Don’t be surprised if top Hollywood studio executives and theater owners aren’t feeling the Christmas spirit this year. They’re bracing for a tumultuous 2024 ride at the domestic box office after a slew of high-profile tentpoles were pushed to 2025 because of the lengthy writers and actors strikes.

In a major blow to the post-pandemic recovery effort, domestic box office revenue in 2024 is now expected to come in behind that of 2023, a reversal of fortunes no one predicted. If projections are right, domestic box office in 2024 could top out at $7.5 billion to $8 billion, compared to an expected $8.8 billion to $8.9 billion this year, say multiple studio executives who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter (a few are more bullish in thinking $8 billion to $8.5 billion is possible).

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The culprit: a sparse release calendar, particularly during the first three months of the year. “It’s a disaster,” says one studio exec regarding the first part of the year.

All told, the global box office could lose out on $2 billion or more because of the 2024 movies that were bumped to 2025, including the next Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible installment, Marvel’s Anthony Mackie-led Captain America: Brave New World, Disney’s Snow White live-action reimagining starring Rachel Zegler and Sony’s next Spider-Verse film. Other movies that fled for 2025 when the strikes commenced include Blade, Elio, Thunderbolts and Dirty Dancing.

“The reality is that the box office isn’t the same as it was before. There have been two seismic shocks in the past few years — first the pandemic and now the strikes. At the same time, streaming exploded,” says analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed Ventures.

At this juncture, no one is sure when, or if, the North American box office will return to pre-pandemic levels, or $11 billion annually. Nor is 2023 revenue likely to cross $9 billion, as originally expected after a dismal November, further complicating matters. “Consumer interest in moviegoing has been permanently altered and audiences are much more selective,” says Greenfield.

In recent days, the National Research Group has been presenting its takeaways from 2023 and forecast for 2024 to clients, which include all the top Hollywood studios. A major point of emphasis was the lack of event product next year because of the strikes, according to a studio executive who participated in one of the briefings. One startling stat is the year-over-year dip in the number of wide releases — films that play on 2,000 or more screens (this includes rereleases and specialty films that platform slowly).

As of Dec. 13, there were approximately 82 such wide releases on the calendar, compared to an estimated 97 to 99 in 2023, per a tally from Box Office Mojo’s database. The number should already be exceeding 2023 levels, not going down, as the box office recovers from the pandemic era (there were 120 wide releases in 2019). “The calendar for next year is in rough shape, and studios need to be clear-eyed,” says NRG head of film Ray Subers. 

The downturn couldn’t have come at a worse time, considering that moviegoers are showing signs of life in terms of returning to the cinema in mass numbers. Look no further than the cultural phenomenon known as Barbenheimer. Thanks in large measure to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, 2023 summer revenue all but matched pre-pandemic levels. And even while 2023 domestic box office revenue won’t hit $9 billion, it will still be up a promising 19 percent over that of 2022.

“We cannot forget what we have achieved. We had a summer that was almost back to normal,” says Subers.

In contrast, the fall and early winter box office is badly struggling. November revenue was down 43 percent from the five-year pre-pandemic average, the worst percentage downtick for any month since the pandemic, according to NRG. The Kevin Feige-run Marvel Studios saw The Marvels crash and burn in the latest example of superhero fatigue — it will likely be the first title in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to earn less than $100 million domestically — while Disney Animation’s Wish was another huge miss for Bob Iger’s studio (both films hit theaters in November). Iger isn’t trying to gloss over the troubles facing the company’s content divisions, telling investors in recent days that quantity may have taken a priority over quality.

“A few months ago, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d get to $9 billion to $9.2 billion this year,” says Comscore chief box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, who notes that domestic revenue currently hovers at around $8.5 billion. In the past, Hollywood’s year-end holiday movies wouldn’t have any problem closing the gap and generating north of $500 million in revenue, he notes. Last year, Christmas tentpole Avatar: The Way of Water generated $400 million alone of the $581 million earned between Dec. 12 and 31.

Titles on the holiday marquee will include Wonka, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and The Color Purple (all from Warner Bros.), Ferrari (Neon) and The Boys in the Boat (Amazon MGM) among others. Cinema owners will have to rely more than usual on Christmas films to tide them over until March 1, when Warners’ Dune: Part Two — the year’s first all-audience tentpole — opens. Paramount has high hopes for its Mean Girls musical, which opens Jan. 2, and Valentine’s Day biopic One Love: Bob Marley, but neither is necessarily a four-quadrant film. 

Box office analysts are far more bullish on the back half of 2024, led by Marvel’s untitled Deadpool threequel, which opens in July. And many believe the downturn at the animation box office could be reversed when summer pics Inside Out 2 and Despicable Me 4 come out. Other summer releases hoping to achieve event status include The Fall Guy, If and Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. Year-end notable mentions include Wicked, Mufasa: The Lion King, Karate Kid and Sonic the Hedgehog 3

In regard to the five major studios, Universal has more movies slated for wide release in 2024 than any of its competitors, although that includes titles from Focus Features; Warner Bros. follows.

Anxious theater operators are urging studios and indie distributors to do everything they can to fill out the 2024 calendar. They are succeeding to some degree. Each day seems to bring another announcement of a smaller or mid-range movie planting its flag in 2024, such as A24 deciding to open Alex Garland’s action war epic Civil War nationwide in March, or the Universal-owned Focus Features plotting a wide debut for Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black in early May (historically, specialty labels such as A24, Focus or Searchlight platform a film versus going all out from the beginning).

Mini-major Lionsgate is also on the prowl, dating Saw XI for September 2024 and White Bird: A Wonder Story for October. And Blumhouse and Universal have just announced they will open Wolf Man in late October, while Disney hopes to provide theater circuits with at least a small boost by releasing Soul, Turning Red and Luca in theaters for the first time (all three of the animated films went straight to streaming during the pandemic era).

Exhibitors are likely to keep the pressure up as they look for ways to make up for the collective deficit. “They are nervous, there is no doubt about it, and it’s certainly a huge topic of conversation,” says a top distribution executive, while Greenfield questions whether certain cinemas can survive another horrible year. Both note that, unlike with the pandemic, exhibitors knew this slowdown was coming and have been holding on to cash reserves or raising capital. “They had time to prepare, but still, this situation isn’t helpful for anyone,” says the exec in reference to next year’s slate.

Adds Dergarabedian, “It’s pretty clear there is a correlation between volume and box office. Everyone needs to get out there and take meaningful shots to get the box office back to normal.” 

 A version of this story appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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