It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic absolutely devastated the box office, with 2020, 2021, and 2022 all struggling to get back to pre-lockdown numbers. But there’s some good news: 2023 might be the year movie theaters are officially back to almost-normal action.
IGN talked to several box office analysts to get the latest temperature check on moviegoing’s recovery, who all agreed that, while this year might not quite get back to 2019’s $11 billion domestic gross (with $31 billion worldwide), it’ll get much closer, thanks to an eclectic and consistent mix of blockbusters. Early hits like M3GAN, Creed III, Cocaine Bear, Scream VI, and John Wick: Chapter 4 make them even more confident.
But the first true big blockbuster of 2023? That, they say, should be The Super Mario Bros. Movie. After it opens on April 5 in the U.S. (with other territories to follow), an impressive array of possible hits will follow, including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Fast X, The Little Mermaid, The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Dune: Part Two, and a whole lot more.
In fact, according to data provided to IGN by Comscore, 2022 had only 71 wide releases, meaning movies that opened in more than 2,000 theaters. This year, by Comscore’s estimation, will have more than 100.
Below, three analysts weigh in on how much the box office will truly recover, the year’s mix of big movies, and just how well The Super Mario Bros. Movie could do.
The Biggest Movies Coming in 2023
‘It’s Not Just Marvel Movies Anymore’
Looking at the box office totals, the past three years have been fairly dire ones for the movie business. At the peak of lockdown, 2020 saw just $2.2 billion in domestic box office revenue, doubling to $4.5 billion in 2021, and improving again in 2022 to $7.5 billion, led by a few major hits like Top Gun: Maverick. The worldwide box office saw a similar trajectory, going from nearly $10 billion in 2020 to $18.5 billion in 2022 (see Comscore chart below).
But the key for this year’s success, analysts say, is the steady rollout of movies weekend-to-weekend.
“I think we get to $9 billion-plus,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, says. “That’s sort of the trajectory that I see us on considering that we have about 30 more wide release films set for this year than we had in 2022. That was the big issue for 2022.”
He uses the metaphor of passing the baton – basically, as theaters do well one weekend, it maintains momentum going into the next week, and so on.
“Prior to the summer and post-summer [in 2022], it was kind of hit and miss, really an ebb and flow,” he says. “Ebb and flow doesn’t work for the industry. What works is it’s kind of a consistent excitement built on the back of really appealing movies that are going to bring people out of their homes and into the movie theater.”
Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, agrees, referencing early hits like 80 for Brady and Cocaine Bear as a sign that we’re entering a “hungry marketplace.”
“We haven’t had this kind of consistency in terms of studios laying out a blockbuster schedule week to week, from belt to belt, from the beginning of 2023 all the way to the end,” Bock says. “We have hits every single weekend, and sometimes multiple films every weekend. And honestly, we haven’t had that with any consistency since 2019.”
And the type of movies matter, too. Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro, gives a lot of credit to not only Spider-Man: No Way Home for pulling the younger audiences back into theaters in 2021, but a couple of big movies that kept that momentum going last year too.
“It’s not just Marvel movies anymore,” he says. “To get the likes of Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun doing such huge numbers last year really I think gives the industry a lot more confidence that the broader spectrum of moviegoers are coming back.”
And what better way to appeal to a broad demographic than with video game’s most famous character?
The Box Office Gets a 1-Up
Despite some of the early successes this year, moviegoing historically doesn’t start to pick up until the spring and especially summer. And, going back to that idea of momentum, there’s one plumber who should be passing the baton (or, wrench?) to the big movies of the summer.
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Although early box office tracking numbers have yet to come in, all three analysts agree that The Super Mario Bros. Movie is primed to be a huge hit. Could it hit the coveted $1 billion mark globally?
“I think that’s going to be a global phenomenon without question,” Dergarabedian says. “I mean, there’s very few sure bets. That’s a pretty darn sure bet.”
“I’m pretty bullish on it,” Robbins agrees, pointing to another Illumination feature, Minions: The Rise of Gru, which pulled in more than $500 million worldwide, as an example.
“Minions proved that families and parents and kids were ready to come back when the content is there,” he explains. “The problem was, after Minions, there just wasn’t a lot of that content for those crowds. We saw Puss in Boots: The Last Wish do really well because it had strong word-of-mouth.”
“But now with Mario,” he continues, “I think this is, outside of Minions, the first tried and true big animated blockbuster that has incredible appeal to people of all ages and all backgrounds.”
Bock takes that a step further, saying that Super Mario Bros. “has been waiting for this moment since the ‘80s.”
“Nintendo itself is a juggernaut in terms of characters and storylines, the same way that Marvel and DC are,” he says. “It was going to take someone to tap into that, which I think Universal and Illumination are going to do.”
He goes on to note that this is a prime time for video game adaptations, with movies like Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu pulling solid box office numbers and reviews, and HBO nailing down a more adult-oriented audience in its recent hit TV series The Last of Us.
All of that taken together, plus Mario’s global notoriety, he predicts Super Mario Bros. Movie “should be a major hit for Universal that spawns many sequels.”
“You’re looking for an IP that crosses several demographics,” he says. “Well, guess what? We’re finally in the right place for video games to do that.”
What Will Be the Biggest Movie of the Year?
While all three analysts are bullish on Mario, they all give different answers as to what will truly be the top-grosser of the year – just another signal of how diverse this group of blockbusters are.
While 2022 had a very obvious winner in Top Gun: Maverick and its stellar $1.5 billion worldwide, the frontrunner for 2023’s top spot might be a little less clear-cut.
As Dergarabedian puts it: “Super Mario does look massive to me, but it’s good when you can’t necessarily pick the biggest film of the year because there’s so many contenders out there for the title of the Box Office Champion for ’23.”
“I would say no movie has a better tee up than Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning,” he says of the Tom Cruise sequel, noting that it wasn’t originally supposed to come out so closely to Top Gun: Maverick, but the delays may have just drummed up even more anticipation.
“To have Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One coming out just a year after Top Gun, I think that’s going to be one of the biggest films of the year,” he adds.
Top Movies Like John Wick
Robbins points to a Marvel movie as an unsurprising candidate: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the highly anticipated return of the MCU’s favorite band of misfits. But it’s far from the only contender.
“The Marvels, maybe something like Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, The Flash possibly. I think all of these are worth mentioning,” he says. “But at the end of the day they could end up in a really similar range, and that would really actually be healthy for the industry overall if most of these movies can succeed.”
Bock also brings up Tom Cruise, but mostly to compare him to another seasoned vet with a big movie this summer: Harrison Ford.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has got to be up there,” he says. “In the same way that people were saluting Tom Cruise, I think they’re going to salute Harrison Ford. Not only for the work he’s done throughout his career, but being 80-years-old, and being in an action-adventure movie.”
But Bock brings up another player who could sneak into the #1 slot, and it’s yet another IP that appeals to families: Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. While he’s not sure about its chances internationally, he’s at least positive it’ll be a huge hit in the U.S.
“Obviously we’ve already seen the returns for [the live-action remakes of] Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and they were over a billion dollars. I expect nothing less from The Little Mermaid,” he says. “If it does pull in what Beauty and the Beast and what The Lion King did, we could be looking at The Little Mermaid as the number one film of the year.”
All three analysts agree on one thing, though: it’s a good time to have faith in movie theaters again.
“We’ve gone from cautious optimism a year ago to, I think, unfettered optimism right now in this marketplace or in movie theaters,” Dergarabedian says. “There’s a lot going on there, a lot of dynamic changes going on, a lot of dynamism in this marketplace, which is good news for theaters.”
Alex Stedman is a Senior News Editor with IGN, overseeing entertainment reporting. When she’s not writing or editing, you can find her reading fantasy novels or playing Dungeons & Dragons.