The Quorum

The Biggest Theatrical Story Of 2023: Women Drove The Box Office

After decades of studios targeting men with superheroes, dinosaurs, impossible missions, transformers and guys driving fast and furious, 2023 was the year that women showed up. And in a big way. 

Yes, there was BARBIE. At $636M domestic in the bank, it ranks as the 11th highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted). It was also the top grossing film of the year. For the first time in history a film with a female filmmaker and female lead ended the year as the #1 film. We could go on and on listing the box office records broken by BARBIE. 

In our book, however, the most remarkable thing about BARBIE was its ability to bring women back to theater. As we reported in August, 22% of the people who saw BARBIE said it was either the first post-pandemic film they’d seen in a theater or that they couldn’t recall the last film they had seen. At a time when some audiences, largely women, were still reluctant to return to theaters after Covid, BARBIE was the film that got them to return to the big screen. The film literally grew the box office audience. 

Arguably the second biggest box office story of the year was TAYLOR SWIFT: THE ERAS TOUR. In late August, when Swift and AMC announced that a theatrical version of Swift’s tour would be arriving on October 13th, it sent shockwaves through the industry. Universal immediately pulled THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER off that weekend and moved it a week earlier to October 6th

SWIFT opened to $93M, and as of today, with a total of $180M, it sits as the 10th highest grossing film of 2023 (if WONKA can add another $70M it will knock SWIFT out of the top 10). 

Though THE LITTLE MERMAID stumbled overseas, it was a blockbuster here at home with a total gross just shy of $300M. Who could forget the videos of wide-eyed young girls seeing a mermaid that looked like them when the first trailer was released. These girls and young women showed up in droves delighting in the fact that Hollywood made a movie for them. MERMAID ended the year as the 5th highest grossing film of 2023. If SWIFT can hang onto the #10 spot, 2023 will make the first time this century that three female-centric films ended the year in the top 10. 

These stats and rankings are great, but the real impact remains to be seen. The hope is that behaviors have changed—that the women who came off the sidelines to see these films will remember what they loved about going to the movies. Their theatergoing will be essential as theatrical struggles to reach pre-pandemic highs. 

That will only happen if studios change their behaviors as well. Making movies for women is nothing new. What is new, is giving these films the marketing budgets and carefully curated campaigns that have historically been the domain of male-driven tentpoles.

There are reasons to believe the change is real. Warner Bros. lovingly handled the release of THE COLOR PURPLE, leading to the 2nd largest Christmas Day opening ever. Paramount shifted MEAN GIRLS from a streaming-only release to a full theatrical. Interest among women under 35 sits at 60% – the highest of any upcoming film currently being tracked by The Quorum. 

BARBIE, MERMAID, and SWIFT weren’t the only female-centric moments at the box office. Here we include a few more: 

  • M3GAN kicked off the year and became an instant gay icon with her oversized bow and a wardrobe to die for. It grossed over $95M making it the 2ndhighest grossing horror film of the year. A month later, 80 FOR BRADY, featuring four legendary leading ladies, nearly took the #1 spot from M. Night Shyamalan’s heavily favorited KNOCK AT THE CABIN. Paramount was highly strategic with the campaign for BRADY, which included a very smart promotion that capped ticket prices at $8 in most theaters across the country. 
  • As MEAN GIRLS reenters the zeitgeist, let’s take a moment to celebrate that, 20 years later, original Mean Girl Rachel McAdams gave one of her best performances as the sympathetic mother in ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET. The effortless chemistry between McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson as her daughter made the long-gestating Judy Blume adaptation one of the best films of the year. 
  • Younger women had plenty of options this year beyond BARBIE and SWIFT. BOTTOMS was the queer high school movie that we didn’t know we needed.  One of the best reviewed films of the year, it deserved a more aggressive rollout. Still, BOTTOMS is likely to have a long legacy beyond theatrical. 

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