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Moviegoers Are Leaving Their Couches for Theaters, Bringing Summer Box Office Sales Close to Pre-Pandemic Levels

Disney
  • Moviegoers aren't just returning to cinemas, theater operators say they are spending more on premium tickets and concessions.
  • With new blockbusters driving more people to theaters, the summer, box office season in the U.S. and Canada is down just 12% from the summer before the pandemic.
  • While there will be an expected lull in new movies between August and October, movie theater owners are optimistic about blockbuster titles due in cinemas before the end of the year.

It's becoming clearer that audiences are no longer satisfied just sitting on the couch to watch movies. Not only are they returning to movie theaters in droves, theater operators say they're opting for pricier tickets and spending more on concessions.

Over the weekend, Disney's newest Marvel Cinematic Universe film, "Thor: Love and Thunder," opened to nearly $145 million in ticket sales domestically and drew around 10 million moviegoers out to cinemas.

With additional ticket sales from movies like Paramount and Skydance's "Top Gun: Maverick,"  Universal's "Minions: The Rise of Gru" and "Jurassic World: Dominion" as well as Pixar's "Lightyear" and Warner Bros.′ "Elvis," the weekend's domestic box office raked in around $240 million.

That's well above the $185 million for the same weekend in 2019, according to data from Comscore. At the time, Marvel's "Spider-Man: Far From Home" topped the box office alongside Disney's "Toy Story 4″ and "Aladdin," Universal's "Yesterday," Warner Bros.′ "Annabelle Comes Home" and A24′s "Midsommar."

"We were jumping up and down this weekend," said Brock Bagby, executive vice president of B&B Theatres, a regional, Midwest-based theater chain with more than 50 locations. "Friday was our biggest day of the year and the biggest single day since 'Spider-Man: No Way Home' opened in December."

With new blockbusters driving more people to theaters, the summer, box office season in the U.S. and Canada is down just 12% compared with the summer before the pandemic, according to data from Comscore. Between May 1 and July 10, the box office raked in $2.27 billion from tickets. That's compared with $2.58 billion during the same period in 2019.

For the year so far, the domestic box office has collected more than $4.25 billion in ticket sales as of Sunday. That's 30% below 2019 pre-pandemic levels.

"Since the beginning of the summer, and the release of 'Doctor Strange,' the studios have stacked up one excellent film after another," said Jeffrey Kaufman, senior vice president of film and marketing at Malco Theatres. "This has energized moviegoers and they have responded to a string of fun, exciting and entertaining movies."

Movie theater chains big and small are benefitting. AMC Entertainment, the world's largest movie theater chain, reported it highest global attendance of the year this weekend, topping 5.9 million moviegoers. Its global admission revenue outpaced the same weekend in 2019 by 12%, it said Monday.

"The box office results week after week after week this summer have demonstrated what we at AMC have believed to be true all along: consumers want to experience their movies through the unrivaled experience of a movie theater, with its big screens, big sound and comfortable big seats," Adam Aron, CEO of AMC, said in a statement.

Bagby of B&B Theatres also told CNBC that moviegoers have been opting for premium formats far more than before the pandemic. This includes IMAX, Dolby, 3D and other experiences that offer immersive seating or panoramic screens. He added that audiences have been spending much more on food and drinks, as well.

B&B Theatres predicts it will end the year with same-store sales down around 10%, based on the movies slated to come out over the next few months and an expected lull between August and October.

"I wish there was more product, but luckily the titles we have had, have been incredibly strong," he said.

The overall number of movies with wide releases in 2022 is down more than 30% compared with 2019, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Still, audiences will have a lot of content to choose from between now and the end of the year. Disney will release "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," Warner Bros. and DC has "Black Adam" and "Shazam: Fury of the Gods." Universal is set to release Jordan Peele's "Nope," and Sony has the hotly anticipated "Bullet Train."

Capping off the year will be Disney's "Avatar: The Way of Water," the first planned sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time.

"Moviegoing is a habit," Kaufman said. "Once people get into the habit, they always find films they want to see."

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of "Minions: The Rise of Gru," "Jurassic World: Dominion," "Nope," and "Yesterday."

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