If your local movie theater was more crowded than usual over the weekend, you can probably thank Disney (DIS 0.16%) for having to share your cupholder space. The media giant's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever generated $181 million in domestic ticket sales over the weekend, and $331 million worldwide. It's the second biggest opening weekend for a U.S. theatrical release this year. The premiere trails only Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness -- another Disney Marvel feature -- in 2022.

Disney's not done. Its next animated feature, Strange World, hits theaters ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It hasn't had a multiplex hit with an original property out of its animation studio in a few years. Even the highly anticipated Lightyear failed to draw Toy Story fans to the local cinema this summer. The one sure thing is that Disney's Avatar: The Way of Water will be huge when it makes its way to the silver screen next month. 

Disney is giving exhibitors the potential blockbusters they need, but will it be enough? Let's see why the media giant's healthy pipeline of upcoming theatrical releases may not be enough to save the multiplex.

Two couples enjoying a data at a multiplex.

Image source: Getty Images.

Plot twist

There are two important considerations as we size up Disney as a hit factory over the decades for theater operators. We can start with the House of Mouse itself. Disney's Marvel has now delivered three of this year's four strongest opening weekends, with Thor: Love and Thunder now in fourth place. The problem is that -- like Ariel's initial challenge in The Little Mermaid -- this year's strong debutantes have no legs. Doctor Strange is now a distant second to Top Gun: Maverick in year-to-date box office receipts. Thor's sequel isn't even in the top five. 

It's been a rough year for Disney at the multiplex. Before Wakanda Forever, Disney's only flicks among the top 12 most successful stateside releases this year were the Doctor Strange and Thor sequels. Wakanda Forever and the new Avatar film will change that, but scoring a third of this year's dozen biggest hits shouldn't impress you. This was the same studio behind all six of 2019's biggest films.

The second and more important consideration here is that folks just aren't going to the movies the way they used to. Despite a healthy diet of superhero and action sequels this year, ticket sales are way below pre-pandemic attendance levels. Even after the Black Panther's sequel strong start over the weekend, year-to-date ticket sales are 33% lower than at this point in 2019. We're 38% below 2018 box office levels. 

What's holding back the popcorn-munching crowds for movie theater companies? Shorter windows of exclusivity for exhibitors can't help. Before the pandemic, studios used to give multiplex operators at least 90 days to screen new movies before they went direct-to-consumer. Now folks know they only have to wait a few weeks before the films can be streamed at home, and sometimes they don't have to wait at all. We're seeing many studios -- including Disney -- forgo the high cost hurdles of theatrical distribution for many of their releases, feeding their affiliated streaming services instead. Unless it's a film that just needs to be experienced on the big screen folks are fine waiting to see it when it's cheaper and more convenient.

Disney will get folks back to the movies over the holidays, but the new sequels should ultimately fall well short of what the original releases hauled in. It's not a fairy tale ending for the multiplex operators, but it could wind up just fine for Disney.