Theatrical exhibition crossed another important milestone in its quest to recover the ground lost at the box office during the Covid-19 pandemic, crossing $8 billion in earnings. A Summer movie season on par with pre-pandemic box office receipts was crucial in mitigating a soft release schedule in the back half of the year due to Hollywood’s labor strikes. As a result, none of this year’s top ten films at the domestic box office were released after July.
Warner Bros. | July 21
Domestic Total (2023): $636.2M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $162.0M
2023 will go down in cinema history as the Year of Barbie. Not only did Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Mattel’s flagship toy line take the year’s top spot at the box office, both domestically and globally, but it became a major cultural touchpoint, with audiences responding to the meme-ability of Barbie and the three-hour biopic Oppenheimer sharing the same release date.
Barbie distributor Warner Bros. and the exhibition community were on the ball here, working together well in advance of the film’s July release to plan an eye-catching, innovative, and positively ubiquitous marketing campaign that was so wide-ranging—there seemingly wasn’t a company that didn’t want to partner with Warner Bros. for some branded Barbie merch–that the SAG/AMPAS strike cutting off the stars’ media appearances in the final pre-release stretch didn’t seem to make much of an impact on box office. With Barbie, the conversation was about not just the movie, but about moviegoing, with cinemas offering special events and merch and audiences eating up the opportunity to dress in all-pink for screenings.
Nearly five months after its initial release, Barbie has yet to leave theaters entirely (as of 12/29 the film still has 16 locations); week-to-week drops have been incredibly modest, with only two weekends between the film’s July 21 debut and the end of the year seeing drops steeper than -60%. Along the way, it broke–or, with other films in the marketplace, helped to break–a spate of industry records, among them the record for highest-grossing summer weekend on record; the second highest-grossing weekend, regardless of season, for Cineplex; the best week in terms of admission revenue in AMC’s 103-year history, and the highest-grossing domestic earner for studio Warner Bros., an accolade it earned after only a month in cinemas.
2. The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Universal Pictures | April 5
Domestic Total (2023): $574.9M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $146.3M
For decades following the 1993 release of Super Mario Bros., the first theatrically released feature based on a video game, the “video game adaptation” sub-genre of cinema seemed positively cursed, with one video game franchise after another–Assassin’s Creed, Mortal Kombat, Prince of Persia, Doom, Street Fighter, Warcraft, and more–failing to inspire an unequivocal box office smash. The tides started to change in recent years with films such as Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019), Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and its 2022 sequel, and 2022’s Uncharted, which–in the case of the final three films–helped the industry in its still-ongoing recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then came The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which snagged the record for the highest opening for a video game adaptation (more than doubling prior record-holder Sonic the Hedgehog 2)… and then, less than a week later, became the highest-grossing video game adaptation ever. With its $375.6M global opening, it also gave Universal the largest-ever opening for an animated film, pushing 2019’s Frozen II out of the top spot. It took four weekends for The Super Mario Bros. Movie to become 2023’s first billion-dollar global grosser. The film currently sits as Universal’s third highest-grossing domestic release of all time, behind only the 2015 pair of Jurassic World and Furious 7.
3. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Sony / Columbia Pictures | June 2
Domestic Total (2023): $381.3M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $120.6M
Following 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ($190.2M domestic/$384.2M global), Miles Morales returned for the next chapter of the Oscar-winning Spider-Verse saga. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson and based on the Marvel comic books, the film opened to $120.6M, which was over three times the opening of its 2018 predecessor. In its sophomore frame, the sequel surpassed the original’s $190.1M final total. The conclusion of the trilogy, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse is currently in production.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Walt Disney Studios / Marvel Studios | May 5
Domestic Total (2023): $358.9M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $118.4M
Marvel has had its share of ups and downs this year, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 concluding the James Gunn-directed trilogy on a high note. The film’s domestic take of $358.9M only saw a slight diminishing return on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which finished its run in 2017 with $389.8M. Nearly six years after the second installment, the Guardians gang returned for a final hurrah in a mission leading to the end of the Guardians as we know them (especially now that James Gunn is Co-CEO of rival DC). Not counting their various appearances in other MCU films, the Guardians trilogy earned over $1 billion domestic and $2.4 billion worldwide.
Universal Pictures | July 21
Domestic Total (2023): $326M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $82.4M
The second half of the summer’s biggest double act, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was the perfect contrast to Barbie, which is also still playing in a handful of venues. The ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon fueled the fourth-largest box office weekend in history for North America, with AMC Theatres, Cinemark, and Cineplex all reporting their biggest summer box office weekend ever. AMC also reported that the Saturday of opening weekend marked the 5th best single-day ticket revenue in the company’s history and their second-best concessions revenue day, behind only the opening weekend Saturday of Avengers: Endgame. According to The Boxoffice Company’s Showtimes Dashboard, Barbie and Oppenheimer combined to claim a total of 45% of all showtimes in the United States—a particular feat considering the three-hour running time of Oppenheimer.
Prior to the historic weekend, NATO projected over 200K moviegoers were set to enjoy the films as a same-day double feature over opening weekend. Oppenheimer opened to an IMAX-record 26.2% of the domestic box office from 411 screens. The figure marked a $51,000 per screen average for the film at IMAX locations in the United States and Canada. Celluloid screenings were also in high demand for Oppenheimer, with 140 opening-weekend screens showing the title in 70mm, including 25 in Imax 70mm. 6% of the domestic opening weekend came from those 140 screens, with 2% of the total domestic gross coming from the 25 Imax 70mm screens alone. The film also ranks as the third highest-grossing domestic film of Christopher Nolan’s career, after The Dark Knight ($534.9M) and The Dark Knight Rises ($448.1M).
6. The Little Mermaid
Walt Disney Studios | May 26
Domestic Total (2023): $298.1M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $95.5M
2019 remains the banner year as far as Disney’s recent spate of remakes is concerned, with both The Lion King and Aladdin charting in the domestic top ten, The Lion King in second place behind Avengers: Endgame. Of those two, the domestic theatrical run of The Little Mermaid bears more in common with Aladdin: a sub-$100M opening ($91.5M in the case of Aladdin, slightly less than Mermaid’s lower-than-expectations $95.5M) that rode impressive holds to a spot in the top ten.
As an indicator that the industry has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic heights, The Little Mermaid topped out with just under $300M domestically, compared to Aladdin’s eventual $355.5M take. One thing in Mermaid’s corner was the relative lack of films geared toward young female audiences between its late May release and the July 21 bow of Barbie; Mermaid’s main competition for that demographic was Disney/Pixar’s Elemental, which similarly had a modest debut followed by strong holds, and DreamWorks/Sony’s Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken, which positively fizzled at the box office due in part to a practically non-existent marketing campaign.
7. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
Walt Disney / 20th Century Studios | December 16, 2022
Domestic Total: $684.0M
Domestic Total (2023 Only): $283.0M
Domestic Opening Weekend (2022): $134.1M
After a thirteen-year wait since the original film’s phenomenal $749.8M initial domestic run, James Cameron finally delivered the first of his planned Avatar sequels at the tail end of 2022. It still holds the sixth biggest December opening in history—and the largest outside of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Not adhering to a typical front-loaded nature like most sequels, The Way of Water posted strong holds over the Christmas and New Year’s corridor as it again showed the all-audience appeal Cameron’s career of blockbusters has been known for. The lack of much competition entering 2023 delivered a healthy runway for the sequel, which delivered over 41% of its total domestic gross within the first few months of the year.
8. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Walt Disney Studios / Marvel Studios | June 15
Domestic Total (2023): $214.5M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $106.1M
Of the three MCU movies to hit theaters in 2023, the third film in the Ant-Man trilogy stands firmly in the middle both in terms of release date and domestic haul–while falling well short of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s $358.9M domestic take, it far surpassed the $84.4 million earned in 2023 by November release The Marvels. Though outgrossing the $180.2 million domestic haul of the first Ant-Man film (released in 2015), Quantumania ended the year neck-and-neck with the second film in the trilogy, 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp ($216.6M). By the end of 2023, the main story surrounding Quantumania was not its box office, but the criminal trial of Jonathan Majors, who had his MCU theatrical debut in Quantumania as the villainous Kang—and whose position in the franchise moving forward remains unknown as of press time.
9. John Wick: Chapter 4
Lionsgate | March 24
Domestic Total (2023): $187.1M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $73.8M
It’s been years since the heyday of Lionsgate—when, between the years of 2008 and 2015, the studio made bank with the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, landing multiple films in year-end domestic top ten lists and essentially functioning as another major studio alongside the more storied likes of Warner Bros., Universal, and Sony. More recently, the studio has struggled to launch a marquee franchise–with the one exception being John Wick, a consistent earner for Lionsgate and, with its fourth installment, the source of its one entry in the yearly domestic top ten. Following its March release, John Wick: Chapter 4 became the highest opener in the franchise and its highest domestic and global earner. Worth noting, Lionsgate’s Hunger Games franchise had something of a comeback in 2023, with prequel/spinoff The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes riding respectable holds to a domestic gross of nearly $160 million by the end of 2023, making it the 14th-highest domestic earner of the year.
10. Sound of Freedom
Angel Studios | July 4
Domestic Total (2023): $184.1M
Domestic Opening Weekend: $19.6M
If Barbie is the biggest earner of 2023, Sound of Freedom is the biggest surprise—a low-budget drama that opened over a competitive July 4 weekend, squaring up against Disney’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny with around 2,000 fewer screens. Sound of Freedom didn’t beat Indy straight off–it came in at a still surprisingly high #4 spot on its opening weekend, with Dial of Destiny at number one–but throughout the smaller film’s run it managed to outgross both Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 domestically, sneaking past the juggernaut success of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert film to snag the year’s #10 spot.
Sound of Freedom’s success can be attributed in large part to distributor Angel Studios’ ability to mobilize the faith-based crowd, with which it already enjoyed a strong relationship due to previous work on 2023’s His Only Son and the blockbuster web series “The Chosen,” among other projects. Piloted with His Only Son, Angel Studios’ “Pay it Forward” system—where moviegoers are encouraged to buy a ticket or someone else to see the film—took off with Sound of Freedom, generating both sales and headlines.