Disney loses its box office crown: What needs to change?

Disney capped off a disappointing 2023 by losing its crown as the biggest studio at the box office. What does this mean for their new movie slate?

World Premiere Of Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Wish"
World Premiere Of Walt Disney Animation Studios' "Wish" / Alberto E. Rodriguez/GettyImages

To top off a rough year for Disney, it’s official: For the first time since 2015, Disney did not rank as the highest-grossing movie studio of the year. And it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. 

Since 2015, Disney has dominated the box office. That’s little surprise, given the company's large portfolio of animated movies, the MCU and Star Wars. Disney’s dominance was almost a matter of course for the company and aided its coffers.

But 2023 has been, to put it mildly, a huge disappointment, and it’s been shown in that Universal finished 2023 with a total box office of $4.907 billion compared to Disney’s $4.827 billion.

Now, to be fair, Universal did release 24 films compared to Disney’s 17. Also, Universal’s slate included a few duds and disappointments like Fast X and Ruby Killman, Teenage Kraken which reportedly lost $80 million for the company. 

But Universal offset that with mega hits like The Super Mario Bros Movie and Oppenheimer along with M3GAN. That’s a lot better than Disney, which did score with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, The Little Mermaid, and Elemental, overcoming a poor start for a sleeper success.

Sadly, it’s the flops everyone is noting, and Disney had a lot of them. For the first time since 2014 (excluding the pandemic-affected 2020/21), Disney didn’t have one movie make $1 billion, with GOTG Vol 3 coming the closest with $845 million.

More importantly, the disappointments and outright disasters included such high-profile projects as Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones, and the Dial of Destiny and Wish. The usually reliable MCU also faltered with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania underperforming while The Marvels became the MCU’s first outright bomb. 

So, what could this mean for Disney in the future?

Disney’s box office future

A key issue is that while the numbers for many of Disney’s 2023 films may look good, they’re offset by ridiculously high budgets. Dial of Destiny cost a reported $300 million, making it almost impossible to make a profit. 

Compare that to Universal as aside from Fast X and Ruby Killman, most of their movies were low-budgeted to offset any losses. Disney isn’t the only high-profile studio that faltered as Paramount likewise saw Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I disappoint. Warner Bros had their own mega-budget disasters in The Flash, but the massive success of Barbie and Wonka offset it. 

It brings up once more how Disney’s budgets are way too high to aid their profits. This may play into 2024, as aside from Deadpool 3, there will be no MCU movies released. Also, some high-profile projects like the live-action Snow White and the Seven Dwarves have been put off until 2025.

Many of Disney’s movies in 2024 are actually under the 20th Century Films banner, such as Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes and an untitled Alien movie. The big ones from Disney itself include Inside Out 2 and a Lion King prequel. 

Bob Iger was reportedly frustrated with Disney’s poor showing at the box office this year, which has hurt the company’s profits. It’s likely Disney may be rethinking their strategy with lower-budgeted fare as they finally realize bigger no longer means better. 

Disney can still do some big movies, that's needed to boost up the box office. But like other studios, they need to adjust to lower budgets rather than continue to greenlight movies like it's past years when theaters were the only way folks watched them.

To be fair to Disney, they’re not the only studio adjusting to the changes brought about by both the pandemic and streaming release windows changing how people watch films. But losing their crown as the box office champ is a blow to the company and may result in a different way Disney approaches their movie-making in the next few years.