Although admissions in the European Union and the UK increased by 31.5 percent in 2021, it turned out to be another difficult year for cinema going in the region, according to a report from the European Audiovisual Observatory. Multiple factors, like the ongoing closures of cinemas, particularly in the first half of the year, the negative effect of attendance restrictions, possible hesitancy among audiences to return to cinemas, the return of US studio blockbusters and the differing strength of local films, contributed to the European theatrical markets making progress, but rather slow progress, in returning to pre-pandemic levels.
The increase from 299 million in 2020 to 394 million in 2021 accounted for only 40 percent of the average pre-pandemic admission level registered between 2017 and 2019. Similarly, GBO grew by 38.2 percent from 2.1 billion euros to an estimated 2.9 billion euros, accounting for only 42 percent of pre-pandemic box office levels.
There were significant differences in box office development across the individual European markets, which evidently need to be interpreted in light of the differing degrees to which the individual markets had collapsed in 2020 as well as differences in cinema closures. Overall admissions in 2021 increased in 17, decreased in eight and stagnated in two out of the 26 EU member states and the UK for which 2021 data were available. The highest year-on-year increase was registered in Bulgaria (+91 percent), Croatia (+77 percent), the UK (+68 percent), Cyprus (+57 percent), Ireland (+56 percent), Poland (+55 percent), Spain (+53 percent) and Romania (+53 percent). In contrast admissions declined particularly in Estonia (-23 percent), the Netherlands (-15 percent), Slovakia (-14 percent), Lithuania (-13 percent), Italy (-12 percent) and Finland (11 percent).
Outside the EU and the UK, theatrical markets grew strongly on a year-to-year basis in Bosnia-Herzegovina (+186 percent), Montenegro (+125 percent), the Russian Federation (+64 percent) and Iceland (+51 percent). Cinema attendance however continued to drop by -28 percent in Turkey, which registered the lowest admissions level in recent history.
US studio titles returned to European cinemas in 2021 and accounted for all the top 20 titles in terms of admissions. Two films stood out, No Time to Die (GB INC / US) topped the charts and was the only films to sell more than 30 million tickets in the EU and the UK. It was followed by Spider Man: No Way Home (US) which sold 27 million tickets in 2021.
Three other films managed to sell more than 10 million tickets: Dune (US; 14.3 million), Fast and Furious 9 (US; 12.1 million) and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (US; 10.5 million). A total of five films therefore sold more than 10 million tickets in 2021, compared to 18 films in 2019. Film franchise titles once more dominated the European box office, with 17 out of the top 20 films being sequels, prequels, spin-offs or reboots, compared to only seven in 2020 and 18 in 2019.
While European films benefitted from the absence of US blockbusters in 2020, admissions growth in 2021 was primarily driven by the return of US blockbusters, according to a report from the European Audiovisual Observatory. US films are estimated to have sold around 230 million tickets in 2021, 82 million more than in 2020, while admissions to European films actually declined from an estimated 118 million in 2020 to 104 million in 2021. This compares to a pre-pandemic average of 644 million and 271 million tickets sold to US and European films, respectively.
The market share of European films therefore dropped from its exceptional record high of 39.5 percent in 2020 to 26.5 percent, which is well within its normal range. US market share on the other hand jumped back from its record low of 49.5 percent in 2020 to 58.6 percent, which is still below its pre-pandemic levels while European films with incoming investment from US studios, led by No Time To Die (GB inc /US), and films from the rest of the world, captured above average market shares of 9.3 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.
After reaching exceptional record highs in several European countries in 2020, market share of national films declined again in most European markets but remained high in several of them. Within Europe 28 four countries stood out in terms of national market share: the UK and the Czech Republic which registered the highest national market share with 42 percent of total admissions, marginally ahead of Denmark and France (both 41 percent). Outside the EU, Turkey’s national market share plummeted from 80 percent in 2020 to 23 percent, the lowest level in recent history. With 30 percent Norway registered the highest national market share outside Europe 28, ahead of Russia (27 percent).
Having reached a comparatively brief temporary standstill due to the lockdown measures taken all over Europe in March 2020, film production never collapsed in the same manner as box office did and indeed seems to have recovered fully by 2021 with a total of 1,836 feature films produced in the EU and the UK in 2021, up 426 films (+30 percent) from 2020. While this production level comes in shy of the record high of 2 018 feature film productions in 2019 it is the third highest level registered in recent history.
Trends differ widely between countries also due to different methodologies in counting productions: in those markets where film production is measured as films released, the closing of cinemas had a direct negative impact on film productions and 2021 figures remained well below pre-pandemic figures. Whereas in markets where film production is measured in terms of films starting principal photography, receiving public funding, or being certified, the 2021 production activity often exceeded its pre-pandemic levels.
The question is whether this increase in production activity indicates a sustainable return to previous production levels or whether it represents a mere catch-up in 2021 of films whose production was interrupted or stopped during the crisis, a level that will not be sustainable as long as cinemas have not returned to their usual attendance levels.