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A look back at the 2021 box office

Cairns on Cinema: A look at the year of domination by Spider-Man: No Way Home
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People started showing up again in greater numbers at the cinema in 2021.

NORTH BATTLEFORD ‑‑ Welcome to 2022, movie fans. Honestly, around here the year is not off to a good start for all kinds of reasons — cold weather being one of them. 

As you can guess, it’s time for the 2021 box office year in review, in which we look back at the biggest hit movies of the year.

Many years we would hit January and it would still be up in the air as to which one of the previous year’s releases had finished No. 1, because they would still be in the cinemas making money. Not this year. We have a definitive, undisputed champion in the box office for 2021 and it wasn’t even close.

Without further ado, here are the figures for top-10 domestic and top-five global grosses among 2021 releases, courtesy Box Office Mojo as of Jan. 7:


Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sony, Dec. 17): $631,811,417

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Disney, Sept. 3): $224,524,292

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Sony, Oct. 1): $212,638,437

Black Widow (Disney, July 9): $183,651,655

F9: The Fast Saga (June 2, Universal): $173,005,945

Eternals (Disney, Nov. 5): 164,733,322

No Time to Die (MGM, Oct. 8): $160,772,007

A Quiet Place Part II (Paramount, May 28): $160,072,261

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Sony, Nov. 19): $123,841,186

Free Guy (20th Century Studios, Aug. 13): $121,636,598


Spider-Man: No Way Home: $1,390,811,411

The Battle at Lake Changjin: $902,540,914

Hi, Mom: $822,009,764

No Time to Die: $774,034,007

F9: The Fast Saga: $726,229,502

As is obvious from the figures above, Spider-Man: No Way Home was runaway winner of the box office throughout the world in 2021. These are not final numbers by any means, as the movie continues to make a ton of cash, week after week. 

A number of box office milestones were set. During its opening weekend Dec. 17, it had a domestic haul of $260 million. This is the second highest domestic box office of all time behind Avengers: End Game, and just ahead of Avengers: Infinity War at $257.6 million. It’s worldwide debut of $600.8 million is the third best all-time. 

What is amazing is this was all achieved during the COVID-19 pandemic, right as cases were starting to go through the roof due to the Omicron variant. Its release happened the same weekend that Omicron was wreaking havoc throughout New York City, for instance, so it wasn’t as if it wasn’t around. I wonder what Spidey’s performance might have been under normal circumstances without a pandemic ranging. It could have possibly toppled every record in sight and become the highest grossing movie of all time. Alas, it is not to be. 

Notable was how wide the margin of victory was for Spidey, by over $400 million. That is a story in itself, because while Spidey achieved what looks like a “normal” blockbuster haul similar to pre-pandemic times, the reality is that the box office is still depressed. 

If these truly were normal times, you would have expected to see a few more movies topping $300 million domestic and a lot more topping $200 million domestic. In 2021, a movie was doing fantastic if it made it to $100 million. 

One thing that pundits were moaning about over the past month was the particularly poor performance of a number of highly-touted releases. Among the most notorious flops was the revival of West Side Story by Steven Spielberg. It opened to only $10.5 million in North America and its current domestic haul is $30.5 million, leaving people wondering “what happened?!” 

To me this looks like a prime example of the “feast or famine” nature of the box office during the pandemic times we are living in. Let’s face it, cinemas have a ton of challenges trying to extract the movie fans out of their own homes. It’s a hassle going to the theatres observing COVID-19 protocols and so on, but on top of that you have people who are too spooked to go because they are afraid they’ll catch COVID-19. Folks are also pointing to the impact of streaming at home. Why risk going to the cinema when you can self-isolate in front of your own big screen?

Yet none of this stopped Spider-Man. There was no deterring the Marvel fans from lining the streets to see this movie, despite pandemic case numbers going through the roof and other potential deterrents. It was as if this whole movie was immune to COVID.

This reality has triggered the high-brow movie pundits to no end. A lot of chatter out there now is that people will only show up for the highly-hyped, blockbuster releases from Marvel and the like. For run-of-the-mill releases and the potential Oscar contenders, it’s an uphill climb — even if legendary Oscar-winners like Spielberg are associated with the production.

One theory is that the more upper-crust movies would normally appeal to older audiences, while Spidey appeals to a younger crowd that is less likely to care about COVID-19. Who knows? But the usual superhero and blockbuster franchises have dominated the box office for years, there is nothing new about this. What this pandemic has done is amplify the divide between the haves and have-nots. For the have-nots, people now have far more reasons to not show up.

The bottom line is there is something to the notion that the only way to get people into the cinemas in the 2020s is to have a movie that is a highly-anticipated "event" — one die-hard fans will show up for. Spidey fit the bill, and there have been a few others — James Bond, Fast and Furious and so on. It’s a short list.

Overall, 2021 marked a rebound for the cinemas. Worldwide box office went up 78 per cent to $21.4 billion compared to 2020, and they have Spider-Man to thank in large measure for that. Domestic grosses stood at $4.5 billion which is more than double the haul of 2020.

As you can tell looking at the hit list above, the top studios were Disney again at $1.17 billion, followed close behind by Sony at $1.05 billion.

That’s it 2021, and we’ll see how 2022 unfolds. Hopefully, better times are ahead.