Can Hollywood win back the global box-office crown from China?

In the dark.
In the dark.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The worst of the pandemic and its lockdowns appear to be over for Hollywood as many movie theaters in the US and Canada are open for business again. 

“The industry’s box office has been meaningfully increasing each and every quarter, thanks to improved vaccination levels and an increasingly appealing film slate,” said Adam Aron, CEO of the AMC movie theater chain, during a conference call with analysts and investors this week. 

But despite the developing recovery of its box office fortunes, the US still hasn’t regained its top slot in global box office earnings. That position now belongs to China, which beat the US for the first time ever in 2020 (pdf), thanks in part to earlier, more stringent lockdowns and covid-19 measures, which led to earlier reopenings of movie theaters in 2020. 

🎧 For more intel on the global box office, listen to the Quartz Obsession podcast episode on sequels. Or subscribe via: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher.

Last year, China’s theatrical box office pulled in $3 billion, a fall from its $9.3 billion take in 2019 (pdf), but still better than the US, which sunk to roughly $2.2 billion in 2020 compared to $11.4 billion the year before.

Hollywood looks for the upside as studios work to compete with China’s new dominance

Based on recent data, some major US movie chains are optimistic that audiences are returning to pre-pandemic levels. “October 2021 admissions revenue was almost 90% of October 2019’s admission revenue levels,” said AMC chief financial officer Sean Goodman during the call. 

However, analyst forecasts have China firmly in the lead in box office revenue as 2021 draws to a close. Currently, China will account for 34% of global box office revenue, with the US claiming just 22%, according to Gower Street Analytics projections.  

And while the forecast reflects prevailing trends, there’s still the unknown hit factor that films can deliver, sometimes resulting in unexpected financial gains. For example, 2020’s The Invisible Man, a film based on timeworn material and starring an actor, Elisabeth Moss, primarily known for her television work, delivered a completely remixed version of the story, resulting in a solid $143 million hit despite its meager $7 million budget. Hollywood still has a chance to defy 2021’s box office trends if one of several major upcoming films manages to likewise tap into the hearts, and bank accounts, of moviegoers. 

Among the slate of films still yet to hit theaters are Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Matrix Resurrections, and The King’s Man. Any of those reliable franchises, along with West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s remake of a classic musical, could make a major revenue dent in the next couple of months and give Hollywood the happy ending to 2021 it’s hoping for. 

“I’m quite upbeat about what’s coming…as covid lessens…and we start getting out and about again,” Aron said. “I think you’re going to see a revival of an exclusive theatrical window.”