Facing strong headwinds, domestic box office revenue rose to $4.5 billion in 2021 as the theatrical business struggled to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
While that was up more than 101 percent over 2020, moviegoing still lagged far behind pre-pandemic levels.
According to Comscore, revenue for 2021 was nearly 60 percent behind 2019 ($11.4 billion). And the last time domestic revenue came in at $4.5 billion was 29 years ago, or in 1992.
Both Comscore and the National Association of Theatre Owners note that the 60 percent revenue gap over 2019 is narrowed to roughly 40 percent when factoring in that many cinemas didn’t reopen until spring of 2021.
Final 2021 numbers for the foreign box office weren’t immediately available, but Comscore expects global revenue to come in at nearly $21 billion.
The box office recovery continues to be a slow process. The latest hurtle is the highly contagious omicron variant. The rise of streaming is also an enormous challenge for cinemas.
So far, younger moviegoers between ages 18 and 34 — and especially younger males — have fueled the recovery, resulting in superhero, action and horror dominating the top reaches of the yearly chart.
Look no further than year-end holiday blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home. The Sony and Marvel film will finish Sunday with more than $605 million in the bank domestically, and has already shattered numerous records, including becoming the first release of the pandemic era to earn more than $1 billion worldwide. And it was far and away the No. 1 film of 2021 in a huge win for Sony and the industry in general.
Superhero titles claimed five of the top 10 slots on the domestic chart, including the first four.
No Way Home led, followed by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($224.5 million), Venom: Let There Be Carnage ($212.5 million) and Black Widow ($183.7 million).
F9: The Fast Saga, another male-fueled even pic, came in No. 5 domestically ($183.7 million), followed by superhero epic Eternals ($164.6 million), James Bond installment No Time to Die ($160.8 million), A Quiet Place Part II ($160.1 million) and Ghostbusters: Afterlife ($122 million).
Sleeper hit Free Guy rounded out the top 10 on the year chart ($121.6 million).
For the first time in the modern era, there wasn’t a single animated title in the yearly top 10.
Families and older moviegoers have been more reluctant to return to cinemas, although families are beginning to show up in a significant way now that kids 5 and older can be vaccinated. (After No Way Home, Sing 2 was the hit of the 2021 Christmas season.
Hollywood and theaters have yet to win back consumers who are 35 and older in a huge problem for adult-skewing fare such as West Side Story.
“One look at the Top 40 films of 2021 and it’s clear that those films with youth appeal are the ones that have fared best in theaters with the once elusive demographic group of 18- to 24-year-olds showing a clear willingness to hit the multiplex,” says Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian.
“The films that have youth appeal are indeed those that will help theaters weather the storm in the near term, but hopefully over time we will see the more mature demographic returning to cinemas and films devoted to this group not pushed to the side of the marquee,” Dergarabedian continues.