Rewinding 2023 - The Year in Film

January 03, 2024
A thought by James Berardinelli

The State of the Box Office

So…Is the 2023 box office healthy?

It’s one of those questions that obsesses Hollywood executives, theater CEOs, pundits, and accountants. I’m not sure how much the average movie-goer cares, although any possible indifference might vanish with closing of one’s go-to multiplex.

AMC’s stock price probably isn’t a good place to go for enlightenment since it has been heavily manipulated. Still, for most of the first nine months of 2023, it was happily bouncing around between $40 and $60 per share. What is it today? About $6…and it hasn’t been above $11 since Labor Day. At that level, AMC is not going to be able to stave off bankruptcy forever and, when it comes time to pay the piper, a lot of underperforming locations are going to close. When it comes to which theaters will still be open a year from now, foot traffic is one of the best metrics. If the lobby is always empty, no concessions are being sold and concessions are the exhibitor’s main product (not movies since they get only a couple bucks per ticket sold).

There are a lot of ways one can parse box office numbers in an attempt to diagnose the movie industry’s health. I want to look at five of these and explain their value (at least insofar as I see it). I have a bunch of comps to roll out, staying clear of 2020-21. There’s 2023, 2022, the period between 2010-2019 (when things were reasonably stable), and 2001, the last time the aggregate numbers looked like they did in 2023. All numbers are based on domestic performance. International totals bring in all sorts of variables.

Potentially the simplest number to consider is total box office: the gross across all movies and all theaters for the entire year. A warning: don’t read too much into this number; it comes loaded with caveats. For 2023, it was $8.7B.  Last year, it was $7.4B. During the 2010s, it was generally in the $10.xB range (early 2010s) to $11.xB range (mid-to-late 2010s). Back in 2001, it was $7.9B. A lot of factors go into this number so comparing 2023 to 2019 is apples-to-oranges. However, insofar as the exhibitors are considered, there’s a direct correlation between the gross number – because it tracks directly to tickets sold and, therefore, foot traffic – and multiplex health. And, regardless of how Hollywood is doing, theaters are hurting.

The next number to consider is # of distributed releases. Think there haven’t been as many titles playing in multiplexes? You’re right. 2023’s # of releases was 584. In 2022, it was 498. Back in the late 2010s, you could nearly double that number to between 850 and the low 900s. In 2001, it was 412. One obvious (and accurate) conclusion is that the big box office numbers of the 2010s correlated directly with a huge number of releases. A lot of the “missing 300” titles probably won’t be coming back anytime soon – they are mid-budget releases with small profit margins. Those resources are being diverted to streaming divisions.

Doing a little simple math arrives at the “average gross per theatrical release” number. It’s basically the annual gross divided by the number of releases. This shows a surprising stability: $14.8M/release in 2023; $14.9M/release in 2022, and between $13.2M/release and $14.0M/release during the 2010s. This says absolutely nothing about the multiplex side of things but it says that the sky is not falling on the production side. Movie studios want these numbers to stay stable and will manipulate output to achieve that. And, for those who want to call the mid-2010s the “golden era” of modern multiplex prosperity, consider that in 2001, when the total box office was a seemingly paltry $7.9B, the average gross per theatrical release was $19.4M/release. That’s a healthier number than we saw 10-15 years later.

What about the Top 10? That takes away some of the variables. How much did those movies, taken as an aggregate, make? In 2023, it was $3.44B. In 2022, $3.84B. In the 2010s, between $3.8B and $4.4B. In 2001, $2.1B. The fifth and final number is useful for elaboration: percentage of the gross segregated by the Top 10. In 2023, it was 40% (meaning that 40% of the dollars spent at the box office went to movies in the Top 10). In 2022, it was a whopping 52%. In the 2010s, it was around 34-36%. In 2001, it was about 26%.

The higher the percentage, the greater the audience preference for blockbusters. Although 2022/2023 represents a small sample size, early indications are that current movie-goer interest skews more strongly toward spectacle productions than was ever the case in the past. This “groupthink” might well be associated with Social Media and a desire to be part of something. With smaller and/or less “buzzy” titles, a few months’ wait for streaming access might be considered acceptable.

Those are a lot of numbers (and I have probably caused more than a few eyes to glaze over – time to stop skimming) but what’s the bottom line? For me, there are three take-aways. (1) On the production side, things are stable. Hollywood continues to hum along making money. (2) Things are not as rosy on the exhibition side where theaters face enormous challenges that aren’t always being helped by their studio partners. Cutting back on the number of movies may be advantageous for the studios/distributors. It’s almost certainly not advantageous for multiplexes. (3) Movie-goers are no longer as adventurous as they once were. Generally speaking, people are drawn to “destination movies.” The idea of simply “going to see a movie” is passé.

Next year may be more challenging with the fallout of the 2023 strikes delaying productions in many cases to 2025. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for multiplexes. Once the post-Christmas surge ends, it could be a long, cold winter and a barren spring. If there’s a “new normal,” it may take a while before we discover what it is.

Standout Performances

Over the years, I have become increasingly uncomfortable about the concept of pitting acting performances against one another to determine a “winner.” I have taken George C. Scott’s words – “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – to heart. Special movies and excellent performances deserve to be singled out…just not at the expense of others. Because, for every “winner,” there are four “losers.” (It’s said that Scott came to his opinion after being nominated – and losing – for Anatomy of a Murder. Scott’s loss to Hugh Griffith in brown-face was difficult to justify at the time and almost impossible in retrospect.)

When I single out performances, it’s not because they are better than others; it’s because they struck a nerve with me. I remember them. I don’t differentiate between Male Actors and Female Actors or between Leading Performances and Supporting Performances. I also don’t go combing through a list of the year’s films looking for names. These are men and women whose work resonated with me and lodged itself in an easily accessible place in my memory. This year, there are eight; they are not presented in any particular order.

Teo Yoo & Greta Lee, Past Lives: It doesn’t seem right to cite one without the other. Teo Yoo & Greta Lee play the star-crossed lovers destined never to be together. Their interaction and chemistry makes the film. The movie would not have had the same power had these two actors not shone on the same high level. In my review, I noted the following: “The acting by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo emphasizes all the underlying things transpiring just beneath the dialogue and interpersonal interactions.” Not only will I reaffirm that here, but I’ll double-down on it.

Emma Stone, Poor Things: It would be disingenuous to talk about Emma Stone’s amazing, transformative performance in Poor Things without mentioning her nudity. Prior to this film, her sum total of screen flesh had been a boob flash in The Favourite (for the same director). Being shy and reticent by nature, I have trouble comprehending the level of self-confidence and courage necessary to take the chances Stone did, but these are well beyond what we normally see from mainstream actresses, not to mention those ensconced on Hollywood’s A-list. Still, although the nudity is an important part of Stone’s performance as Bella, there’s oh-so-much-more. “It’s easily the most challenging role of her career and arguably a better example of her skills than the one for which she previously won a little gold man.”

Willem Dafoe, Poor Things: With makeup that echoes that of Boris Karloff, Willem Dafoe gives one of the best performances of a long, unconventional career. And, like Karloff in Frankenstein, the frightening appearance belies a gentle soul. “Dafoe once again plays a warped, twisted individual, although this time there’s a soft, mushy center at the heart of his monstrosity.”

Jorma Tommila, Sisu: It’s fair to highlight this oddball choice since Jorma Tommila out-John Wicked Keanu Reeves in a movie that out-John Wicked the final chapter of that four-movie saga. “The 63-year-old Finnish actor, who started his career in the 1980s as a controversial theater performer before transitioning to film, has never had anything close to an international breakout success. Therefore, this role will define him and, if stereotyping is to follow, it’s not a bad late-in-life career niche. He is perfectly cast – a mix of machismo, world-weariness, and determination. He’s a man of few words – in fact, he has nary a line of dialogue to speak for most of the film.”

Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers: Give Paul Giamatti the perfect role and he’ll astound with the depth he can bring to it. Giamatti’s wheelhouse is limited but, when he gets into it, watch out. No one plays a particular part better than Giamatti. This has been true throughout the entirety of his career and The Holdovers simply reinforces something we already know. “A character actor who is at his best when cast as a curmudgeonly type and/or a sad-sack, [he] is in his element here. He presents Paul as an asocial prude with a stick up his butt who is more interested in rules and regulations than in his students. Nevertheless, we empathize with the man because his loneliness is evident to everyone except himself and, although the remoteness may be self-imposed, it has beaten him down. He has no real friends, no lovers, and nothing except the red ink he uses copiously in grading his students’ work.”

Rosamund Pike, Saltburn: There are a lot of oddballs in Saltburn but none stands out more forcefully than Rosamund Pike. She’s not on-screen a lot but, when she’s around, it’s difficult not to be riveted. If you see Saltburn, you might remember Barry Keoghan. There’s a chance you’ll recall Jacob Elordi or Alison Oliver. But you will recall Rosamund Pike. “[She] steals every scene she’s in as the fast-talking, vapid Elspeth, who’s never at a loss for words or cutting commentary even in the direst of circumstances.”

Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction: He has been in James Bond movies, Westworld, The Batman, three Hunger Games films, and a bunch of smaller productions, but it has taken this long for Wright to finally emerge from the background and seize a perfect part. “Accorded a rare starring role, Wright brings all his talent as an actor to bear on Monk. The character’s struggles are conveyed to the audience in a visceral fashion. This is someone without all the answers and whose hypocrisy is never resolved. Wright stands in the middle of a brutal satire and nevertheless crafts a character who is entirely human.” He balances drama and comedy with a deftness that takes Cord Jefferson’s feature debut to a higher level than it might otherwise occupy.

The 2023 Bottom 5

(With #1 being the bottom of the barrel.)

1. Mafia Mamma
2. Expend4bles
3. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
4. Retribution
5. The Marvels

#2 through #5 are pretty much interchangeable. Three of those are sequels and none performed exceptionally well at the box office. The worst movie of the year is well-deserving of the title. I recall going into Mafia Mamma with muted optimism. The trailer, although by no means hilarious, seemed to promise an amusing satire and the cast, with Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci, wasn’t without talent. Yet nothing worked. As I said in my review, “The result is a sloppy, unappealing mess that consistently misfires. A comedy without a single funny joke, Mafia Mamma will likely go down as one of the year’s worst theatrical releases.” As it turns out “one of” was optimistic.

The 2023 Top 10

1. Past Lives
2. Poor Things
3. Monster
4. Sisu
5. Anatomy of a Fall
6. Society of the Snow
7. The Boy and the Heron
8. The Creator
9. Killers of the Flower Moon
10. Oppenheimer

This is one of the most eclectic Top 10 lists I have compiled in a while. That’s as much a reflection of industry-wide changes as it is personal preferences. Many of the films on this list would be deemed as niche productions. Only a few – those in the #7-10 slots – have cracked the worldwide $100M barrier (with only Oppenheimer approaching blockbuster status). Seven of the ten were released during the so-called “Oscar season” (October-December), a reminder that, no matter how many things have changed, the tendency to hold back the really good stuff till year’s end remains the same.

The top seven films are either “pure” foreign films or, in the case of Past Lives and Poor Things, “hybrid” titles with strong international influences. Although only one of the ten, Society of the Snow, was developed primarily with a streaming audience in mind, many will find more success at home than at the box office. (I saw four of these films – Monster, Anatomy of a Fall, Society of the Snow, and The Boy and the Heron in my living room and I don’t believe the experience was degraded for any of them. The only movies in my Top 10 that I believe benefitted from theatrical viewing are The Creator and Oppenheimer.)

A word about Oppenheimer – my best three-star film of 2023. It’s a good movie but I was disappointed. I have come to associate Christopher Nolan with ***1/2 and **** productions and this didn’t measure up. I considered trimming the list down to nine (restricting it exclusively to ***1/2 films) but, since I had a *** film at the bottom of last year’s list, I kept the tenth spot in play. It’s interesting (to me, at least) that two of my most anticipated titles of 2023 ended up at the bottom of the Top 10. Going into 2023, none of the first eight were on my radar. (I had heard of The Boy and the Heron but didn’t know whether it would be released in 2023 or 2024.)

Although the twin strikes (WGA/SAG) captured a lot of headlines in 2023, they had minimal impact on the release schedule (the only slippage of consequence was Dune 2). 2024 will be a different story, however. Although many of the smaller-budget productions halted during the second-half of 2023 will be completed and released in 2024, many would-be blockbusters will either slip to a late-2024 date or fall all the way to 2025. For multiplexes, this is not good news. For movie lovers, however, it might be a proverbial blessing-in-disguise. If quality is to be found primarily in smaller movies, then any opportunity to highlight these films prior to October 1 could result in a more balanced year. In the final analysis, 2023 wasn’t bad but, prior to October, it looked like it could be historically awful. Let’s hope not for a repeat in 2024; nine months is a long time to wait for the good stuff to again show up in theaters and, by then, who knows how many will still be operating?