LIFESTYLE & CULTURE
2022 is the year that cinema will not die.
This year’s box-office successes demonstrated that the streaming stopgaps we relied on while stuck at home during the lockdown would not be the end of theatrical film exhibitions.
Photo illustration of moviegoers and a marquee sign reading “See You Reel Soon”
It was difficult not to imagine that the streaming stopgaps we’d used while stuck at home would simply become the way feature films were consumed from now on.
Getty Images; Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
December 27, 2022, 4:30 p.m. IST
Jason Bailey is a film critic, historian, and author.
2022 was a disaster, but it could have been much worse. This article is part of a year-end series about silver linings.
Before the pandemic, theatrical film exhibition was not in particularly good shape. For years, we’ve seen a precipitous decline in adult-oriented material, the kind of midbudget dramas and comedies that studios used to freely finance as a small risk for, at the very least, a small gain. However, the increasing dominance of sequels, tentpoles, and comic book movies in the twenty-first century has made studios less inclined to fund those mid-budget efforts, preferring to go all-in on big-budget product. As a result, audiences began to regard movies less as art and more as a spectacle, only worth the trouble and expense when there was a spectacle involved.
Then, with Covid-19 lockdowns, the spectacle vanished almost instantly. Many filmmakers, industry observers, and audience members were concerned that going to the movies would become extinct after a year or so of outright closures and the slow and sometimes stumbling return of regular moviegoing. After all, it was difficult not to imagine that the streaming stopgaps we’d used while stuck at home would simply become the way feature films were consumed from now on. The astounding box-office figures of 2022, on the other hand, tell a different story: movie theatres did not become obsolete. We had missed them and were eager to return.
Some of what we see in this year’s receipts confirms previous preferences — and, if anything, demonstrates that the shutdown period has accelerated them. That much is clear when we look at the top ten box-office attractions, which include nine direct sequels (“Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” and so on) and one indirect sequel (“Jurassic World: Dominion”) (the reboot of Batman). And, while not sequels, several titles in the top 20 capitalise on well-known brand names: “Lightyear,” “Uncharted,” “The Bad Guys,” the DC extension “Black Adam” (with a much-touted cameo by Henry Cavill’s Superman), and a wildly successful film about one of the first capital-B brands: “Elvis.”
For once, the ubiquity of the familiar was not entirely negative. At the time of writing, the disparity between the first-place title (“Top Gun: Maverick,” with $718 million) and the runner-up (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” with $427 million) is stark but straightforward. Unlike “Wakanda Forever,” which made the majority of its money in a few short weeks from a regular, dedicated fandom, “Top Gun” drew audiences for months, and not necessarily because of brand loyalty (keep in mind, it was a sequel to a 36-year-old film). The reason for those legs is simple: “Top Gun: Maverick” is excellent, thrilling and thoughtful, engaging and grappling with its legacy rather than simply coasting on nostalgia, and people came to the theatre to see it again and again. It provided the best of the cinematic experience: spectacle, quality, and rewatchability.
But, perhaps most importantly, the desire for the overly familiar was not the only story told this year. From Jordan Peele’s inventive “Nope” to the horror smashes “Smile” and “The Black Phone” to the old-fashioned star vehicles “The Lost City” and “Ticket to Paradise” to the mini-epics “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Woman King” to unclassifiable outliers like “Dog” and “The Menu,” several original films were solid commercial hits. The majority of moviegoers probably didn’t see them all, which is part of the point; this year’s commercial hits didn’t have to appeal to everyone, but could target niche audiences and still turn a profit.
Make no mistake about it: Theatrical exhibition is still making its way back to pre-2020 times, and certain pandemic-era adjustments have carried over to the present, with disastrous consequences for prestige filmmaking. (Parents, for example, may be hesitant to pay for a babysitter, food, and movie tickets for critical favourites such as “The Fabelmans,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” and “Tár,” which will be available on demand soon after their theatrical releases.) Going to the movies may continue to evolve into a spectacle-only situation, focusing solely on the type of movies that Martin Scorsese famously (and, to some, contentiously) compared to amusement park rides — something more akin to the current iteration of the Broadway stage. But if the pandemic-era lack of theatrical releases demonstrated anything, it’s that people love going to the movies, and not just to see Marvel movies. And for that, I am eternally grateful.