What to Expect from the Return of Big-Budget Blockbusters


Movies are coming back! But, how will audiences and filmmakers actually respond to an entire industry opening back up?

In many ways, it’s kind of cool how you can trace official box office records pretty much all the way back to the earliest days of cinema. These records tell a fascinating story of how film evolved from a vaudeville novelty into a major entertainment industry. We can see spikes and peaks that tell stories of major depressions, economic booms, and world wars. 

However, in over a hundred years of box office returns, we’ve never seen a blip quite like 2020. Major industry shutdowns shuttered cinemas across the world for the better part of a year. Box office results went from billions of dollars to numbers we haven’t seen since concessions cost a few nickels.

But, as theaters are beginning to open once again with vaccinations and proper safety procedures in place, an entire industry looks to be returning in a big way. Let’s take a look at what audiences and film and video professionals should prepare to expect with the return of the big-budget blockbuster.

Movie Theaters Are Slowly Opening up

Wonder Woman 1984
One of the first major blockbusters to be released in theaters since the pandemic began, Wonder Woman 1984 surpassed early expectations. Image via Warner Bros.

Originally slated for a theatrical release in June 2020, Wonder Woman 1984 was one of the first major casualties of industry wide shutdowns. And, after several delays pushing its release further and further back in 2020, the film finally hit theaters in December 2020. Although box office results have been poor in comparison to years past, it did become an important signifier that there may indeed still be hope for movie theaters overall.

Wonder Woman 1984 has gone on to gross $166 million worldwide. While certainly placing it below its break-even point, its mild success has served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the industry. And, more importantly, audiences and filmmakers can take solace in the fact that even though the film made some money back at the box office, it was one of several late-2020, early-2021 movies to experiment with new release models.

Hybrid Theatrical and Streaming Has Worked

Godzilla vs. Kong
One of the best examples of a new hybrid theatrical and streaming release approach comes from Godzilla vs. Kong. Image via Warner Bros.

On the heels of the release of Wonder Woman 1984, perhaps the biggest success story in 2021 has been the impressive results from Warner Brother’s Godzilla vs. Kong. Another big-budget blockbuster that felt the pressures of industry shutdowns, the production eventually found its way to completion. The distributors decided to fully embrace a hybrid release strategy, releasing the film theatrically as well as on HBO Max, where it’s set to stream exclusively for a month.

While this might be a rare occurrence in the future due to the highly competitive nature of streaming apps, it might also paint a new picture for how audiences and distributors are shifting their priorities to embrace both the theatrical experience as well as the home streaming competition. And, truth be told, results have actually been quite impressive for both.

This might seem like a mixed blessing for cinema purists. But overall, it might also be a greater sign that movies and content are continuing to find audiences and grow no matter what the hardship.

Genre Films Remain Strong

Genre films, like the John Wick-styled action movie Nobody, continue to remain popular and profitable options. Image via Universal Pictures.

Another growing trend in big-budget and mainstream cinema—looking to be even more prolific here post-pandemic—is that genre films are continuing to remain strong. We need to look no further than the John Wick inspired action-er Nobody, starring the out-of-character Bob Odenkirk

Written and produced by the filmmakers behind the aforementioned John Wick, Nobody continues to prove that audiences respond to genre films that can be easily described and understood as a certain type of entertainment. Also, good news for filmmakers and film enthusiasts who have enjoyed these more textbook genre films over the years.

These films are both popular and profitable as their budgets pale in comparison to their superhero counterparts, but don’t miss the mark by too far in the box office returns. (For example, recently-released at the end of March 2021, Nobody has already gone on to return almost $40 million at the box offices, against a $16 million budget.)

Delayed Indies and Festival Favorites

Festival favorites, like the Sundance standout Minari, have finally been able to release theatrically, as well. Image via A24.

It’s also important to note that while big-budget blockbusters are starting to return to movie theaters, so too are the low-budget indies and film festival favorites. Marvel superhero movies weren’t the only films to feel the sting of industry shutdowns. And, in many cases, we have a huge surplus of quality festival indies that have been laying dormant, waiting for audiences to venture back into theaters.

A perfect example of this comes in the form of Minari—a great filmic exploration into character and naturalism. Minari premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, but didn’t find its theatrical release until February 2021. 

These smaller films—which have won festivals and major awards, and are usually consistently released across arthouse theaters throughout the year—have also had to take a wait-and-see approach. So, theaters big and small should have plenty of titles to choose from as they start to open back up.

Big-Budget Blockbusters to Come

Long delayed big-budget blockbusters, like F9, are finally slated to hit theaters again soon. Image via Universal Pictures.

Finally, it’s probably safe to say that as society continues to emerge from lockdowns, so will the movie industry. As unprecedented and shocking as the box office numbers will show for the last year, this next year will give us a strong indication early on whether these numbers were a historic blip or a major signifier of changing trends.

There are, after all, still big-budget blockbusters to hit the screen, with major names like The Fast and Furious franchise’s F9, the latest Bond film No Time to Die, Marvel’s Black Widow, and even delayed productions like Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune (recently completed).

So, even with new release models being explored quite successfully—based on the strength of the titles that have been shuttered, as well as the build-up of quality indie and arthouse sleepers—we might actually be in for one of the best movie watching years of all time.

For more industry news and insights, check out these articles:

Cover image from No Time to Die via United Artists Releasing.


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