There are only 4 big movie releases left this year — here’s what’s at stake for Hollywood

Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” tells the story of the Sully family.

Disney

The 2022 box office is a Hollywood underdog story come to life.

Despite nearly 40% less film content available in theaters compared to 2019, year-to-date ticket sales are down around 30%, according to data from Comscore.

Audiences have returned to cinemas in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and are spending more than ever on tickets and popcorn. However, the lack of steady theatrical releases will weigh heavily on the industry during the final, crucial months of the year.

As it stands, there are currently only four would-be blockbuster releases coming to theaters before the end of December:

  • Warner Bros.’ “Black Adam” – Oct. 21
  • Disney and Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” – Nov. 11
  • Disney Animation’s “Strange World” – Nov. 23
  • Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” – Dec. 16

In 2019, there were nearly two dozen blockbuster-style films slated on the calendar for the last four months of the year, including “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

“We’re seeing right now that as we get into the fall that we kind of hit another pause,” said Shawn Robbins, chief media analyst at BoxOffice.com, “And a lot of that is really falling on the lingering pandemic issues.”

Those issues include production shutdowns that delayed film shoots and pressure on visual effects houses to complete projects on shortened deadlines.

There’s no doubt that moviegoers are interested in returning to cinemas. Movies like “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” have brought audiences back. However, with fewer films of all budgets on the slate, there are fewer opportunities for studios and movie theater operators to entice patrons to the big screen.

“To me, the question is now, how soon can we get back to having more of those movies like ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once,’ and ‘Elvis’ and ‘The Black Phone?'” Robbins said, noting that there is potential for some smaller film releases like “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,” “Amsterdam” and “Don’t Worry Darling” to break out and generate stronger-than-expected ticket sales. Universal’s “Halloween Kills” will be released in theaters and on Peacock on Oct. 14.

Dwayne Johnson dressed as Black Adam speaks onstage at the Warner Bros. theatrical session with “Black Adam” and “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” panel during 2022 Comic Con International: San Diego at San Diego Convention Center on July 23, 2022 in San Diego, California.

Kevin Winter | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

“The hope is that will happen later in the fall and over the holidays,” he said. “But it’s really going to be 2023 at this point before there’s maybe some consistency on a month to month basis again.”

This is why many studios have turned to library content, films that were previously released in theaters, to lure folks back to cinemas. Already Disney has rereleased the Star Wars prequel “Rogue One” in theaters and has plans to relaunch the original “Avatar” at the end of September. Sony, too, is in the midst of releasing a souped-up version of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Rereleases are nothing new in the industry, especially when it comes to major anniversary milestones for popular and iconic features, but 90% of those showings are scheduled through Fathom Events, not by the studios themselves, according to data from Comscore. Fathom is a joint venture between AMC, Regal and Cinemark that brings legacy titles back to cinemas for limited engagements.

Upcoming anniversary showings from Fathom include the 40th anniversary of “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan,” the 10th anniversary of “Pitch Perfect,” the 40th anniversary of “Poltergeist” and the 60th anniversary of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The company is also releasing a slate of Halloween titles in October including 1932’s “The Mummy,” 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” 1954’s “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and 1943’s “Phantom of the Opera.” Additionally, it will celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Scream 2” and 30th anniversary of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

Fathom is also working with Universal to release three Judd Apatow-produced films ahead of “Bros,” a romantic comedy hitting theaters Sept. 30.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Trainwreck” and “Knocked Up” are set for rerelease starting Sept. 19, with pre-recorded intros from director Nicholas Stoller and co-stars Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane.

Action flicks have dominated the box office in 2022, so counterprogramming like these romantic comedies could entice demographics that have not been eager to return to cinemas or bring back customers looking to enjoy a different genre on the big screen.

These rereleases allow movie theaters to have supplementary content and markets “Bros” to the public, said Ray Nutt, CEO of Fathom.

Letitia Wright stars as Shuri in Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Disney

Similarly, Disney hopes the rerelease of “Avatar” at the end of September will lure in fans and boost interest in the upcoming sequel “The Way of Water.”

“The box office is currently at over $5.3 billion year to date, much higher than the last two years at this point but down naturally from 2019 and 2018,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.”

“With big movies like ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ in November and, obviously, ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ in December, among others, the industry will likely wind up with a projected 2022 domestic box office of around $7.5 billion,” he said. “That’s frankly a great outcome for an industry that saw 2020 levels at a mere $2.3 billion and a 2021 that wound up at $4.6 billion.”

Dergarabedian and Robbins noted that 2023 has a much stronger slate of films, both in terms of number of films and diversity of content. As more film come out and more frequently, the expectation is that overall domestic box office will make a stronger recovery.

The 2022 box office lost “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” which was slated for Dec. 21, last month when Warner Bros. Discovery pushed the film to March 17, 2023. It replaced “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which will now arriving on Christmas Day in 2023.

“The first quarter is loaded with big films that should create momentum leading into a strong summer next year,” Dergarabedian said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.