Aquaman 2’s performance is crucial for the holiday box office, worrying theater owners

AQUAMAN, from left: director James Wan, Amber Heard, Jason Momoa, Willem Dafoe, on set, 2018. ph: Jasin Boland/ © Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Every Christmas, Phoenix Theatres traditionally bets on a major blockbuster to keep its auditoriums busy well into the new year. In recent years, the Midwest-based chain has staked its holiday season on big releases like “Avatar: The Way of Water” in 2022, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in 2021, and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019. However, this holiday season marks a departure from the norm. For the first time in over a decade, excluding the pandemic-impacted 2020, there’s no clear-cut blockbuster with the potential to gross over $1 billion globally to round off the year.

Cory Jacobson, owner of Phoenix Theatres, notes, “You can’t look at the release schedule between now and the end of the year and find one movie that stands out like ‘Avatar’ as the big film.” The highly anticipated “Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom,” slated for release on December 22, is expected to be the major bet for this holiday season. However, the sequel comes with uncertainty—will it capture the magic of the original, or will it continue the trend of recent DC films like “The Flash,” “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” and “Blue Beetle,” which did not perform as expected?

The prevailing sense of superhero fatigue, even affecting Marvel’s usually successful Cinematic Universe, adds an additional layer of uncertainty. Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, comments, “The holiday season is on the shoulders of ‘Aquaman,’ and that’s not a good shoulder to put anything on. Can it cut through the negative DC noise?”

Movie theater owners, still reeling from the impacts of the Hollywood strikes while recovering from the pandemic, find themselves in a challenging position. Jordan Hohman, VP of Phoenix Theatres, explains the strategy of diversifying their film slate: “With one big film, you must stock a lot of show times to meet demands. If it doesn’t work out, you end up with a lot of empty show times. With a more diverse slate of films, we can spread our bets.”

For the holiday stretch of 2023, theaters are banking on a variety of films, including “Wonka” (Dec. 15), an animated comedy “Migration” (Dec. 22), sports drama “The Iron Claw” (Dec. 22), and the musical adaptation “The Color Purple” (Dec. 25). The hope is that a diverse range of films, particularly those appealing to families, will drive popcorn sales and keep theaters busy.

However, without a surefire billion-dollar tentpole, this year’s holiday season may not be as spectacular as previous ones. Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic theatrical distribution, remarks, “It’s probably not going to be the most spectacular Christmas season. It may give other movies room to overperform.”

Aquaman 2 vs Aquaman Box Office (Opening Weekend): Projections Suggest Over  38% Decline!

The absence of a four-quadrant title—a movie that appeals to men and women, young and old—leaves theaters in a precarious position until “Dune: Part Two” opens in March. Successful films like “Avatar” and “Spider-Man” not only performed well in December but also continued to draw audiences for weeks, contributing significantly to the following year’s box office earnings. The disappointment in the holiday season would be a setback for the movie theater business, especially in a year that has seen the release of notable films like “Barbenheimer” and Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour.”

The total box office revenues for 2023 have reached $8 billion, showing a 22% increase from 2022 but remaining 17% behind 2019, according to Comscore. The Hollywood strikes have affected the release calendar, creating uncertainty about which projects will make it to theaters on time.

Jeff Logan, owner of Logan Luxury Theatres, points out that needing to show the same film for weeks to meet demand may not be an issue in smaller towns, but the sentiment is shared: “We just wish there were more movies in the mix.”

Aquaman 2: Patrick Wilson's Unexpected New Look as Villain Orm Revealed By  Set Photo

While “Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom” could potentially surprise and become a hit, the overall concern about the collapse of major franchises in 2023 remains. Audiences are showing a preference for original content, challenging Hollywood to move beyond relying on sequels and reboots. If “Aquaman 2” fails to meet expectations, it will join a list of anticipated sequels that fell short at the box office, raising questions about the sustainability of the current blockbuster model. Theater owners, like Jeff Logan, suggest that studios may be overexploiting successful franchises, potentially jeopardizing their long-term appeal.

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