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Movie Theater Attendance Has Been Ghastly, But Horror Movies Are Scaring Up Great Returns

A photo of actress Caitlin Stasey in the horror movie "Smile." She is holding a sharp pottery shard to her face, which is scarred across her nose, and smiling in a disturbing manner.
Caitlin Stasey in "Smile.” The low-budget horror film, once set to bypass movie theaters entirely, is a breakout box office hit.
(Paramount Pictures)
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Movie theater owners have been dealing with frighteningly low attendance.

But there’s been one bright spot: scary movies.

Overall box office returns to date continue to be down about 34% from 2019, the last pre-pandemic year. Cineworld, the owner of the Regal chain, has said during its bankruptcy reorganization that attendance won’t return to normal levels until 2025.

Yet even as moviegoers continue to avoid the multiplex, many are returning in droves for one specific genre — horror.

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Smile, which came out on Sept. 30 and cost about $17 million to produce, has grossed $94 million in domestic theaters, and will soon pass the far more expensive Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train on the 2022 ticket sale charts. Barbarian, which premiered on Sept. 9, has grossed more than $41 million in domestic release, terrific results for a movie that cost just $4.5 million to make.

While a handful of horror hits alone won’t reverse the overall collapse of the theatrical business, the success of these fright flicks does prove that streaming isn’t always a substitute for the multiplex.

“Even with a lot of horror films out there, a good one can always break through,” says Bob Berney, the head of the independent distributor Picturehouse. “Younger audiences are absolutely going back to theaters, and horror plays much better theatrically than at home on streaming.”

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Indeed, there’s no equivalent to being scared along with scores of others inside a theater, and talking back to the screen — Don’t go into the closet! — really isn’t the same when you’re home alone. What’s more, unlike the surfeit of sequels, spinoffs, reboots and prequels flooding theaters, several of the best-performing horror films are original stories that are well-made.

Even Hollywood is surprised that these movies are making a killing at the box office.

Paramount originally planned to release Smile directly on its streaming platform, Paramount Plus, with no theatrical exposure until strong test screenings compelled the studio to rethink its strategy. And the makers of Barbarian were told to get lost so many times they easily could have stopped looking for financing.

Given the strong turnout for the current crop of horror titles, it’s inevitable there will be way too many such films in a year or so. So enjoy being terrified before it’s too late.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?