Movie Theater Owners Predict ‘Aquaman 2’ Flop, Endangering Christmas Box Office

in DC, Entertainment

Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'

Credit: DC Studios

According to movie theater owners, the holiday box office might be at risk, with analysts expressing concern over DC Studios’ Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom‘s (2023) ability to fill seats following its widespread release next month. With the final DCEU entry not expected to make much of a splash, this could spell trouble for theaters hoping to fill auditoriums into the new year — and for Warner Bros., who took a huge financial gamble with the underwater action-adventure flick.

Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman in 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'
Credit: DC Studios

Related: Jason Momoa Stands by DCEU’s ‘Aquaman,’ Tells Company to “Suck It”

Is the holiday blockbuster officially dead? With a pandemic-battered box office only just on the cup of recovery years later, there’s no denying that the state of moviegoing has irreversibly changed, with movie theaters worldwide still feeling its effects. Thousands of venues were forced to shut their doors throughout 2020 and into 2021, and the ones who survived were faced with a harsh reality, one that saw low attendance and soaring operational costs long after they re-opened in early 2021.

Although many predicted that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) would “save” movies post-pandemic, the sci-fi epic failed to draw audiences back to theaters despite grossing an impressive $364 million gross, which might have been disappointing at the time but is now an aspirational box office benchmark today. Ultimately, many credit Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick (2022) with being the nostalgia-heavy, high-flying blockbuster to fill movie theaters for the first time since 2020. Since then, it’s been a slow but gradual road to recovery for cinemas, full of hits and misses along the way.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Related: Jason Momoa Confirms ‘Aquaman’ Exit After Amber Heard Drama

2023, specifically, proved to be an incredibly lucrative year for cinemas, proving once and for all that the demand was still there for audiences to watch films on the big screen amid the constantly evolving streaming world. The affectionately dubbed “Barbenheimer” sold millions of tickets back in July, becoming a full-on pop culture phenomenon. Unexpected animations such as Nintendo and Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) and Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) also fared unusually well, with audiences packing theaters shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time since early 2020.

But lighthearted, family-friendly summer movies weren’t always cinema owners’ best bets. Pre-pandemic, at least, movie theaters could always rely on one big-budget blockbuster to sell tickets around the holiday season. For example, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker raked in billions upon its release in December 2019, with the first Aquaman (2018) scoring big for DC Studios the year prior. More recently, although it was released in December 2022, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water stands as the seventh-highest-grossing domestic release of 2023 with $283 million.

20th Century Studios' 'Avatar: The Way of Water' (2022)
Credit: 20th Century Studios

With this in mind, there’s plenty of opportunity for movie theaters to fill auditoriums around the holiday season, given that students likely have a break from school, workers have time off, and families are looking for fun ways to spend time together indoors. However, for the first time in over a decade (excluding the pandemic-stricken 2020), there’s no surefire blockbuster with the potential to gross $1 billion globally to cap off the year, with many movie theater owners fearing the worst.

Per Variety, Phoenix Theatres owner Cory Jacobson recently voiced his concerns about the 2023 Christmas box office, telling the publication, “You can’t look at the release schedule between now and the end of the year and find one movie that stands out like ‘Avatar’ as the big film.”

Swimming scene in 'Avatar: The Way of Water'
Credit: 20th Century Studios

Although many films, including director James Wan’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the Timothée Chalamet-fronted Wonka (2023), A24’s sports drama The Iron Claw (2023), and the musical adaptation The Color Purple (2023), are all slated to arrive on the big screen next month, none of these films are expected to pass the $1 billion mark at the box office, unlike the crowd-pleasing blockbusters of Christmases past.

Out of all the movies currently in the pipeline, many theater owners believe that Christmas at the box office hinges on the success of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which sees Jason Momoa reprising his role as the titular bombastic warrior-king, along with Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, Temuera Morrison, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and disgraced Mera actress, Amber Heard.

Jason Momoa looking surprised as Aquaman in the water
Credit: DC Studios

Despite its predecessor being an unexpected billion-dollar hit for Warner Bros., box office analysts aren’t too optimistic about the Aquaman sequel’s chances of following suit. Given that 2023 was, frankly, a horrific year for DC and its competing superhero studio, Marvel, with a string of “flops” such as The Flash (2023), Blue Beetle (2023), and more recently, The Marvels (2023), the overwhelming sense of “superhero fatigue” could very likely plague the comic book adventure’s box office performance.

For better or worse, Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, says that the pressure is on for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom to succeed. “The holiday season is on the shoulders of ‘Aquaman,’ and that’s not a good shoulder to put anything on,” he told Variety. “Can it cut through the negative DC noise?”

Mera (Amber Heard) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) stare at each other
Credit: DC Studios

Bock isn’t wrong in saying it’s hard to be confident about the comic book sequel’s box office performance, adding, “We’re seeing the collapse of these major franchises. This year has proven that audiences do want original things. Hollywood can’t just put a Roman numeral on things.”

Still, movie theater owners, who were walloped by not only the pandemic but also the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, have no choice but to look to the positive. “With one big film, you must stock a lot of show times to meet demands. If it doesn’t work out, you end up with a lot of empty show times,” said Phoenix Theatres VP Jordan Hohman. “With a more diverse slate of films, we can spread our bets.”

Credit: DC Studios

Diverse slate of films, there certainly is. Yet, Universal’s president of domestic theatrical distribution predicts that “It’s probably not going to be the most spectacular Christmas season,” pointing to the Aquaman sequel’s lackluster predicted total return of $105-168 million domestically.

Ultimately, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom could certainly surprise, considering the first film opened to an unspectacular $67 million but eventually grossed a staggering $1.15 billion globally. But the very idea that the sequel isn’t a guaranteed smash hit is indicative of larger concerns in Hollywood, particularly regarding the superhero genre as a whole.

Aquaman (Jason Momoa) laughing
Credit: DC Studios

If the Aquaman sequel misses the mark, it’ll join a slew of other sequels, spinoffs, and reboots that appeared to be easy cash grabs, only to wildly underperform at the box office. While this may be a positive thing in the long run, given how greedy corporate entities have run franchises like DC into the ground, reinforcing the need for positive change, it does mean that it might not be a very merry Christmas for theater owners.

Ultimately, only time will tell if Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will exceed expectations when it swims into theaters on December 22, 2023.

Are you hopeful for the Aquaman sequel, or is it doomed to flop? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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