Movie theater owners are optimistic ticket sales can continue to recover as the key summer season approaches

Still from “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

Superhero flicks have kept the box office afloat this year, spurring movie theater operators to think that audiences might finally be ready to return to cinemas en masse.

Domestic ticket sales for the first four months of the year are still down around 40% compared with 2019 pre-pandemic levels, but cinemas are seeing significant gains over last year.

Blockbuster titles like Warner Bros.‘ “The Batman,” Paramount’s “Sonic 2” and the MarvelSony‘s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” have led to a nearly 400% increase in ticket sales from 2021, reaching $1.7 billion, according to data from Comscore.

Movie theater owners tell CNBC they’re hopeful ticket sales will continue to pick up in the coming weeks, particularly after the release of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which kicks off the summer blockbuster season.

The last two years have suffered from lackluster summer movie slates, as lockdowns shut down theaters and coronavirus variants kept many potential moviegoers at home.

Studios had been reluctant to release films, fearing that their new movies wouldn’t turn a profit and many opted to postpone titles until 2022. Now, with many health and safety mandates repealed and consumers seemingly more comfortable venturing back out to cinemas, studios have stuck to their release dates.

Theaters will see a steady stream of hotly anticipated films following the May 6 release of “Doctor Strange.” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “Lightyear,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” will arrive on the big screen in quick succession over a nine-week period.

“It’s entirely fitting that a Marvel movie will kick off the summer movie season of 2022 and along with it set in motion what looks to be the first ‘normal’ May through Labor Day corridor we’ve seen in almost three years,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Dergarabedian noted that the industry’s summer, spanning an 18-week period, is traditionally responsible for about 40% of the domestic box office.

CinemaCon, a convention for Hollywood studios and movie theater owners in Las Vegas, kicks off Monday, and exhibitors are expressing cautious optimism about the summer movie season and the rest of the year.

The success of “The Batman” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which showed that adult audiences will return for franchise features, helps stir that optimism. And the turnout for “Sonic 2,” which has generated more than $126 million domestically since its April 8 release, gives theaters hope that the Toy Story follow-up “Lightyear,” and the next movie in the Minions franchise will be able to lure in families.

What’s more, cinema returnees in the past year have also boosted the concession business, according to a new report released Thursday by movie ticketing site Fandango. A survey of 6,000 moviegoers who bought a ticket on Fandango determined that 93% bought concessions at the theater in the past year, up from 84% in the prior year.

Additionally, 67% of those surveyed said they spent $20 or more on popcorn, candy, soda and other concessions. That spending report bodes well for theater owners, who don’t split concession sales with studios like they do with movie ticket sales.

Next week at CinemaCon, exhibitors will discuss ways to lure back moviegoers who have been slow to return to theaters as well as how to improve the experience of going to the movies.

Theater owners got creative during the pandemic, offering unique food and beverage options, adding more mobile options for advanced ordering and payment, and diversifying the content available on the big screen.

The current consensus among box office analysts and movie theater owners is that 2022 won’t be able to surpass the $11.4 billion generated in 2019, but say they could ring in almost double the $4.4 billion collected last year. Most are estimating around $8 billion in ticket sales, with franchise films acting as the catalyst.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Fandango.

Sophie Tremblay

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