Marvel Heroes Propelled Disney to the Top of the 2021 Domestic Box Office

Disney's 'Shang-Chi' and 'Free Guy' Will Have 45-Day Theatrical Run, CEO Says
  • Disney generated $1.17 billion at the domestic box office in 2021, the most of any studio in the industry.
  • The studio's haul represents around 25% of the total box office in the U.S. and Canada and was boosted by films attached to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • Heading into 2022, it's clear that blockbuster franchise films will continue to draw in audiences.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe propelled Disney to the top of the domestic box office in 2021.

While the pandemic continues to weigh on the movie theater business, cinemas were able to collect $4.58 billion in ticket sales in the United States and Canada, more than double what was garnered in 2020.

A whopping 25.5% of that was generated by Disney, which tallied $1.17 billion from films like "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Black Widow" and "The Eternals." The company, which released films from studios, including Disney Animation, 20th Century and Searchlight, had the highest haul of the year.

Sony was a close second, securing $1.05 billion during the year, more than half of which was delivered in the last two weeks of the year from "Spider-Man: No Way Home." The film, a collaboration between Disney and Sony, is the highest-grossing film of 2021.

"It took a village to build back the box office in a most unusual 2021," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. "The major studios showed their confidence in and understanding of the value of a big screen release for their most high-profile titles and were met by enthusiastic moviegoers hungry for the big screen experience."

Since reopening to the public, movie theaters have had colossal ups and downs in ticket sales. The domestic box office has rebounded from historic lows in 2020, but has yet to reach the consistency seen prior to the pandemic.

Franchise films have always been popular and during the pandemic era they have been the strongest draw for cinemas. In fact, of the top ten highest-grossing films only one, Disney's "Free Guy," was not based on existing intellectual property.

In 2021, only 13 films surpassed $100 million, a feat that was usually reached by around 30 movies prior to the pandemic. Still, having more than a dozen movies top this figure is a positive sign for the domestic box office.

"The results were impressive and a much-welcome confidence booster for an resilient industry that will face challenges in 2022," he said.

While these blockbuster features have rekindled faith in the future of the box office, concerns over new Covid variants as well as lackluster ticket sales for nonfranchise films could mean a slower recovery for the industry.

Since movie theaters reopened, films aimed at older audiences like "House of Gucci," "The Last Duel" and "West Side Story" have had a hard time drawing large crowds. While adult-pitched films often make less money than major tentpoles, they are still vitally important to the overall box office. Together, these so-called "mid-level" features contribute billions to the total annual haul.

That has led many box office analysts to foresee the 2022 domestic box office topping out around $8 billion instead of the $11 billion that was seen prior to the pandemic.

Looking at the top three highest-grossing studios this year, it's clear what films and genres were most successful and what we can expect will continue to perform well in 2022.


Disney's three highest-grossing films were tied to its Marvel Cinematic Universe. "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Black Widow" and "Eternals" each generated more than $100 million at the domestic box office.

Next year, Disney will release three more high-profile MCU films including "Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness," "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." If current box office trends persist, these films should be set for strong ticket sales.

Disney's 2021 domestic box office numbers also show how dual releases in theaters and on Disney+ led to smaller box office hauls for films like "Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Cruella." While these films were released early on the calendar, when audiences were just starting to return to cinemas, it became clear quickly that availability at the home market cut into theatrical revenues.

Additionally, with older audiences remaining tentative about returning to cinemas, "West Side Story" generated just $28 million in ticket sales on a production budget of around $100 million, not including marketing costs. That's despite a 93% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Families, too, have been slow to return. "Encanto," which received glowing critical reviews ended the year with around $90 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada.


Sony generated more than half of its $1.05 billion haul in the last few weeks of 2021, thanks to its collaboration with Disney. "Spider-Man: No Way Home" tallied $572.9 million domestically, the most of any film released in 2021.

The studio also saw success from "Venom: Let There Be Carnage," which secured $212 million in the U.S. and Canada and from "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," which garnered $122 million. Like Disney, Sony benefited from beloved franchises drawing audiences back to theaters.

Still, not all of its follow-ups were successful. Smaller budget films based on existing IP like "Don't Breathe 2," "Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" and "Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City" failed to draw in significant crowds.

Sony also sold off a number of movies to streamers during the last year including "Hotel Transylvania: Transformania," "Happiest Season," "Fatherhood," "Greyhound," "Cinderella" and "American Pickle." It's not guaranteed that any of these films would have generated significant ticket sales for the studio, but they are titles that could have boosted Sony's overall box office haul for 2021.


The third-highest grossing studio was Universal, which tallied around $715 million domestically from films like "F9," "Halloween Kills" and "Sing 2."

Like Sony and Disney, Universal's franchise films are well-positioned for success in 2022. The studio is set to release "Jurassic World: Dominion," "Minions: The Rise of Gru" and a yet untitled animated Mario Bros. film. If families feel more comfortable bringing vaccinated children to theaters, more child-friendly fare could start to rebound for studios.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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