With just two months before the end of the year, the coronavirus pandemic continues to loom large over the film industry.
Ticket sales in 2021 have already outpaced 2020's paltry box office. But sales still lag nearly 70% behind 2019's $11.4 billion haul. As of Sunday, the domestic box office has tallied $2.84 billion in ticket sales, according to data from Comscore.
Box office receipts have steadily improved throughout the year, as new films have become available on the big screen and audiences have grown more comfortable venturing out of their homes. Exclusive theatrical releases like Disney's "Free Guy," Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" and Sony's "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" have proven that there is a future for movie theaters, even if overall attendance and ticket sales are smaller than pre-pandemic times.
These films had strong opening weekends. The "Venom" sequel, which debuted the first weekend in October, currently holds the record for the best opening during the health crisis, with around $90 million in ticket sales. Even better, these titles continued to lure in moviegoers in the weeks after their debuts.
This pattern suggests that as the threat of the coronavirus dissipates and major blockbuster titles continue to enter the market, the box office will return to more normal levels.
"To say the box office has turned a corner would be an understatement at this point," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.
With two weeks of sales yet to bake in, the October box office is the second-highest grossing month of the year. Theaters have already tallied $415.6 million in ticket sales in the first half of the month, putting it behind July, which garnered $583.8 million in sales, according to Comscore. July featured the release of "Black Widow" as well as continued ticket sales of "F9," which debuted the last week of June.
"The industry is still working to overcome certain obstacles, like caution among older audiences and the anticipation of vaccines for kids, but a large share of the moviegoing audience has returned in staggered waves over the course of the last six months," Robbins said. He added, it's a promising sign for theaters heading into the holiday season.
"October has been a rejuvenation period for Hollywood, something studios and exhibitors have been patiently waiting for," said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "The outlook for fall has the industry headed in the right direction, as evident by the plethora of strong debuts."
Prior to the pandemic, the fall movie season — which encompasses October, November and December — accounted for around 25% of ticket sales each year. In 2019, that 3-month period tallied nearly $3 billion.
Box office analysts do not expect the fall 2021 slate to match that, but they are confident that titles like Disney's "Eternals" and "Encanto," Warner Bros.' "The Matrix Resurrections," and Sony and Marvel's "Spider-Man: No Way Home" will be enticing enough to help the 2021 box office reach around $4 billion.
"Recovery has always been a multitiered process and, as strong as 2021 looks to finish, 2022 has the makings to take the box office rebound even higher," Robbins said.
But Bock expects the first part of next year "will be a slog," because there are few major releases as the year begins. However, the summer looks as "strong as ever," he said, likening it to 2019's blockbuster line-up. The summer slate includes new releases from major franchises like Marvel, DC, Jurassic World, Top Gun, Fantastic Beasts, Minions and Transformers.
Still, audiences have been less predictable during the pandemic, and the availability of some blockbuster features on streaming at the same time as in theaters has led to cannibalization of ticket sales.
"One of the most intriguing aspects of the theatrical restart during the pandemic has been the fact that young audiences are turning out in strong numbers and on a consistent basis," Robbins said. "Before the pandemic, there had been various narratives about how young consumers were turning away from so-called traditional habits in lieu of the litany of content distribution platforms across social media and streaming."
It seems older generations, many of which have kids that cannot be vaccinated, are now the ones that are less inclined to venture out to theaters. However, as vaccines become widely available to those under the age of 11, this could shift once again.
"Films with appeal to younger demographics have thrived while those aimed at more mature moviegoers have had a tougher time gaining traction," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore said. "At least for now."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed "F9," and "Halloween Kills" globally and distributed "No Time To Die" internationally.