Year in Review: The Biggest Stories, Surprises, and Disappointments of 2021 at the Box Office

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 01: Passholders attend CinemaCon 2019 Gala Opening Night Event: Neon’s Premiere Event Screening of “Wild Rose” at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for CinemaCon)

Meme stocks, failed mergers, and a Billion dollar earner—our look back at a tumultuous recovery year for exhibition.

For a detailed recap of 2021 for the global exhibition industry, click here to access our in-depth report.

Listen to our full analysis of 2021 at the box office in this week’s special year-end episode of The Boxoffice Podcast


THE BIGGEST STORIES OF THE YEAR FOR DOMESTIC THEATRICAL EXHIBITION

SVOG 

An economic lifeline for cinemas, the federal government’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program helped movie theaters in the United States stay in business through the hardest months of the pandemic. Cinemas’ inclusion in the Save Our Stages act of SVOG wasn’t a guarantee, requiring lobbying efforts by the National Association of Theatre Owners to ensure movie theaters could benefit from the program.

AMC’s Retail Investors

Publicly-traded companies were not eligible to receive SVOG funds, leaving the country’s leading cinema chains to brave the effects of the pandemic on the stock market. AMC Theatres, the world’s largest cinema chain, felt this pressure more than any other company in the United States—acting as a lightning rod for assumptions on the cinema industry’s viability at large. After years of bad breaks on the market—and a share price that hit a low of $1.91 in early January—AMC experienced an unexpected boost from a surge of retail investors during Q1 2021. The grassroots movement was labeled as the “Meme Stock” craze by the financial press—but AMC leaned into its newfound popularity to ensure it would be more than just a passing fad. The company opened its own retail investor portal, giving new shareholders perks at their theaters nationwide and actively involving the new community as part of its corporate culture. AMC finished the year trading at levels it hadn’t seen since Q1 2017. 

Scarlett Johansson Sues Disney Over Black Widow Day-and-Date PVOD

Theatrical exclusivity was the most contentious topic of 2020 for the exhibition industry. The pandemic forced major circuits to accept a drastically reduced theatrical exclusivity window in 2021. There was little consensus as to what the future would hold for theatrical exclusivity, especially following Disney’s decision to release the first Marvel title of the pandemic, Black Widow, day-and-date on Premium Video-on-Demand with cinemas. The decision didn’t sit well with theater owners, but it was the film’s star, Scarlett Johansson, that took the studio to court for its unilateral decision to forgo theatrical exclusivity for the title. Johansson’s lawsuit insisted the day-and-date decision had a detrimental effect on the financial terms she agreed upon when signing on to make the film. The matter highlighted the economic ripple effects of forgoing theatrical exclusivity, firmly establishing the creative community as key stakeholders in future decisions around windows.

Cineplex and Cineworld Go to Court

Cineworld abandoned its intended acquisition of Cineplex, Canada’s largest movie theater chain, in 2020, citing “certain breaches” in the terms that would have made it the largest cinema circuit in the world. Instead of putting Cineworld in pole position among global theater chains, the deal sent the two circuits to courts—with an Ontario judge ruling in favor of Cineplex in December. Cineworld is currently in the process of appealing that decision, which would have it pay its former acquisition target over $900 million in damages. 

Spider-Man: No Way Home Becomes the Highest-Grossing Film of the Pandemic

There were several milestones during the domestic box office’s recovery in 2021 that led to the record-setting release of Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home in December. Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs. Kong kicked off Q2 with a solid $50 million debut from a six-day holiday frame over Easter. The monster showdown became the first day-and-date title to gross $100 million at the box office and coincided with a marked uptick in vaccine availability in the United States. The positive momentum was sustained after Paramount moved up the release of A Quiet Place Part II to May 28, scoring a $57 million bow over Memorial day weekend. 

F9: The Fast Saga became Hollywood’s first global blockbuster of the pandemic era in June, earning $173 million domestically en route to a $726.2 million worldwide cume. The second half of the summer welcomed hits like Disney’s Black Widow in July and 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy in August before Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings capped off a strong Q3 in September. 

Q4 was dominated by Sony, with the studio releasing theatrically-exclusive tentpoles in October (Venom: Let There Be Carnage) and November (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) before Spider-Man: No Way Home broke the all-time box office record for a December release. The first pandemic title to cross $1 billion at the global box office, Spider-Man: No Way Home proved tentpoles can still thrive at cinemas.


THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE YEAR AT THE DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE

Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (Funimation)

Cinemas in the United States reopening in the Spring faced a dearth of high-profile studio titles to program on their screens. The market conditions created an opportunity for distributors of more niche titles to get better visibility. Anime title Demon Slayer: Mugen Train locked down 1,600 screens when it opened against Warner Bros.’ Mortal Kombat 3,000+ locations on April 23. It nearly upset the studio film for the top spot over their opening weekend despite playing in nearly half the screens. Demon Slayer sustained its momentum in the following weeks, topping the box office in its second frame and notching another second place finish in its third week. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train went on to earn $47.7 million over its theatrical run in North America. A record-setting $364.7 million haul in its native Japan dating back to 2020 helped lift the title to over $450 million worldwide—setting a new benchmark for an anime title. 


THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE YEAR AT THE DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE

Coda (Apple) 

Apple broke the Sundance sales record when it scooped up Coda for a whopping $25 million in January. The move suggested a bold ambition from the streamer, entering 2021 with a title that could easily crossover from the art house to the multiplex. Instead, Coda received what amounted to a token theatrical release, reaching a high of 101 locations in the United States during its second week, available to only a select number of theaters across the country. In a year that saw Netflix breakthrough to major circuits (with limited exclusivity windows) and the CEO of AMC personally host a screening of an Amazon awards contender, Amazon’s minimal effort in making Coda available to theaters over the summer amounted to one of the biggest letdowns of 2021 for specialty theaters that could have easily eventized its theatrical run ahead of awards season. Apple’s strategy shifted notably in December with the release of another awards contender, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, granting the title twenty days of theatrical exclusivity and a wider release in theaters.

Broadway at the Movies: In the Heights (Warner Bros.), Dear Evan Hansen (Universal), West Side Story (20th Century Studios).

Older audiences have been the slowest to return to the movies since domestic cinemas re-opened during the pandemic. The downturn was most evident when assessing the box office performance of the three Broadway musicals that failed to connect with viewers on the big screen. Warner Bros.’ In the Heights was the best positioned to succeed out of the three. Released during the summer months, in the brief span that saw widespread access to vaccines and before the emergence of the Delta variant, the title also counted on the name recognition of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda–whose Hamilton drew strong interest in 2020 on streaming through Disney+. Warner Bros.’ binding decision to commit its entire 2021 theatrical slate to stream day-and-date on HBOMax, at no additional cost to subscribers, didn’t help the film’s lackluster $11.5 million debut. 

The poor opening of In the Heights raised concerns about the performance of the two other Broadway hits remaining on the schedule, Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen and 20th Century Studios’ West Side Story. Disappointingly, neither of those films were able to improve on the day-and-date box office of the In the Heights. Hampered by poor reviews, Dear Evan Hansen opened to $7.4 million in September. Despite receiving strong support from critics, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story crashed at the box office with a $10.5 million bow in December. 


OUR FAVORITE MOVIEGOING MOMENTS OF 2021

West Side Story
By Chris Eggertsen, Analyst

I didn’t know how much I missed going to movie theaters until I saw West Side Story at an advance screening in early December. My personal peak came during Spielberg’s breathtaking daylight reinterpretation of “America,” a shot of pure cinema every bit as thrilling as the T-Rex sequence in Jurassic Park or Elliot’s nighttime bicycle flight in E.T. There’s simply no way it would have had the same effect on a small screen.


Hamaguchi and Villeneuve Advocate for the Moviegoing Experience
By Daniel Loria, Editorial Director

I hadn’t realized how much of my identity—both personal and professional—was tied to my moviegoing habits, until the disruption of 2020.

It first became obvious when I found myself covering film festivals from home in 2020 and early 2021. While I thought Sundance offered the best digital version a festival could provide, there was still something fundamentally off about being among the first people to watch a new film—while hearing the dishwasher running in the kitchen. I followed my colleagues’ coverage of Cannes intently online, so when the New York Film Festival came around—the All-Star Game of film festivals—I was raring to see as many in-person screenings as I could.

The highlight of that experience was catching Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car in its U.S. premiere at a packed Walter Reade Theater. I’m a big fan of the original story’s author, Haruki Murakami, and had finished reading the book on the subway ride down to the screening. I first saw Hamaguchi’s work at home, during the pandemic, watching the entirety of the Happy Hour trilogy and Asako I and II with my wife, as a sort of cinematic binge. Drive My Car was my first time seeing one of his films on the big screen, and I remember the distinct burst of energy in the auditorium once the opening credits appeared on-screen 45 minutes into the running time. A couple of weeks later, I went to Film Forum with my wife to see Hamaguchi’s other 2021 release, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, for our first dinner-and-a-movie date in the West Village since this whole mess began. That was just as special.

Shortly after that experience, I went to see Denis Villeneuve’s Dune in Imax at the AMC Lincoln Square at a midweek matinee. I was surprised that the auditorium was as full as it was—I figured it must have been repeat viewers. I quickly realized why. Dune proved to be the best Imax experience I’ve ever had; I was completely blown away by the presentation. I enjoyed the technical aspects of seeing it at a cinema so much that I returned to the same theater by myself two days later to see it again in another premium format, Dolby Cinema, so I could experience it with a Dolby Atmos track. This is a film that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to—it was available to stream at home on HBO Max—but that I went out of my way to see twice, in premium formats, because of the theatrical experience alone.

It isn’t a coincidence that both Hamaguchi and Villeneuve have been among the most vocal filmmakers in advocating for the moviegoing experience since the onset of the pandemic. Hamaguchi was heavily involved in a fundraising campaign for Japan’s art house cinemas—following up that advocacy by releasing two (great) new films since cinemas reopened. Villeneuve did not hesitate to put his own money on the line when speaking out against Warner Bros.’ unilateral decision to make Dune a day-and-date release on HBO Max, even when there was no guarantee he’d be given the opportunity to direct a sequel. Based on the films they released in 2021, and my experience watching them in a cinema, Hamaguchi and Villeneuve are the 2021 filmmakers of the year.


West Side Story and Flee
By Kevin Lally, Executive Editor

My moviegoing highlight of a pared-back year was the first showing of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story in the big theater at Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinemas. The auditorium has a superb sound system, the better to savor the monumental score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. I was knocked out by the energy and talent of the cast, the gorgeous production design, and the kinetic direction of Spielberg—I believe it’s one of his very best films. What a shame there were only ten people in the theater. This is truly a movie that deserves the big screen, and I hope word of mouth and awards attention help boost box office in the post-Christmas weeks.

My runner-up highlight was the New York Film Festival premiere of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s gripping animated documentary Flee at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. This story of an Afghan refugee’s odyssey in the 1990s is the kind of riveting experience that makes you forget you’re wearing a mask. The film, which received a standing ovation, could make Oscar history, since it’s eligible in the documentary feature, animated feature, and international feature categories, and could easily score all three nominations.


Spectacle’s Reopening Mystery Double Feature (Despite the Hurricane)
by Rebecca Pahle, Deputy Editor

My best moviegoing experience of 2021 was also one of my worst—and if that doesn’t sum up the vibe of the last two years, I don’t know what does.

Movie theaters in New York City were slower to open than those in most of the rest of the country—and a particular theater I enjoy, the volunteer-run Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, stayed closed for even longer than required. They reopened their doors to audiences for the first time since the onset of Covid on the night of Wednesday, September 1 with a mystery double feature. I love the Spectacle, I love mystery screenings… I had to go, even if its location and the showtime meant I probably wouldn’t be getting home until quite late. The films turned out to be ones I really enjoyed and that benefited from the big-screen experience: Andrzej Zulawski’s The Devil (1972) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

So: Worth it! Until I got out of the theater at midnight and realized that, due to a combination of work and mentally being off in my own little universe, I had failed to realize that, while I was watching the double-feature, Hurricane Ida was rolling through the city, leaving flooding in its wake and shutting down mass transit. Had I not gotten very lucky and found probably the last still-working cab in Brooklyn around 1:30AM, I would have faced either a five-mile walk home in torrential rain with a broken umbrella or a night in the subway station. Texts from loved ones asked: You knew the weather was awful. You knew there was a hurricane coming. Why did you go to the Spectacle? To me it was, and is, a no-brainer. It was their first night back. I wanted to support them, and I wanted to see whatever madness they had cooking for the occasion. I missed it, and I wanted to feel normal, and I wasn’t going to let the weather stand in my way. Might have been a dumb call. But still: No regrets


Spider-Man: No Way Home
by Jesse Rifkin, Analyst

There’s a reason Spider-Man: No Way Home ranks among IMDb users’ 20 highest rated films of all time — alongside The Godfather, 12 Angry Men, and Schindler’s List — while no other 2021 title even cracks the top 100. Scorsese famously compared Marvel movies to “theme parks” and “not cinema,” accusing the studio of pandering to audiences rather than challenging them. But 2020 challenged all of us like never before. In 2021, movie experiences like this weren’t “pandering” — they were cathartic. I’ve only seen a few movies theatrically where the audience applauded even once. At my screening, I counted four such moments.


A Gradual Return to Normality
By Shawn Robbins, Chief Analyst

My favorite moviegoing experience is a harder question to answer this year—I’m just glad I have enough moments to pick from, to be honest! The one that’s freshest in my mind is Spider Man: No Way Home, of course, that is going to be near the top of my list for a long time to come. Not just for the movie itself but the crowd experience. I’d also include things like Free Guy. Seeing that at the end of summer was another one of those feel good movies where I was laughing the entire time, and it felt good to do that in a theater with an audience. A Quiet Place Part II, after seven months of having seen it, still ranks as one of my all-time favorite horror sequels. There are so many to pick from—No Time to Die, Dune—and there are a lot I still want to catch up on. It’s quite the turnaround from a year ago, when the best thing I could think of was finally getting a chance to see Inception on IMAX for its 10th anniversary re-release, that was the big movie of the year for me. This year things were obviously a bit more normal and I really can’t wait for next year because it looks like we’re going to keep up this momentum and see a lot more normality return to the release schedule.


In the Heights
by Laura Silver, Managing Editor

Watching In the Heights at the AMC Eden Prairie Mall in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, was my favorite moviegoing moment of 2021 — thanks to the couple sitting in our row. We loved the beautiful singing and dancing and the heartfelt story, but we really enjoyed listening to them enjoy the show. They laughed, they gasped, they murmured their approval, and basically mirrored every one of our reactions. It made a great movie even better.

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