Marvel heroes propelled Disney to the top of the 2021 domestic box office

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  • Disney made $1.17 billion at the domestic box office in 2021, the most of any studio in the industry.
  • The studio run represented approximately 25% of the total box office in the US and Canada and was fueled by films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • Moving towards 2022, it is clear that the blockbuster franchise films will continue to enthrall the audience.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe propels Disney to the top of the domestic box office in 2021.

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While the pandemic continues to weigh on the movie theater business, cinemas were able to collect $4.58 billion in ticket sales in the United States and Canada, which more than doubled in 2020.

Of this, 25.5% was generated by Disney, up to $1.17 billion from films such as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Black Widow” and “The Eternal.” The company, which released films from studios including Disney Animation, 20th Century and Searchlight, had an all-time high this year.

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Sony was second with $1.05 billion during the year, more than half of which was distributed from “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in the last two weeks of the year. The film, made in collaboration with Disney and Sony, is the highest-grossing film of 2021.

"The most unusual was the need for a village to make back the box office in 2021," said Paul Dergarbedian, senior media analyst at comScore. "The major studios showed their faith and understanding in the value of big screen releases for their most high-profile titles and met enthusiastic filmmakers hungry for the big screen experience."

Since re-opening to the public, ticket sales in theaters have taken a beating. The domestic box office has bounced back from historic lows in 2020 but is yet to reach the stability seen before the pandemic.

Franchise films have always been popular and they have been the strongest attraction for theaters during the pandemic. In fact, only one of the top ten highest-grossing films, Disney's "Free Guy", was not based on existing intellectual property.

In 2021, only 13 films crossed $100 million, a feat that was usually followed by around 30 films before the pandemic. Still, this figure of over a dozen films is a positive sign for the domestic box office.

"The results were impressive and a very welcome confidence booster for a resilient industry that will face the challenges in 2022," he said.

While these blockbuster features have rekindled confidence in the future of the box office, the drop in ticket sales for new covid variants as well as non-franchise films could mean a slow recovery for the industry.

Since movie theaters reopened, films aimed at older audiences like "House of Gucci," "The Last Duel" and "West Side Story" have had a hard time drawing large crowds. While adult-pitched movies often make less money than the major tentacles, they still matter to the overall box office. Together, these so-called "mid-level" features contribute billions to the total annual race.

This has prompted many box office analysts to estimate the 2022 domestic box office at around $8 billion instead of the $11 billion that was seen before the pandemic.

Looking at the top three highest grossing studios this year, it is clear which films and genres were the most successful and what we can expect will continue to do well in 2022.


Disney's three highest-grossing films were tied to its Marvel Cinematic Universe. "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Black Widow" and "Eternal" each grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office.

Next year, Disney will release three more high-profile MCU movies including "Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness," "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." If the current trend at the box office continues, these films should be poised for strong ticket sales.

Disney's 2021 domestic box office numbers also show how the dual release in theaters and on Disney+ led to smaller box office hits for films such as "Rae and the Last Dragon" and "Cruella". While these films were released early on the calendar when audiences began to return to theatres, it quickly became apparent that availability in the domestic market cut into theatrical revenue.

Additionally, due to tentative concerns about the return of older audiences to theaters, "West Side Story" produced only $28 million in ticket sales on a production budget of approximately $100 million, excluding marketing costs. That's despite a 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

There is also a delay in the return of families. "Encanto", which received rave reviews, ended the year with nearly $90 million in ticket sales in the US and Canada.


Due to the collaboration with Disney, Sony earned more than $1.05 billion in the last few weeks of 2021. "Spider-Man: No Way Home" grossed $572.9 million domestically, the most of any film released in 2021.

The studio also found success with "Venom: Let There Be Carnage", which grossed $212 million in the US and Canada, and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" which grossed $122 million. Like Disney, Sony benefited from bringing viewers from beloved franchises back to theaters.

Nevertheless, not all of its follow-up were successful. Small-budget films based on existing IPs such as "Don't Breathe 2," "Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" and "Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City" failed to attract significant crowds.

Sony sold several movies to streamers during the past year, including "Hotel Transylvania: Transformmania," "Happiest Season," "Fatherhood," "Greyhound," "Cinderella" and "American Pickle." It's not guaranteed that any of these films will generate significant ticket sales for the studio, but they are titles that could boost Sony's box office overall for 2021.


The third-highest-grossing studio was Universal, with films such as "F9," "Halloween Kills" and "Sing 2" grossing approximately $715 million domestically.

Like Sony and Disney, Universal's franchise films are well positioned for success in 2022. The studio is set to release "Jurassic World: Dominion," "Minions: The Rise of Gru" and the yet-untitled animated Mario Bros. If families feel more comfortable bringing vaccinated children to theaters, more kid-friendly rentals for studios may be reintroduced.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal has Rotten Tomatoes.


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