2021 Had Even Fewer Movies Than 2020 — Here's What That Means

In the realm of entertainment journalism, we writers have our things. Some people are clever and use that to their advantage. Others are quite good at asking famous people questions and do that frequently. I, on the other hand, obsess over the "business" side of the movie business, and if any of you fine readers have paid attention to my byline, you'll surely notice I write a lot about box office and things of the like. That being the case, I recently noticed something peculiar while poking around as we approach the end of 2021. Amazingly, nearly the same number of movies (if not fewer) will be released this year compared to 2020, despite the fact that this was viewed as a major recovery year for the industry.

I should mention upfront that yes, I will be getting into the nitty-gritty of this in an attempt to explain what's going on, as best I can. Numbers and data aren't for everyone, but this may well impact every sort of moviegoer and lover of cinema moving forward, and this data brings with it some very real-world implications. I am a fan first and that's why I find this stuff fascinating. And, in this case, sort of concerning.

2020 vs. 2021: The Raw Numbers

2020 was an absolutely abysmal year all-around, and one that hit the entertainment industry particularly hard. Movie theaters were shut down for much of the year, with many movies that were planned for release left to sit on the shelf on collect dust. Drive-ins came to the rescue in some small way, but Hollywood was understandably reluctant to release what might be a surefire hit under improved circumstances. As such, a lot fewer movies were released last year when compared to most years in recent history. According to Box Office Mojo, 455 movies were released domestically in 2020.

While the recovery has been uneven and slower than many in the industry would have liked, 2021 has — without question — been a much better year for the movie business. The overall box office for the year figures to nearly double what was accomplished in 2020, when ticket sales in North America tanked, bringing in just $2.1 billion overall. Thus far, 2021 has logged $3.62 billion, with some huge movies such as "Spider-Man: No Way Home" on the way to round out the year that should push us past the $4 billion mark.

One might assume larger numbers at the box office, with movie theaters open for most of the year, would mean more movies were released. And that's not at all the case! It turns out that, to date, just 408 movies have been released at the domestic box office this year, pacing below 2020. That is downright remarkable and opens up a lot of questions.

The Past vs. The Present

To get back to that level of movies being released, we have to go all the way back to 2001, when just 413 movies made their way out into the world domestically. But Hollywood became franchise-obsessed and things picked up around that time, with 570 releases the following year, and 667 in 2003. Looking at the record-breaking box office year that was 2018, 993 movies were released, with an equally impressive 911 in 2019.

That being the case, the huge dip year-to-year from 2019 to 2020 makes sense. The engines that drive Hollywood were shut down. Theatrical distribution was disrupted in a big, bad way. But that doesn't necessarily explain why so few movies have been released in a year where things started to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

One interesting stat to look at is the average earnings per movie by year. In 2020, it was a lowly $4.6 million. However, in 2021, it jumped up to $8.8 million, which is huge. Especially when compared to 2019, where the average movie earned $12.4 million. The point is, with fewer movies taking up people's attention, the ones that are released potentially stand more to gain. Especially the bigger, attention-grabbing blockbusters.

What Does This Mean, Exactly?

All signs point to a future where fewer movies are made and/or released overall. At least when it comes to movies that ever spend a day in theaters. What this likely doesn't take into account are movies that are released exclusively to streaming services. In that sense, we are arguably inundated with more new movies than ever before, it's just that most of them aren't even attempting to go for box office dollars. Netflix cares not if "The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star" makes a dime in theaters. It's all about keeping subscribers happy.

Even in the case of something like the upcoming "Don't Look Up," or the recent Oscar-favorite "The Power of the Dog," Netflix theatrical releases are all about qualifying for awards. It has nothing (or at least very little) to do with benefiting these titles financially. Pretty much every other streaming service operates similarly.

So, traditional studios will be more selective about what gets made and released in theaters, as audiences are being far more selective as we emerge from the pandemic. To that end, Market Watch reported last year that 70% of people would rather watch a movie at home. These numbers, perhaps more than anything else, back up that point. 2022, which is seen as the big recovery year, will be particularly crucial in determining the future.