Until the return of Spider-Man, every film’s box-office performance during the pandemic had come with an asterisk. Some movies, such as Black Widow and The Suicide Squad, were available to stream the day they opened in cinemas, helping explain somewhat depressed ticket sales. Others, such as No Time to Die and F9, relied on international revenue to boost domestic takes that were middling by pre-coronavirus standards.
Since March 2020, the health of cinema-going has been fragile at best, and with every COVID-19 surge has come fresh worry that some people might never return to theaters. But the December 17 release of Spider-Man: No Way Home—exclusively in cinemas—defied every anxiety about the death of the multiplex. The movie arrived alongside news of Omicron’s spread, but that didn’t blunt enthusiasm. No Way Home had a domestic opening weekend of $260 million, the second highest in history (behind only its fellow Marvel entry Avengers: Endgame). It became the pandemic’s most successful film in just three days. Its earnings swung to $1 billion worldwide in little more than a week. It is now parent studio Sony’s most successful film ever.
For theater chains, No Way Home is exciting, demonstrating both the enduring appeal of their business and the value of an exclusive cinema window. Major studios such as Warner Bros., Paramount, and Universal have experimented with putting new titles on their streaming platforms. Yet Sony has stuck with theater-only releases, collecting profits on hits including No Way Home, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, then getting further windfalls from online rentals and streaming deals.
This was the revenue model that all studios followed until the pandemic. In 2022, partly thanks to No Way Home, studios will endeavor to return to it. Warner Bros. has committed to a 45-day theatrical window for its films, rather than putting them on HBO Max right away, as it did last year. Companies will not want to throw away ticket sales from megahits such as Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar 2, and three new Marvel movies after Sony’s strategy has indicated the staggering profits they can still pull in.
Hollywood’s worry for this year lies with smaller-budget films—comedies, dramas, indies, and basically everything that’s not geared primarily toward 25-to-45-year-old white men living in cities, the demographic that appears most willing to return to cinemas, according to an industry study. (The same study suggests that 8 percent of pre-pandemic moviegoers have likely been lost forever.) Although No Way Home set box-office records in December, it was an outlier. Despite glowing reviews, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story made only $10.5 million its first weekend; Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley opened to a paltry $2.9 million. Unlike No Way Home, these movies are aimed at older audiences, with West Side Story tapping into the nostalgia of its source material and Nightmare Alley telling a long, literary story suffused with violence and darkness. In some places, theaters canceled or pared back their Nightmare Alley showtimes to fit in more Spider-Man screenings.
In 2022, non-blockbusters may release directly to streaming more frequently, making cinemas even more reliant on superhero movies to stay in business. For years, these comic-book adaptations and their sequels have been the dominant force at multiplexes. The pandemic, and now No Way Home’s success, has supercharged this dynamic. With Omicron and the typical post-Christmas movie lull, studios aren’t planning another major release until the middle of February, and Spider-Man will continue to be the box office’s greatest triumph. It also feels like a foreshadowing.