By Nancy Tartaglione
International Box Office Editor/Senior Contributor
A flying ace, rampaging dinosaurs, Marvel, DC, Minions and battling blue aliens on a distant planet were among the highlights of 2022 for the Hollywood studios at the global and international box office. Still, it was yet another year of transition, with worldwide grosses reaching an estimated $26B — a 27% increase on 2021 but 35% off the pre-pandemic three-year average, according to Gower Street Analytics. The upward trajectory also occurred overseas as some markets came back strongly, while others struggled and exchange rates went wild.
The international market (excluding China) is estimated to have finished the year at around $14.1B, a 55% gain on 2021 and a slimmer 29% deficit against the 2017-19 average. With China, it was $18.4B, landing all of international at 71% of the worldwide total. (Recall also that owing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, studios boycotted the market, which was down an estimated $236M versus 2021).
In a mirror of previous years for the majors, Disney ruled globally and internationally. It’s followed by Universal, and in a jet-fueled thrust, Paramount flew up to the No. 3 spot on our rankings chart (see the graphic below).
Par’s Top Gun: Maverick was the No. 1 movie of the calendar year, only just recently overtaken by 20th Century Studios/Disney’s Avatar: The Way of Water as the top release of 2022.
While the success of those titles and others including Jurassic World Dominion — the only other 2022 pic to cross $1B worldwide — Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Minions: The Rise of Gru, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Batman helped energize the marketplace, there were certainly gripes about a lack of product.
In the first quarter of 2022, there still were major Covid issues in many areas — especially in Asia — and then business was cooking from March to July because there were movies releasing.
The fallow period at the of end of summer through to the end of fall was partly down to a post-production bottleneck with greenlighting delays caused by the environment and some movies pushing into 2023.
Then, in December, came Avatar, which all execs agree has been — just as Maverick was in the summer and Spider-Man: No Way Home last Christmas — a boon for the industry as a whole.
After the summer, the business needed Avatar to work in order to get people back into the habit of moviegoing. The other tentpoles in 2022 certainly got folks off their sofas, but there wasn’t enough of a steady stream to fill in the gaps. Suggests an international exec: “You can see how much the industry can’t survive off bouncing from tentpole to tentpole. You need those films which play between and alongside them that reach niche audiences who are passionate about something.”
“Habit” is a word we hear on a constant refrain — getting folks to pick up a pastime they might have discarded is no easy feat. “The more product we have, the more we continue to retrain moviegoers to come back. It has to be a prolific offering,” said a studio exec. Another notes, “The spacing of movies to sustain box office continually through the whole year would have made  even better.”
“Urgency” is another word that often comes up when talking to international distribution execs — audiences must feel they need to see something in the cinema rather than waiting for streaming, i.e.: is it worthy of those extra dollars?
Animation has been “a disaster,” lamented one distribution maven. Minions: The Rise of Gru worked, but Disney’s Lightyear and Strange World severely underperformed. Is there hesitation over bringing families to cinemas, is it the cost of going to the movies, or is it confusion over whether movies will quickly be in homes? One exec quipped that research shows “the audience has no idea when stuff is coming.” Rather, we’re told, “The challenge is that if there’s any bit of a reason not to go, they don’t go” — whether that’s poor reviews or perceived weakness.
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With regard to adult-skewing fare, for many, the only way to make those pictures work is at lower budgets. One exec rattled off that Babylon, Amsterdam, Tár and The Fabelmans “cost too much money for the box office they can potentially make.” Safer bets were titles such as Sony’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Warner Bros’ Don’t Worry Darling.
This is important for exhibition as family movies and films for the over-40 demo are the lifeblood of that business, which operates on thin margins and makes its money on the last 15% or 20% of customers who come through the door. Without the volume, they struggle.
And that volume also helps maintain the cycle. “Trailering is so important to build the cinema-going habit,” an exec said, “and if you don’t have the constant flow of product, you don’t have people going to cinemas. It’s a vicious circle.”
It remains clear that there is an audience for all types of movies — witness Elvis, The Lost City, Ticket to Paradise and horror titles like Smile.
The challenge, said one veteran exec, is that “for every hit, there were a lot more misses. It’s a case of, previously audiences would give cinema-going and movies and theaters the benefit of the doubt; now it seems they are using every reason or excuse not to go to the theater unless they have to for a watercooler moment.”
SELECT MARKET SNAPSHOTS
Overseas, the importance of local-language films cannot be denied. Markets with strong homegrown industries help all boats to rise. Still, China remains an issue as it was very tight-fisted with release dates for Hollywood movies in 2022 while it had a dearth of breakout homegrown hits.
Japan, which lines up after China as the No. 2 international market, is doing great business with local titles like One Piece Film Red, but there is softness as a shift occurred coming out of the pandemic. The most active demo, folks in their 20s, appear to have fundamentally moved away from Hollywood films in favor of local pics. We’re told all studios are struggling to get their heads around the change in consumption habits.
No. 3 outside North America is the UK, which was up 69% over 2021, per Gower Street, led by Top Gun: Maverick (and only so-so on Avatar after snarky reviews). It’s 29% off the pre-pandemic average. Sony made a savvy move in retaining local rights to Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, which is nearing $30M for the iconic IP.
RELATED: French Cinema Posts 51.8% Hike In International Admissions For 2022, Driven By Comedies, Animation & Family-Friendly Pictures
No. 4 France also fared better, with admissions up nearly 60% year-on-year. Although there were no French movies in the country’s Top 10 for the first time in 33 years, it’s the continued presence of local movies that helps buoy a market. French films actually had a higher share than Hollywood in 2022.
No. 5 Korea, typically a massive homegrown market, was up 78% over the previous year, per comScore, but off 37% versus the three-year pre-pandemic average. It had a strong reaction to Covid, with concerns not only on the part of moviegoers but also producers and distributors who held local titles back, so there was not the usual steady supply of homegrown blockbusters.
Notably ailing, Italy is feeling the pinch, down about 50% on the pre-pandemic average. Among reasons cited for its woes are a lack of big local releases, poor infrastructure and a dearth of PLFs. “Oh, my God, Italy!,” exclaimed one international distribution honcho.
And, in terms of growth areas, Saudi Arabia’s slowed but still is considered an important market going forward. The censors there are tough on LGBTQ+ and other issues, but perhaps not as tough as was expected. “The censorship is better than we thought it might have been,” noted an international veteran. “I think they’re trying to balance opening up versus reaction from the conservative elements in the government.” Some films this year also just didn’t engage audiences to the degree they might have amid the floodgates opening. Still, Saudi is “an incredible success story” and “a pure growth market,” said another international exec, who nevertheless doesn’t think it will hit the $1B mark soon.
Southern India — particularly given the global success of RRR and KGF 2 — is being watched by studios as another growth area, as is, eternally, Indonesia with its vast population.
Overall, with a jam-packed calendar for 2023, hope springs eternal, but we’re not out of the woods yet.
For the seventh consecutive year, Disney was the the No. 1 studio at the global box office with $4.9B. Of that, international — where it also was in the top spot — repped $2.9B, which was its total worldwide last year.
The studio was up 69% on a global basis and 67% overseas in 2022 and had four of the Top 8 movies worldwide, with those same four landing in the Top 10 offshore. Through December 31, the highest grossers were Avatar 2 ($1.3B global/$902M international), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever ($817M/$381M), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($956M/$544M) and Thor: Love and Thunder ($761M/$418M).
Lightyear and Strange World were rare animation misses for Disney in 2022, but with Bob Iger back in charge and putting distribution and P&L decisions back in the hands of the studio’s creative heads, it’s an indication that smarter creative and financial decisions are afoot at the studio. On Strange World, Disney took a stance in France, releasing it directly to Disney+ rather than wait out an overly long window, and also chose to bypass the Middle East and other markets where censorship might have been an issue.
One of those was China, which remained a challenge for Disney in 2022 with only three films granted release: Avatar: The Way of Water, Death on the Nile and Encanto. The James Cameron sequel got off to a slow start but has picked up and, we understand, been given an extension with Maoyan eyeing a $230M final. However, there has still not been a Disney/Marvel movie in the market since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. The next time we’ll get a barometer will be if Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania gets in. If Dis is aiming for day-and-date, it would have to submit the movie before Chinese New Year kicks off on January 22.
Also notably ahead for the studio globally in 2023 are Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Little Mermaid, Elemental, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Next Goal Wins, A Haunting in Venice and Wish.
Universal ended 2022 in the second slot worldwide, with $3.9B after becoming the first studio during the pandemic era to cross $3B back in August. The total is a 63% hike on 2021. At the international box office, Uni grossed $2.25B (+33%), and was the studio with the biggest slate at 33 titles across various genres and including rereleases and Focus output.
Leading the charge was Jurassic World Dominion. This is Uni’s seventh film to cross $1B global and the third in the Jurassic franchise, which now has grossed over $6B worldwide.
China played pretty nicely with Universal across the year, with the studio claiming three of the top five imports of 2022. JWD, after three days, became the top foreign film released in China during 2022 (it’s now No. 2 behind Avatar 2). Likewise, the studio’s No. 2 film globally, Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, also played China and finished 2022 at $940M worldwide, including $570M internationally. While animation has been ailing, as noted above, Universal dominated the space between Gru and The Bad Guys (which also got a China spot and performed very strongly in the market); it’s international box office was $153M for $251M worldwide. The well-reviewed Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is just a whisker from $200M global.
The vast lineup also saw Blumhouse score with The Black Phone ($161.4M global/$71.3M international), while Jordan Peele’s Nope was reflective of the declines overall; it took in $48M overseas — essentially on par percentage-wise in terms of the domestic/offshore split with his two previous pics.
In a case of right product, right time, Universal (and Working Title) reteamed Julia Roberts and George Clooney in Ticket to Paradise, a romantic comedy that released overseas early to strategically hit the fall corridor for female-targeted films. Before its domestic debut, it already had grossed more than $70M offshore and has gone on to more than $100M overseas and $168.4M globally. Who knew that older females would come back in those numbers? Sadly, they did not for Focus’ Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Already reaping the success of Blumhouse’s M3GAN domestically, Uni has M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin on deck in February, two Illumination titles in Super Mario Bros and Migration, DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls 3, Wes Anderson’s buzzy Asteroid City, mega-franchise entry Fast X in May and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
What a year for the Melrose lot — the best Paramount has had in more than a decade, with $2.6B global, including $1.36B from overseas. This is the first time it lands in the Top 3 in more than 10 years and the biggest box office it’s seen in over a decade internationally (excluding Russia). The studio is up 400% over 2021 offshore and 373% worldwide.
Fortune favored Par last year from Tom Cruise’s mega-watt grin through to the spooky Smile. Also notable were Sandra Bullock-Channing Tatum starrer The Lost City and sequel Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
For its part, Maverick lit the fires with a screening for exhibition at CinemaCon in April, then hit the road for a global tour while also playing the Cannes Film Festival as French fighter planes buzzed the Palais. When Cruise turned up at CineEurope in June, he was visibly moved as the crowd of theater owners leapt to its feet.
Having brought together older and younger demos for a $1.494B worldwide total ($776.5M from overseas), Maverick went on to become the highest-grossing film globally and domestically in Paramount’s 110-year history.
The studio also had a healthy mix of titles from family to horror and a comedy for grown-ups. Behind Maverick, its top titles of 2022 were Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ($405.9M global/$214.5M international), Smile ($216.5M/$111.3M), The Lost City ($192.7M/$87.6M) and Scream ($137.7M/$56.1M).
Late-2022 domestic release Babylon doesn’t hit international until mid-January, so we’ll leave aside the expensive, poorly reviewed pic. Up ahead in 2023 are, notably, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie.
Following the Jason Kilar-led grand HBO Max theatrical day-and-date experiment of 2021, saner heads prevailed in 2022. The faulty streaming stance in 2021 didn’t apply to international but opened the door to piracy, which is why there was an effort to get movies in overseas theaters pre-domestic that year.
Warners is in transition and was down 5% internationally in 2022, yet up more than 8% globally. The studio released just seven new films across 2022, 10 fewer than in 2021 — and that hike in the global number is a reflection of how the day-and-date strategy impacted grosses in 2021 domestically.
It got out of the gate early with The Batman in January, which was the studio’s top offshore grosser at $402M ($771M global). Its No. 2 international release was Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which fared far better overseas than domestically ($311M international/$407M global). Both of those movies got China releases, to boot. They were followed by the Dwayne Johnson-led Black Adam ($224M/$393M).
After its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, Elvis ($136M/$287M) played and played — and brought in an older demo. DC League of Superpets, while not exactly the dog’s bollocks, nevertheless had a long tail across its staggered rollout and ended up with $113M overseas and $207.4M global.
And speaking of DC, the studio is in flux with new heads coming on board, and — as Anthony has noted in the wake of Batgirl‘s cancellation, Henry Cavill’s dismissal from Man of Steel and the upset from Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman 3 — the rebuilding of talent relations and the town’s faith in that is key for the studio.
RELATED: How James Gunn & Peter Safran Landed Top Spots At DC Studios
An area where WB always has excelled is local-language; it did $187M from such films as Japan’s Yomei Junen ($25M), German pic Wunderschon ($18M) and French title Simone: Woman of the Century ($17M) — and it is remaining firmly in that game.
Up ahead, WB has a tantalizing slate that includes Shazam: Fury of the Gods, The Flash (which we hear might be the best DC movie ever – despite star Ezra Miller’s woes), Barbie, China co-production The Meg 2, The Nun 2, Dune Part II, Wonka, Blue Beetle, Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom and The Color Purple.
The Culver City studio came out of 2021 with massive holdover business from Spider-Man: No Way Home and then capitalized on the Tom Holland halo to release Uncharted in February, which was its top grosser of Sony’s year at $407.1M global and $258.4M overseas. (Russia got the movie before the studio boycott, and it ended up the No. 1 release of 2022 there.)
Overall, Sony finished 2022 about 9%, off 2021 internationally and nearly 13% off globally — largely explained by the Spidey surge at the end of 2021.
Its ownership of Crunchyroll provided dividends given the surge of Japanese anime like One Piece Film Red, and it had a solid hit in thriftily-priced book adaptation Where the Crawdads Sing.
The latter didn’t have the best reaction from critics, but audiences ate it up to the tune of $52.7M offshore and $144M global. Bullet Train wasn’t a hoped-for late-summer breakout ($138.8M international/$242.2M global). Morbius ($93.6M/$167.5M), which had so many date changes and was getting stale in the can, just didn’t have teeth. Both of those films fared better offshore.
November release Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical has been a great success story, with Sony retaining just UK/Ireland rights in a one-picture license deal with Netflix under which the streamer produced and financed the picture. The IP is iconic in the UK and is closing in on $30M there.
The studio is bullish on the animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Part 1 in early summer and, in partnership with PlayStation, the game-inspired Gran Turismo from Neill Blomkamp looks promising. There’s also Marvel Venom-verse Kraven the Hunter in October and the Ghostbusters sequel in December. Crunchyroll’s Suzume No Tojimari spreads out in April. On the adult fare slate, Tom Hanks starrer A Man Called Otto is off to a good start already, and there’s Adam Driver’s sci-fi title 65 in March and Priyanka Chopra-Céline Dion romantic comedy Love Again on staggered release overseas from May.
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