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Warner Bros. Discovers hopes on holiday miracles to erase 2023’s box office slump

Disney and Warner seem to have suffered the brunt of 2023’s brutality at the box office, in part because they had the most tentpoles with inflated budgets.

Disney had only a few solid performers, including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as the only true blockbuster that met expectations. The rest — including The Little Mermaid, Elemental, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — underperformed against expectations and potential, and the rest of Disney’s slate of films saw mostly disappointments or outright flops. A few modestly budgeted releases managed to play well enough to turn a profit, but nothing of the sort the studio is used to, and certainly not enough to offset flops like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Haunted Mansion, The Marvels, and Wish.

Now that we’re in the Christmas season, Disney shockingly has no major releases on deck to pull off some last minute box office magic. Had The Marvels opened over the holiday, it might’ve avoided flopping, but that’s purely speculation and would require besting the rest of the holiday’s family offerings. And that’s where WBD’s own fortunes could finally turn around a bit, because they’re the only studio with Christmas releases capable of making a difference.

Warner’s 10 productions and co-productions so far (not including films for which WBD was merely an international distributor but had no role in producing or otherwise releasing) were mostly a disaster.

Look at these grosses for each of WBD’s 10 releases: Barbie ($1.4 billion), Meg 2: The Trench ($394 million), The Nun II ($268 million), The Flash ($266.5 million), Evil Dead Rise ($146 million), Shazam! Fury of the Gods ($132 million), Blue Beetle ($128.7 million), Magic Mike’s Last Dance ($56 million), House Party ($52.8 million), and Mummies ($9 million million).

That’s an average of only about $286 million in worldwide box office per film, and that’s with Barbie doing the heavy lifting by adding literally half of the box office average for each film. WBD gets about half of that or slightly less, so call it $140 million per film average. Now consider the combined budgets for these films is north of $900 million, not including marketing expenses. And let’s be clear, the merchandising for most of these releases — again, Barbie being the main exception — isn’t impressing anyone.

The fact WBD’s big DCEU superhero tentpole releases — The Flash, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and Blue Beetle — face-planted with a combined $527 million and $175.6 million per-film average is a sign as of a downward spiral barely disguised by Barbie’s enormous success and a great deal of rearranging of deck chairs (read: firing large numbers of employees, cancelling huge amounts of TV and streaming series, gutting available films and series on the [HBO] Max streamer, shelving completed films, and generally infuriating artists and fans alike).

Lucky for Warner, the holiday season might provide some relief.

The family musical prequel Wonka is opening between $35-40 million domestically, on top of $43 million from early international debuts. And The Color Purple, another musical, isn’t tracking toward a large opening but should still have some play through the New Year and help lift the box office overall.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom closes out the DCEU after the shared superhero world’s last eight films over five years have all failed to top $400 million, but the first Aquaman in 2017 was the last blockbuster DCEU release and took $1.15 billion in global receipts, so there’s hope it might break the DCEU curse and leg out once again to a big successful run. That said, the brand is definitely severely tainted now, so much so that it’s even hurt the superhero genre overall, and star Jason Momoa recently sounded downbeat about the film’s chances in interviews.

However, as a Christmas release with lots of premium screens worldwide and hopefully some remaining good will from the first Atlantean billion dollar hit, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom can at least land in the blockbuster range north of $500 million to assist the studio and theatrical industry.

With box office nearly 20% behind pre-pandemic numbers, there’s no realistic chance the next two weeks will provide the sort of miraculous attendance necessary to put theaters and box office in true “recovered” territory. But it can help mitigate the damage, if these three major releases avoid underperforming and disappointing.

In a sign of just how bad things have been for Warner Bros. Discovery, though, note that even if all three films somehow grossed $1 billion each, the average across all 13 WBD releases at year’s end would increase by about $230 million per film, lifting the per-film average to just north of $500 million. Much better than $286 million, but still not the numbers you want if you’re a top-tier studio that released more than half a dozen would-be blockbuster tentpoles in 2023.

Those three movies also add about $425 million to the combined budgets of Warner’s slate, pushing total budget costs north of $1.3 billion, or $100 million per film average before marketing expenses. The studio taking roughly $252 million of each film’s box office, and with the budget plus marketing — not to mention participation points — doesn’t leave much in WBD’s pockets when the dust settles.

And that’s a best-case where the studio’s three big Christmas releases all top $1 billion. Which isn’t happening, of course. More likely is a combined $2 billion from all three combined, or perhaps $2.2 billion on the high end. Every dollar counts at this point, so even this level of strong December performance for Warner would still result in thin margins.

I’m modestly optimistic about Wonka’s chances, and expect it to perform well enough to be a seasonal hit even if not a runaway blockbuster. The Color Purple could suffer from the fact it’s another musical competing with a more upbeat family affair (Wonka), and the fact its tracking so far doesn’t point to any breakout box office performance. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the real question mark here, because it’s the film that could turn into another long-legged blockbuster that does the year-end heavy lifting, but could also turn into another DCEU flop.

What I expect is a combined box office of somewhere around $1.9 billion for all three films, with a lower-end outcome of maybe $1.5 billion combined, and a high-end of $2.2 billion. So, not a Christmas miracle, but not a lump of coal. Somewhere in the middle, then, and it’s sad that this is what passes for good news these days. Forbes

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