LOS ANGELES — A push toward streaming, a pandemic and two Hollywood labor strikes have upended the theatrical industry, dragging on annual box-office hauls.
While 2024 and 2025 boast franchise-rich movie slates, Wall Street doesn’t expect ticket sales to top $10 billion domestically until 2026. The domestic box office has not hit that benchmark since 2019 before the Covid pandemic. Last year, it raked in just over $9 billion.
When the box office does again surpass that threshold, Disney could be the driving force.
“We don’t know completely what is in ’26, but I think it could end up being bigger than 2025 because it’ll be the first time ever that we have like four mega franchise films,” said Eric Handler, managing director at Roth MKM.
The 2025 movie calendar wraps up with a third Avatar film in mid-December, meaning ticket sales will bleed into 2026. Then that summer starts with an Avengers team-up film, currently titled “The Kang Dynasty,” followed by a “Mandalorian” Star Wars movie over Memorial Day weekend. Another Star Wars film will round out Disney’s big year in December 2026.
Those franchises’ track records suggest they could drive a staggering box-office haul.
After all, the first Avatar generated nearly $800 million at the domestic box office after its release in 2009. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which arrived in 2022, snared nearly $700 million. Both films were released in late December and therefore, most of their ticket sales were collected in the year after their debut.
Meanwhile, four of the five Star Wars franchise films released after Disney acquired the brand in 2012 generated at least $500 million domestically during their runs — 2015’s “The Force Awakens” topped $900 million. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was the only one to collect less than $250 million domestically.
As for Marvel, while stand-alone character films have been hit or miss over the last decade, Avengers-titled films have had strong box-office hauls. The four Avengers films tallied an average of $650 million from ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada.
Add in three untitled Marvel movie dates, two unnamed Pixar films, a Disney Animation film slated for Thanksgiving and six other Disney titles, and industry analysts are confident moviegoers will find their way to cinemas. Other major studios like Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery have not unveiled their slates for 2026 yet.
“I think 2026 has a good shot to be the year that the industry gets back to $10 billion,” Handler said.
Since pandemic shutdowns crippled the theatrical business and delayed film productions, cinemas have reopened, but audiences have not returned at the same pace as before.
An influx of streamable content and fewer wide releases have partially created this change in moviegoing habits. Those viewers who do come out to cinemas are often shelling out more money for premium tickets to see major event films on the biggest, loudest screens possible.
While Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, said he doesn’t disagree that the box office will likely top $10 billion again in 2026, he noted that it is “still too early to say [if 2025] will or won’t.”
Robbins noted that dual Hollywood labor strikes by writers and actors will likely continue to weigh on the box office, and films currently slated for late 2024 or 2025 could still shift on the calendar.
And Disney could alter its current slate of films for 2026.
“Given the creative headwinds Disney is facing right now, I would not be surprised to see several of those ’26 movies delayed or maybe not happen,” Robbins said.
Disney CEO Bob Iger has said the company has become too reliant on sequels and that its studio will be more deliberate in selecting which films become franchises, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s also unclear how the company will deal with the firing of Jonathan Majors, who was convicted of assault in December. He was the central villain of the next phase of Marvel films.
In addition to film date shifts, Robbins noted that not all of the movies set for release in 2025 have been announced. Therefore, where industry experts see gaps between major tent poles, there could be smaller-budgeted films that add incremental value to the overall box office.
While 2024 is primed to be a franchise frenzy, headlined by “Dune: Part Two,” the 2023 box office had unexpected breakout hits like Angel Studios’ “Sound of Freedom” and AMC Entertainment’s distribution of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert film.
Robbins said a similar scenario could play out in 2025, as more midrange films, which can add a few hundred million dollars each to the overall haul, arrive in theaters.
“I am by no means looking at ’25 as a lock for $10 billion,” Robbins said. “But, whereas it’s not even in the conversation for ’24, it’s worth speculating about ’25.”
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.