectacle, instead of the sincere and touching love story that it was. It’s a good thing Miller has Furiosa to fall back on, because he needs a hit on his resume after Three Thousand Years became such a massive bomb.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Nicolas Cage used The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent to reflect upon his status as a “has been” movie star whose recent filmography has been the subject of ridicule, but it wasn’t enough to redeem him in the eyes of an audience. The concept of “Cage playing himself” is terrific, but it’s also one of the legendary actor’s few films in recent years to get a wide release; he’s been largely relegated to VOD territory outside the limited releases of Joe and Pig, and his voiceover work in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Croods franchise. Cage may have gotten better reviews than he had in years, but his box office appeal hasn’t really changed.
2022 was a year in which many filmmakers reflected on their early lives and careers; while Bardo and Empire of Light felt like self-indulgent messes, James Gray’s Armageddon Time was a surprisingly frank examination of the acclaimed auteur’s experiences with discrimination and class issues during the 1980s. If Spielberg wasn’t able to generate eyeballs for his semi-autobiographical film, it didn’t seem likely that someone as austere as Gray would be able to either. However, it’s unfortunate that Armageddon Time’s underperformance has seemingly hurt its award season chances, as it’s one of the best films of the year.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
When the new Warner Brother Discovery boss David Zaslav announced that the studio was interested in more Harry Potter films, he may have been trying to erase the fact that the third film in the Fantastic Beasts franchise was released to little fanfare earlier this year. Despite initial plans for a five film arc, the saga may be denied any future installments due to The Secrets of Dumbledore’s financial failure. It’s disappointing, considering that it’s easily the best film of the prequel series, and managed to both focus up the story and add a new dimension to Jude Law’s depiction of Dumbledore.