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Box Office Sales Improve From Pandemic Depths, But Streaming Is Now King

A man in full Batman suit, with pointy-eared mask, cape and a bat-shaped emblem on his chest, glares in a dimly lit room.
While "The Batman" is off to a strong start at the box office, a new report says movie fans are far more likely to watch content on streaming platforms than at the mutliplex.
(Courtesy Warner Bros. )
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To the surprise of exactly no one, global box office revenues increased in 2021 from the pandemic-plagued year before. Yet even if movie admissions rebounded, they’re scarcely keeping pace with streaming subscriptions, according to a new report from the Motion Picture Assn.

The MPA’s annual Theme Report found that global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment spending last year was just shy of $100 billion. That’s an increase of 24% from 2020 and, more important, surpassed pre-pandemic revenues from 2019. But movie theater owners are still facing an existential threat from streaming services.

A chart shows the review from 2017 through 2021, with a significant downtown in 2020. The share for streaming has more than doubled since 2017.
(Courtesy MPA)

Nearly three-fourths of all spending on filmed entertainment last year was paid to digital platforms like Disney+, Apple TV+ and Netflix, the MPA said. Back in 2019, less than half of such money went to streamers.

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Not surprisingly, those returns were driven by more streaming customers. The number of global streaming subscriptions increased to 1.3 billion (up from 1.2 billion in 2020) last year, with U.S. subscribers growing at the same 14% pace to 353.2 million.

Back in Real Life

The multiplex was no longer the cinematic ghost town from the height of the pandemic, with domestic 2021 box-office receipts totaling $4.5 billion. While that’s a huge improvement from 2020 (where COVID closures led to just $2.2 billion in domestic theatrical returns), revenues are still well below pre-pandemic levels.

In 2018, for example, the domestic box office was nearly $12 billion, with some 1.3 billion tickets sold. Last year, admissions plummeted to 470 million.

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The MPA report noted that content creators have ramped up production dramatically. Almost 1,000 films started production in 2021, more than doubling production the previous year.

What’s Changed

Few of those movies will premiere or play exclusively in theaters. Disney is now sending many of its high-profile movies straight to its streaming platforms, and Warner Bros. is doing much the same.

As recent studies have shown, Hollywood doesn’t cast women and people of color in the same percentages of the nation’s population. And that could be costing them money.

The MPA report found that Latinx moviegoers bought nearly a fourth of all tickets sold last year, outpacing their share of the population.

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Charles Rivikin, the MPA’s CEO, in comments about the findings tried to put the best spin possible on the accelerating shift toward digital distribution.

“We are just getting started in writing the next chapter of our industry as streaming continues to boom, theaters are rebounding, and the overall global market for our entertainment product recovers and breaks records,” Rivkin said in a statement tied to the report’s release. “Our members are the most innovative companies on earth.”

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John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.