April 9, 2024
6 mins

2023 gave us reasons to be optimistic about the film industry

The data shows that streaming isn’t killing off the IRL theater experience just yet
Media

Is Hollywood in peril? How many people actually trek to the movie theaters on a Friday night, rather than hibernating to binge-watch three seasons of Love Is Blind?

Welcome to the 2023 State of Cinema Report from The People Platform, part of the Stagwell Marketing Cloud's media studio.

Below, we’ll take a look at a wide range of cinema metrics and admission data from the past year to provide a comprehensive overview of the latest industry benchmarks and performance throughout 2023.

Spoiler alert: The moviegoing experience is alive and well in America, and admission trends are promising for 2024 (even if the industry isn’t lucky enough to have a Barbie-level blockbuster).

Go grab your popcorn, and let’s dig into the data.

Ticket sales bounced back in 2023

It’s been a turbulent few years for the film business, thanks to a left hook from the global pandemic and a swift right from Hollywood-related strikes. But it appears that not everyone is content to kick back on the couch and stream Netflix, as cinema ticket sales are finally on the mend.

The 2023 Writers’ Guild and Screen Actors’ Guild strikes exceeded 100 consecutive days, considerably delaying movie production and pushing back the release dates of big titles. Yet despite those hurdles, our data shows a year-over-year rise in ticket sales, according to findings from The People Platform. 

There were 23% more visitors kicking back in front of the silver screen in 2023. But, what was drawing the crowds in? 

Image depicting number of movie tickets sold in 2022 vs 2023. There was a 23% increase in ticket sales.

Let’s not beat around the box office—a handful of wildly popular films had an outsized impact on this 2023 growth curve. You might have heard of Barbie, which alone grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and set a new record as the highest-grossing comedy ever released both domestically and internationally. 

Factor in Oppenheimer, which famously opened on the same buzzy weekend, and you’ll find that these two releases alone accounted for more than 10% of all admissions in 2023. That’s not a typo. 

There was also an unexpected yet positive outcome to having fewer high-profile releases dropping in 2023 as well. It meant that quieter, lower-budget releases, like Miyazaki’s animated fantasy The Boy & The Heron and the bittersweet romantic-drama Past Lives, were able to step into the limelight and reach new audiences. 

Fans create organic buzz

Let’s address the bright pink elephant in the room: Barbie

A frenzy of fans helped create the strange, organic phenomena that came to be known as #Barbenheimer. Greta Gerwig’s candy-colored Barbie opened in tandem with Christopher Nolan’s serious drama about the atomic bomb, and movie fans pledged to take advantage of this odd doubleheader.  

Image of Margot Robbie in Barbie and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. Barbie was the top grossing movie in 2023.

The arrival of #Barbenheimer came at a pivotal, post-pandemic moment when audiences were comfortable returning to the cinema, and were also feeling more engaged, keen to play active roles in movie promotion like never before. They made memes. Many even dressed up for opening night. 

Now, the onus is on the movie industry to learn from and lean into these changes, becoming more reactive to an ever-changing cultural landscape. Ultimately, it’s all about being cognizant of what factors are driving people to the theater—including personal engagement, social media trends, and the experiential benefits of seeing a movie in public, among strangers.

Other 2023 films benefited from creative marketing techniques as well (though perhaps none so eccentric as the #Barbenheimer push). Sound of Freedom performed relatively well thanks to a simple tactic that turned consumers into word-of-mouth promoters; at the end of the movie, audiences were asked to pay it forward and invite others to go and watch the film. 

This year the Swifties also took over theaters when America’s sweetheart released Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. Sure, it wasn’t a live concert, but for anyone who couldn’t part with $1,000 for a stadium seat, it might have been the next best thing.

The takeaway here is that movie marketers and producers need to keep a close eye on dynamic fan communities in order to harness and leverage that organic energy.

Getting the full (motion) picture

Ask anyone what the #1 movie of 2023 was, and they would most likely say Barbie. And if we're going solely off the amount of money made, then they would be correct. But you might be surprised to hear that it was The Super Mario Bros Movie that ultimately sold more tickets (even if people really didn’t love Chris Pratt’s Mario voice).

This type of ‘dollars made’ vs. ‘tickets sold’ discrepancy extends to Taylor Swift’s in-theater concert experience also. 

The Eras Tour earned $181M and ranked at #11 in terms of revenue for the year: a welcome cash injection for an industry that was content-hungry due to industry strikes. If you looked solely at the number of tickets sold, Swift’s concert film might not have impressed. But with a ticket price at a whopping  $19.89, the movie had to sell fewer tickets to compete.

Don’t be too linear with dollar metrics, since admission data is more accurate when it comes to understanding the number of people that actually went to the movies.  

It’s not all about the smash hits

The industry cranks out tons of movies every year; there were 1,279 released in the US in 2023. But the top titles normally make up the majority of the admissions. Last year was no exception. 63% of ticket admissions went to the top 25 titles, with 39% of admissions coming from the top 10 films. 

That said, it’s important not to underestimate the value of the movies that fall out of the top 25 or 50 releases, given that they represent more than one billion dollars in revenue, and a 17% chunk of the box office. 

MPAA rating and its impact on the box office

As The People’s Platform highlighted in its mid-year recap, family-oriented movies are the life of the box office, and essentially what keeps it thriving. 

In 2023, 77% of all admissions were to either PG or PG-13 titles. R-rated movies delivered only 22% of all admissions, though this category was still up from 19% the previous year (largely thanks to Oppenheimer, which accounted for an astounding 15% of that total). 

But it’s a mix of millennials and Zoomers that are the biggest fans of going to the movies. In 2023 more than half of moviegoers were aged 18-34, and their viewing habits are all over the map. This demographic is just as likely to be seeing a PG or PG-13 film, as they are to be seeing an R-rated movie.

The future of cinema

The hopeful bottom line is that movie ticket sales increased in 2023, despite the remaining post-pandemic challenges and industry strikes.  And 2024 seems set to continue these trends.

It’s true that the aftereffects of the strikes will continue to be felt throughout the year, with certain titles originally slated for 2024 pushed to 2025. But this year has already started off strong with big releases, from Dune: Part Two to Kung Fu Panda 4

And sure, viral phenomena, such as #Barbenheimer, are a trick of luck and timing, and can’t be engineered in advance (though doubtlessly every film marketeer on the planet is trying to do just that).

Yet, with a more connected and engaged audience, we shouldn’t underestimate the inherent value of the IRL theater experience, and the power that movies have to inspire the new generation of consumers.

The movie industry is undergoing a huge transformation, but the old-fashioned cinema outing isn’t going anywhere just yet.

At the end of the day, moviegoers love the quality picture and visceral sound. They want to be part of the opening-weekend discourse around major releases. They want to eat too much popcorn while reclining in a chair that’s nearly the size of their own couch. And they want the community and spectacle that comes with making a movie into a social event, even if only a few superfans will cruise up to the Dune 2 ticket counter on a high-speed sandworm.

Daniel Purnell

Daniel Purnell is the Marketing Manager for Stagwell Marketing Cloud.

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