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Movie theaters’ big summer comeback is still ‘a work in progress’

Is the movie industry as dead as Goose, the hotshot fighter pilot who lost his life in the first Top Gun film, who haunted Tom Cruise’s Maverick all those years later in this summer’s smash-hit sequel? Industry analysts say not just yet, but maybe put that big comeback talk on “ice” a little bit—at least for now.

Top Gun: Maverick was a standout success at the box office in a summer full of big winners, but new data shows movie theaters are still struggling to fully recover from the pandemic amid increasing competition from streaming services and a limited release schedule. 

While Tom Cruise’s blockbuster has grossed over $1.4 billion globally since its May 27 release date—and hits like Jurassic World: Dominion and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness both managed to earn over $900 million this summer—the theater business as a whole still faces issues.

Altogether, domestic box office sales this summer were down 21% from the pre-pandemic summer of 2019, according to the media measurement and analytics firm Comscore.

Hollywood managed to rake in just $3.4 billion in North American theaters over the summer. That’s the lowest total since 2001, and 19% below the average summer box office sales between 2005 and 2019.

The poor figures aren’t welcome news for theater operators, who struggled last year to cope with the more than 60% decline in domestic box office sales from pre-pandemic levels. 

Domestic ticket sales totaled just $4.5 billion for all of 2021, compared to $11.4 billion in 2019, according to data from the ticket sales tracker Box Office Mojo.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told Fortune that the recovery in the movie industry from pandemic shutdowns has been hampered not by audiences’ willingness to go out, but by a sheer lack of movie releases.

“It’s been a real long road back to recovery, if you will, since March of 2020. And we’re still a work in progress,” he said.

Movie studios only gave a wide release—defined as films shown on 2,000 theaters or more—to 22 movies domestically this summer, versus 42 in 2019, Comscore’s data shows. With a roster that thin, a mere 21% decline in sales is actually pretty impressive.

The new data confirms warnings from Regal Cinemas’ parent company, Cineworld, in August. The London-based entertainment conglomerate said that recent admissions at its theaters were “below expectations” due to a “limited film slate” that is set to continue through November. 

Cineworld was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week in order to help it cope with the falling sales and a sizeable $4.8 billion net debt load (excluding lease liabilities) that it built up during the pandemic.

The firm’s main competitor, the meme stock favorite AMC Entertainment Holdings, has managed to avoid bankruptcy, but it has also posted consistent losses during this challenging period for the industry.

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