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With Strong Box Office Debuts Of 'Super Mario Brothers' And 'Air,' Is The Multiplex Coming Back?

A life size Super Mario with red hat, dark mustache, blue overalls and white gloves stands in an open space with his hands spread out
Mario from Super Mario Bros. poses for pictures in Madison Square Park in New York
(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images
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In less than two weeks, I will travel to the annual convention of movie theater owners — CinemaCon — in Las Vegas. It’s a pep rally for the multiplex, where movie studios showcase upcoming movies and everyone says something to the effect of “movie theaters are great and streaming is bad.”

Last year’s convention felt like a reunion of survivors of the Titanic, given what theater owners have been through because of the pandemic. The upcoming gathering, to the contrary, might play out more like a meeting of roller coaster enthusiasts, with exhibitors who’ve been whipsawed by countless twists and turns, successes and failures.

Last weekend, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, based on the video game of the same name, grossed more than $146 million in its first three days of release in domestic theaters (about $20 million better than a little movie that came out last year called Top Gun: Maverick.) By the end of this week, Super Mario Bros. will approach some $500 million in global ticket sales, the best worldwide debut for any animated film, ever.

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While it took in a fraction of the Super Mario Bros. sales, the Ben Affleck movie Air also did surprisingly well. The film, about how Nike signed a young Michael Jordan, is from Amazon Studios, and that means everyone knows they can watch it on the company’s streaming platform Prime in a matter of weeks.

Amazon was going to release Air straight to streaming, but it played so well in test screenings they opened it in more than 3,500 theaters last weekend, where it grossed about $20 million. And that’s pretty good for a movie that you can watch at home soon (no Prime debut date has been announced yet).

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

The problem, which will be a significant focus at CinemaCon, is that theaters need movies like Super Mario Bros. every few weeks, but instead they get them every few months.

There are a lot of big movies coming out this summer, including new Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels, and some promising original stories like Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, and Oppenheimer, from Christopher Nolan.

Because the studios are releasing more titles straight to streaming, the annual number of wide theatrical releases is down sharply from pre-pandemic levels, as are overall grosses. Year-to-date domestic ticket sales stand at $2.14 billion, compared to $2.67 billion in 2019 (about a 20% decline) and $3.18 billion in 2018 (about a 32% decline).

What’s more, per-capita attendance is down by half over the last decade. The average U.S. moviegoer now watches just two movies a year in a theater, compared to four movies a year in 2013.

CinemaCon is always held in Las Vegas, and now the venue makes more sense than before: the odds of a theatrical turnaround are slim, but you’ll never win if you don’t make a wager.

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?

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