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Biggest Unanswered Questions The 2022 Box Office Left Us With

When the pandemic hit nearly three years ago, it threw a big monkey wrench into the business of entertainment. Many in Hollywood wondered if theatrical releases would survive, or if the public would abandon moviegoing once and for all, with everything going to streaming. As it turns out, people — for the most part — couldn't wait to go the movies again, but there's still been some considerable hiccups in the road.

2022 has seen the remarkable success of "Top Gun: Maverick," which made an astonishing $1.4 billion worldwide, and with "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" also making money hand over fist, it shows that big event movies are still going strong. "Avatar: The Way of Water" also appears to be poised to become another massive success for director James Cameron, even with a major storm keeping audiences out of theaters a week after the film came out.

But as 2022 comes to an end, there's still a lot of unanswered questions about where the movie business will be headed in 2023, and at least one report from industry trade Variety hints the road ahead could be "extremely bumpy." Here's our list of the biggest unanswered questions the 2002 box office left us, and what the year ahead looks like for movies.

Does theatrical distribution still have a future?

Some believed that movie theaters would not recover from the twin effects of the pandemic and streaming. The industry has been dreading this for a long time: a day when theaters will only be for big event pictures, and everything else will be streamed. At the moment, people are willing to even brave bad weather to go see "Avatar: The Way of Water," but the theatrical business still has far to go before it's in healthy shape again. And it's pretty clear that movies will have shorter theatrical windows before they go directly to streaming.

Surprisingly, some directors are embracing this. "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery" was in theaters for a one-week run before it was available for streaming, and director Rian Johnson told Screen Daily, "I'm very keen to see how far we can push it in terms of theatrical and streaming going hands across the aisle and supporting each other." 

On the other hand, a recent report in Bloomberg tells us, "Hollywood wants you back in theaters, whether you want to or not," adding that ticket sales for 2022 were down 30% from the pre-pandemic glory days of 2019. But the report doesn't suggest that the theatrical movie business is on its last legs. Rather, it concludes that the kinds of films that people won't necessarily go to theaters to watch — anything that's not an event or a spectacle — will need streaming and online viewing options as an integral part of their standard distribution plan.

Will Avatar: The Way of Water go the distance?

The biggest cliffhanger of the year at the box office has been whether "Avatar: The Way of Water" will be a big winner or a disappointment. According to writer-director James Cameron, "The Way of Water" has to be one of the five biggest grossing films of all time to be profitable, and even with Cameron willing to take big risks with his movies, he openly admitted to the Hollywood Reporter that it was a "silly target" to try and hit.

"The Way of Water" was the number one movie at the box office over the Christmas holidays (via Deadline), overcoming a massive winter storm and worries about a new surge of COVID. Although the film seems to be bombing in the world's second biggest market, China (via Yahoo!), primarily because of a COVID outbreak, "The Way of Water" at press time had crossed the $300 million mark in North America and $1 billion worldwide (via The Wrap) in just 12 days.

It still remains to be seen if "The Way of Water" can even come close to its predecessor, 2009's "Avatar," which is still the biggest grossing movie of all time at just under $3 billion worldwide. As for future "Avatar" movies, Cameron told Deadline that by the third week in theaters he'll know if the story will culminate with five films total, or if he'll wrap things up earlier. The way things look now, the "Avatar" series could very well hit the five-movie mark without an early exit.

Is Spielberg's reign as the box office king over?

Steven Spielberg has had one of the greatest batting averages in the history of Hollywood, and his name is synonymous with big box office (via The Numbers): "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Jurassic Park" ... the list goes on. Yet Spielberg hasn't had a big monster hit in quite some time, raising the question of whether his reign as a box office king could be over. 

With "The Fabelmans," he made the most personal film of his career, but it didn't fare well at the box office. "The Fabelmans" had a smaller platform release, starting in four theaters, then moving up to 638, but hasn't lived up to expectations. As Indiewire explained, it skewed towards older viewers (it even got nominated for AARP's "Movies for Grownups" awards), and word of mouth didn't carry the film to a bigger audience.

Even if Spielberg never has a mega-hit again, his place in cinema history is certainly secure, and he's moved on from Indiana Jones and "Jurassic Park" to make more personal works like "The Fabelmans." Both "The Fabelmans" and Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story" were well received by critics, and at 76 he's still got his creative mojo, but neither film appealed to wider audiences. Can he have another big box office hit? The jury's still out.

Can the success of Top Gun: Maverick carry over to Mission: Impossible?

It didn't seem that long ago that Tom Cruise had lost his big screen mojo, but now he's back on top with "Top Gun: Maverick," the number one movie of 2022. The film's success wasn't guaranteed: the first "Top Gun" came out nearly 40 years ago, and "Maverick" was delayed several years because of the pandemic. But once it was finally released, audiences came out in droves and loved it.

Next summer, Cruise will have "Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I" in theaters on July 14, but the question is, will it do monster business at the box office as well? It's too early for projections, but the "Mission Impossible" films have made more than $3 billion worldwide, and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has proven to be a strong creative force behind the recent installments.

While the new "Mission: Impossible" should do well, it might be hard to hit the billion mark; "Top Gun: Maverick" marks the only time Cruise himself has done it in his entire career. The real question is whether Cruise's current box office goodwill with fans will rub off on the next "Mission: Impossible" movie or not — we should have a better idea as the release date gets closer.

Did the Will Smith slap hurt Emancipation?

After the slap heard round the world — Will Smith smacking Chris Rock in the face onstage at the Oscars in March 2022 — many have wondered how it would affect Smith's career from that point forward. If the reception to his latest film, "Emancipation," is any indication, the short answer is that it sure hasn't helped.

According to a report on Radar, Smith is not happy with the box office failure of "Emancipation," and he's also not thrilled that the film got passed over for Golden Globe nominations. As a source explained, "Will knows it a long road to redemption and a lot of folks won't forgive him. But this really rams it home."

Whether the Smith slap has genuinely hurt the film is unclear, but "Emancipation" also received mixed reviews, with The Guardian calling it an "ugly, manipulative drama," and the Hollywood Reporter noting that the film "devolves into a confused jumble of messages."

Why did animated films Strange World and Lightyear fail?

2022 also saw two animated features — "Strange World" and "Lightyear," both from Disney — belly flop at the box office. Salon reported that "Strange World" could end up as one of Disney's biggest box office bombs, with losses projected in the $100 million range. While some right-wing conservatives blaming the film's failure on the fact that it has a gay character in it, Salon noted, "These claims have little basis in the reality of why 'Strange World' tanked, other than the easily observable fact that the studio did the bare minimum to promote it."

With Disney coming under fire for not responding fast enough to Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law (via Variety), and a current backlash against woke culture (per the New York Times), was the studio afraid of promoting a movie with a gay lead character? It's possible, but other things working against "Strange World" included the fact that original Disney films don't perform as well as reboots and musicals, and that the film got mixed reviews.

As for the failure of "Lightyear," some thought it was a big mistake not bringing Tim Allen back to give Buzz his voice, while others felt the movie suffered at the box office due to Disney making nearly all its other recent Pixar titles, like "Soul" and "Turning Red," available for free on Disney+ since the pandemic started.

Why did Black Adam fail, and can DC Studios recover?

Although DC has two of the biggest comic book characters in the history of the medium, Batman and Superman, they've been struggling to catch up with Marvel at the movies, and recent events haven't helped. In fact, this year DC Films has suffered one major mishap after another with Ezra Miller's personal issues casting doubts over the box office success of "The Flash" (which opens June 16), the "Batgirl" movie getting shelved, and sequels to "Wonder Woman," "Man of Steel," and "Black Adam" all getting shut down (via The Independent).

"Black Adam" in particular was an embarrassment at the box office, making a reported $391 million worldwide with the film costing $195 million, which means it needed to pull in $600 million (per Variety) to break even. Forbes listed a number of reasons why "Black Adam" failed, including that the film was generic, with tedious action scenes, a laughable villain, and that at the film's core, "Black Adam isn't a very good central protagonist."

Now DC Films has been revamped as DC Studios, with director James Gunn and producer Peter Safran at the helm, but fans are already calling for their ouster following the exit of Henry Cavill from the role of Superman. Yet Gunn has at least one defender in "Shazam!" star Zachary Levi, who told fans on Instagram (via JoBlo), "Be patient, give them some space and some time to try and really make something special."

Is a Marvel crash on the way?

Before "X-Men" and "Spider-Man," Hollywood didn't take comic book movies very seriously, but now Marvel films — specifically the Marvel Cinematic Universe — have practically become (via The Numbers) the most successful franchise in history. Yet even with their incredible success, one wonders if a crash could be coming. As Tribune.com reported, even with "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" among the year's biggest box office hits, a recent study revealed that audiences may be growing tired of Marvel movies. 

The Guardian also wondered, "Have we gone from Marvel fatigue to Marvel exhaustion?" Their list of what went wrong with the MCU's Phase Four slate included "perfunctory CGI climaxes" in "Black Widow" and "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," teams that weren't very interesting in "Eternals," convoluted plots in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," and more, concluding, "These are tentpole entertainments that strain for laughs and excitement."

Next year, there are three MCU movies coming out: "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania," "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," and "The Marvels," along with a number of TV shows on Disney+. Meanwhile, the MCU-adjacent Sony's Spider-Man Universe will see the arrival of "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse" and "Kraven the Hunter." Whether this will all lead to Marvel nirvana, or Marvel burnout, remains to be seen.

How were prestige films like The Whale impacted?

As we saw in 2022, not only did major movies continue to suffer in the wake of COVID, but specialty box office took a hit as well. As Indiewire reported, Thanksgiving 2022 was "the worst ever" weekend for specialized cinema for adults, with the exception of 2020 when theaters were closed due to the pandemic. But one title has done very well: "The Whale," starring Brendan Fraser.

In fact, "The Whale" set a specialty box office record, beating the previous record holder, "Everything Everywhere All at Once." Even so, as The Wrap explained, "The fact that a $60,000 theater average is enough to set an annual record shows how much the specialty market has collapsed." Previous specialty market winners would regularly average over $100,000 per theater in limited release.

"The Whale" has proven to be a strong comeback vehicle for Brendan Fraser, and has also overcome controversy (via NPR) and mixed reviews to become an indie hit. While this is encouraging for the indie market, just one film doing well while numerous others have floundered does not bode well overall for non-tentpole releases.

Was releasing Babylon at Christmas a mistake?

We've seen movies like "Babylon" throughout Hollywood history: they usually get made after a director has a big hit, and demands final cut on their next movie. The end result? Films like "Heaven's Gate," "1941," "One From the Heart," and other disasters where a director has too much freedom and money to burn.

"Babylon" was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who also helmed the Oscar-winning hit "La La Land." It's a three-hour movie about the dawn of the sound era in movies, and it's gotten scathing reviews. CNN proclaimed it a "sprawling, messy, three-hour-plus endurance test," while Slate – referencing the film's opening scene — called it "a defecating elephant of a movie."

The film cost $88 million, but only made $5.3 million in its opening weekend. It may have been a mistake opening this movie for Christmas, but an even bigger mistake could have been allowing it to go forward in the first place. "Babylon" could wind up being the sole black mark in what's been a big year at the box office for Paramount (per Variety), with "Top Gun: Maverick" and the horror thriller "Smile" bringing in big money, but it's still a pretty unsightly blemish nonetheless.

How would another COVID surge affect theaters?

According to NBC News, scientists say that COVID is here to stay, and we'll have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. But if another COVID surge hits, what kind of effect could it have on theatrical releases? We've already seen "Avatar" take a hit overseas from COVID, and while it hasn't hurt the movie's grosses overall, one would think that if the U.S. has to shut down theaters again, it could be a disaster — even fatal — for the industry.

Looking at the virus's spike in China, Variety reported that "the growing COVID problem in China is causing rapid revisions of all expectations." China has had a zero-COVID policy, where everyone infected had to be isolated, and cities have been locked down with little notice. But with this policy recently relaxed and infections reportedly on the rise, audiences there are still staying away from theaters out of fear of catching the disease.

While we may never go back to complete lockdown, the recent surges  — and the threat of new variants — have given the industry yet another thing to worry about for the upcoming year.

Can a big blockbuster take home the Oscar?

Now that audiences are going back to theaters again for big blockbusters like "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Avatar: The Way of Water," the question remains: how does the Oscar race look for next year? According to the Hollywood Reporter, for just the second time in 20 years there are several blockbusters that have a strong shot at earning the gold statue. Box office behemoths and effects-driven movies have famously gotten short shrift at the Academy Awards, but the "Top Gun," "Black Panther," and "Avatar" sequels could be strong contenders for Best Picture.

At the same time, movies that are usually strong Oscar bait have been tanking at the box office. Films like "Tar," "Till," and "Armageddon Time" have all been struggling, and as World of Reel explains, "The number of mature moviegoers buying tickets is severely down, and streaming services are making people stay at home instead of churning out their hard-earned money for overpriced parking, popcorn and movie tickets."

The last time that a tentpole-type movie swept the Oscars was in 2004, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" won it all. Perhaps "Top Gun: Maverick," "Avatar: The Way of Water" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" could have a real shot at next year's Academy Awards, because at the moment it's hard to tell which mainstream dramas and indie films lead the race.