2021 was a tumultuous year for the domestic box office that began with serious doubts over the cinema sector’s commercial viability and ended with the second biggest opening weekend of all-time. Studios took the reset provided by the Covid-19 pandemic to test new release models and shorter theatrical windows. Results of that experimentation were mixed. Of the ten highest-grossing films in North America in 2021, only one (Black Widow) was released simultaneously on streaming. Warner Bros., which committed its entire 2021 theatrical slate to open day-and-date on HBO Max, was the only major studio to be absent from the year’s ten highest-earners entirely—despite releasing 20 new films to cinemas.
The domestic box office began to recover in earnest with the release of Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II, the only film on this list released in the first half of the year, and continued to gain momentum up to the record-setting release of Spider-Man: No Way Home in December. Superhero movies proved the most popular with audiences returning to the cinema. Four of the top five films at the domestic box office in 2021 are based on comic book heroes, while only one of the titles to crack the top ten (Free Guy) is not based on an existing franchise.
2021 was still a recovery year for the industry despite the success of individual titles. Only three of the year’s top ten domestic earners grossed over $200 million. The isolated success of these films all came in the year’s final trimester—suggesting positive momentum for movie theaters despite the ongoing concerns of the Covid-19 crisis.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Sony Pictures | December 17
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Disney | September 3
Domestic Total: $224.5M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $75.3M
Disney’s first Marvel title to receive theatrical exclusivity during the pandemic, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had the added pressure of being a counterpoint to Black Widow’s day-and-date release. A new superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the smart money was on Shang-Chi getting outperformed by Black Widow, the latter film starring a character introduced an entire decade earlier. Instead, Shang Chi nearly matched Black Widow’s opening weekend and would go on to outearn the previous installment of the MCU saga through its domestic theatrical run. The film sustained its strong performance in theaters through the entirety of Q3 2021, unexpectedly finishing the year as the second-highest grossing title of the year at the domestic box office.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Sony Pictures | October 1
Domestic Total: $212.5M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $90M
The first indication of Spider-Man: No Way Home’s runaway success came with the October release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The antihero sequel swiftly took the pandemic box office crown from Black Widow with a $90 million opening weekend—a benchmark only surpassed by No Way Home in 2021. Despite the pandemic, the Venom sequel is on track to finish on par with the 2018 original at the conclusion of its domestic run in theaters.
Disney | July 9
Domestic Total: $183.6M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $80.3M
Disney’s Black Widow is the only title that debuted at home simultaneously with theaters to finish 2021 among the year’s ten highest earners. The film’s original release date of May 1, 2020 was pushed back several times due to the pandemic, creating a domino effect on the release schedule due to the sequential nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There were high expectations for the title when it finally committed to a July 9 release. An opening weekend of $80 million set a new benchmark for a day-and-date title, but its availability at home dented earnings early into its theatrical run. Scarlett Johansson, the film’s star, went on to sue Disney for its decision to give the film a day-and-date release, claiming the decision had a detrimental impact on her own earnings.
F9: The Fast Saga
Universal Pictures | June 25
Domestic Total: $173M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $70M
Hitting North American theaters in June 2021 after having been delayed four times due to the pandemic, the arrival of F9 heralded the beginning of the summer movie season—such as it was, with the vaccine rollout still underway and vast segments of the country still unwilling to go to theaters. Still, F9 smashed all previous Covid-era records, building on the success of prior releases Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place Part II to deliver the highest opening weekend since 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It also had, at the time of its release, the highest screen count (4,179) of the pandemic era, thanks to the then-recent reopening of theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
F9 also had aggressive marketing from Universal on its side, including a trailer specifically designed to tout the film as a back-to-theaters experience. The film remained at the top of the box office for three weekends, until it was surpassed by the debut of Disney’s Black Widow.
Read our interview with F9’s Justin Lin here.
Disney | November 5
Domestic Total: $164.5M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $71.2M
Eternals was Disney’s third MCU release of the year and the second to hit theaters with a 45-day exclusivity window, as opposed to Black Widow’s day-and-date strategy. As with 2021’s previous MCU release Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals introduced movie audiences to comic book characters they were likely unfamiliar with; unlike Shang-Chi, Eternals had a raft of A-list names (including Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek) to act as a hopeful draw. The two films debuted to roughly similar grosses—$75.3M on 4,300 screens for Shang-Chi, $71.2M on 4,090 screens for Eternals—though Eternals failed to keep up with the earlier film, dropping 62 percent in its second weekend (compared to Shang-Chi’s 54%) and coming short of Shang-Chi’s domestic cume by some $60-odd million. Mixed reviews were certainly a factor (Eternals is the first MCU film to be rated “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes), as was increased competition in the run-up to the holiday corridor.
No Time to Die
MGM/UA | October 8
Domestic Total: $160.7M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $55.2M
Moving the release of a James Bond movie is no easy task. Brand partnerships, junkets scheduled in countries around the world, tie-ins from luxury car and alcohol brands—even the title song—require careful coordination with stakeholders across a number of companies. The original marketing campaign for No Time to Die was paused shortly after launching ahead of its originally scheduled April 2020 release due to the onset of the pandemic. With the duration of the Covid-19 crisis still unclear, the decision to reschedule its release to November 2020 seemed like a safe bet to give the distribution teams at MGM/UA and Universal enough time to market the film. By Fall 2020, it became clear that wouldn’t be the case—pushing No Time to Die to 2021. Anticipation for the film had grown somewhat stale by the time of its release on October 8, with some marketing materials dating back to the Spring of 2020. Its $55 million debut helped sustain Q3’s momentum at the box office, but still fell short of the heights reached by Venom: Let There Be Carnage just a week prior.
A Quiet Place Part II
Paramount | May 28
Domestic Total: $160M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $47.5M
Reviews were out, tickets had been sold, and everything was in place for A Quiet Place Part II to hit its March 20, 2020 release when, in a matter of days, the world changed. A marketing machine that had already included a Super Bowl trailer, talk show appearances from its stars, and a world premiere at Lincoln Center had to be shelved as cinemas around the world closed due to the pandemic. A Quiet Place Part II faced multiple delays as Paramount, intent on releasing the title in cinemas, waited for an optimal release corridor during the Covid-19 crisis. Plans to launch the film in May and September 2020 were scrapped in favor of an April 2021 release—until Paramount went back on those plans as well. Fans were resigned to wait for the film to finally hit theaters in September 2021 when director John Krasinski announced on Twitter that the film would be moving up its release (a rarity in the pandemic era) to May 28, Memorial Day weekend. Released exclusively in cinemas with a 45-day window, A Quiet Place Part II nearly matched the $50 million opening weekend of the original and went on to become the only film released in the first half of 2021 to crack the year’s top ten earners at the domestic box office.
Read our interview with A Quiet Place Part II’s Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn here.
Sony Pictures | November 19
Domestic Total: $121.9M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $44M
With Spider-Man: No Way Home, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Sony grabbed the first, third, and ninth spots on 2021’s top ten list—a step up from 2019, when only Spider-Man: Far From Home cracked the top ten list at spot number seven. Though No Way Home is undoubtedly Sony’s biggest 2021 success story, the domestic performance of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is another point in favor of the studio’s theatrical-first approach to distribution during the pandemic; though select Sony titles have been sold off to streamers over the last two years, the studio remained committed to theatrical exclusivity, something that was made abundantly clear by studio exes at this year’s CinemaCon. (Where, incidentally, Afterlife director Jason Reitman and producer Ivan Reitman were the only stars in attendance.) The film had a strong footprint on PLF and Imax screens ($3.7M of the film’s opening weekend gross came from Imax alone) and boasted a strong hold over the following weeks, facing little competition by way of big-budget blockbusters until after Thanksgiving.
Read our interview with Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s Jason Reitman here.
Disney | August 13
Domestic Total: $121.6M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $28.3M
Disney’s 20th Century Studios division, a remnant of its 20th Century Fox acquisition, had a poor track record at the box office in 2021 with lackluster earnings for titles like West Side Story, The King’s Man, and The Last Duel. The late summer release of Free Guy is the sole exception to that cold streak. The biggest sleeper hit of 2021 is the only title among the year’s ten highest-grossing films at the domestic box office to not be associated with an existing franchise. Disney granted the original title theatrical exclusivity, and the film responded by surpassing better-known properties like Dune, Halloween Kills, and Godzilla vs. Kong at the box office in North America.