The release of The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, is being heralded as the beginning of an anticipated post-pandemic blockbuster boom, with UK box office sales forecast to double this year to top £1bn for the first time since 2019.
While Daniel Craig’s last outing as James Bond in No Time to Die provided the UK with its biggest October in box office history, and Spiderman: No Way Home, which launched in December as the Omicron variant hit, has taken more than $1.8bn (£1.4bn) to date to become the sixth biggest film of all time, both were released while Covid rules were in place or looming.
The Batman, by contrast, is being described as the first true post-pandemic blockbuster as many countries including the UK are now officially free of all coronavirus restrictions. The opening of the film in London on Friday marked the start of a return to the era of “normal” cinemagoing and will be closely watched to see if people’s habits will change.
“The huge success of Bond and Spiderman proved that cinema is back, but both did it within Covid when cinemagoing was not considered to be back to normal conditions,” says David Hancock, film analyst at Omdia.
“We will be judging Batman as the first ‘post-Covid film’, if you like, on its pure merits. The hesitancy to return to cinema and the rush when fans starved of big new releases were actually able to see one are now not factors. The question for Batman is simply, will people like it, and that is how films should be judged.”
Omdia is forecasting that the UK box office will hit about £1.1bn this year, about double the £557m of 2021, and almost four times the disastrous pandemic low of £297m in 2020. This would put it just 10% or so down on pre-pandemic 2019’s record £1.25bn.
Hollywood studios that held back releases for fear of death by box office during the pandemic have faith that this year will see a sustained recovery, with a string of blockbusters lined up, from Top Gun: Maverick and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to the eagerly anticipated Avatar 2 this Christmas.
“We have had false starts,” says Tim Richards, the chief executive and founder of Vue, the third largest cinema chain in the UK. “But this looks and feels like the epidemic is in the proverbial rearview mirror. When Batman opens next week, there will be no restrictions in the UK, absolutely nothing.”
While an industry pushed to the brink of failure has a vested interest in talking up its own prospects, some in the scientific world suggest the world may finally have turned a corner. Last month, the chief executive of vaccine maker Moderna predicted that the pandemic would end this year, with Covid becoming an endemic disease kept in check by annual boosters.
However, some hesitancy in the cinema sector remains, with the number of big releases this year remaining below pre-pandemic levels. Omdia forecasts that the UK box office will not surpass 2019 levels until 2023.
In the US, there were 129 major film releases in 2019. This fell to just 46 in 2020, before climbing to 92 last year. The forecast this year is currently somewhere between 101 and 115 – “back to within touching distance of normality”, says Hancock.
“We will not see 2019 levels this year,” says Richards. “But I think there is no doubt we have proven cinema is back. My goal within another week or two is to not be speaking about the past and only about the future.”
However, any global recovery of the film industry will be slowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last week, the big five Hollywood studios – Disney, Warner Bros, Sony, Universal and Paramount – announced a halt to all film releases in Russia, with The Batman, due to be released there on Friday, becoming the first major film to be affected.
The bans could well be extended to Moscow’s ally Belarus, while the war in Ukraine has of course halted all cinema activity there.
Russia is the world’s 10th-largest market by box office revenues, worth about $1bn before the pandemic for cinemagoers seeing foreign and homegrown fare, and the sixth biggest in terms of ticket sales. The overall impact on the global box office is likely to be about $500m.
“The film industry has done the right thing. It is wrong to release films in Russia at this time,” says Hancock. “From an economic point of view, the impact is not going to be a major problem; it won’t affect the wider international market.”