10 Changes Over The Past 20 Years


  • The box office has evolved in the last 20 years, with increased discussions on movie performance and audience interest.
  • Franchises have remained popular throughout the decades, but there have been changes in genres and movie popularity.
  • The normalization of billion-dollar movies started in 2003, but their occurrence has become rarer in 2023 due to the post-pandemic strain. Disney’s box office dominance has also faltered in recent years.

The box office has changed drastically over the last 20 years, and a direct comparison of the 2003 movies and 2023 movies reveals some fascinating insights about Hollywood’s past, present, and future. How well a movie performs at the box office has always been an important part of the narrative behind whether a film is successful. The discussion around box office results has evolved a lot during the last two decades. Instead of audiences not having much of an invested interest in whether a movie was going to be a hit or a flop, there are now increased discussions on a weekly basis about how various theatrically released movies perform.

There are still some similarities between the box office in 2003 and 2023, though. Some of the same franchises are still finding success, but others, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, had yet to even begin. The same is true of franchises, as their popularity is one constant between the two decades of Hollywood’s history. But, there are various genres that have fallen to the wayside or risen in popularity during that same time. The result of the many changes that have come to Hollywood, audience viewing habits, and box office discussions make the comparison between 2003 and 2023 illuminating.

11 2003’s 10 Highest Grossing Movies vs. 2023’s 10 Highest Grossing Movies

Lord of the Rings Won 2023, And Barbie Won 2023

Frodo smiling in LOTR Return of the King

2003’s top 10 highest grossing movies are almost all known as being successful in some regard. The Lord of the Rings franchise led the way in that regard, as The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King finished the year as the highest-grossing release. Its greatest competition came from the newest Pixar animated movie at the time, the dual threat of The Matrix‘s sequels, and multiple other sequels. There was also a comedy, a new Disney franchise starter, and the newest Tom Cruise movie. The list of 2003’s 10 highest grossing movies is below (per Box Office Mojo):

Top 10 Highest Grossing Movies At The 2003 Box Office Worldwide


Worldwide Total


The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King



Finding Nemo



The Matrix Reloaded



Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl



Bruce Almighty



The Last Samurai



Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines



The Matrix Revolutions






Bad Boys 2


Fast forward 20 years and the list of 2023’s highest grossing movies so far looks both similar and different. Pixar and Disney remain part of the equation, although it is Barbie who leads the way at the worldwide box office. There is also a noticeably larger amount of superhero movies in the top 10, as three Marvel movies are on the list, whereas only one was in 2003. Surprisingly, 2023 only has one more movie connected to an existing IP or franchise than there was in 2003 among the biggest movies of the year. The list of 2023’s 10 highest grossing movies is below (per Box Office Mojo)

Top 10 Highest Grossing Movies At The 2023 Box Office Worldwide


Worldwide Total





The Super Mario Bros. Movie






Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3



Fast X



Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse



The Little Mermaid



Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One






Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania


10 $1 Billion Movies Became The Norm (& Then Less Common Again)

Over 50 Movies Have Made $1 Billion Since 2003

Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken behind a stack of money

The normalization of $1 billion movies is one of the biggest changes to come to the box office over the last 20 years. Return of the King was the only billion-dollar movie released in 2003, and it was also only the second movie to ever accomplish that feat. Instead of the $1 billion mark remaining a rarity for movies to hit, it became the figure that Hollywood chased for the last two decades. There are now 53 movies that have eclipsed that milestone and found a place in the highest-grossing movies of all time. That’s an average of roughly two billion-dollar movies released every year.

The expectancy for this level of success did not truly take off until 2008, as 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was the first $1 billion movie since Return of the King. A massive trend started with The Dark Knight‘s box office success and Christopher Nolan’s movie surpassing the impressive threshold. From 2008 to 2019, at least one $1 billion movie was released for 12 consecutive years. The trend ended in incredible fashion as 2019 easily broke a record with nine movies released that year making more than $1 billion. This included Avengers: Endgame‘s box office temporarily allowing it to become the highest-grossing movie of all time.

Billion-dollar movies are now a much rarer accomplishment in 2023, similar to how it was in 2003. There have been six $1 billion movies released since 2020, but there are only two in 2023: Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Whereas it started to seem easy for movies’ box office totals to eclipse nine figures, the post-pandemic strain is still very real, even if there have been massive successes along the way. The real question is whether this will continue to be the case, or if box office totals will return to pre-2019 levels as Hollywood seemingly enters a period of normalcy with no pandemics or strikes forcing major delays.

9 The Rise & Fall Of Disney’s Box Office Dominance

Disney’s Box Office Reign Increased Through Franchises & Acquisitions

Disney is undoubtedly one of the biggest box office winners when it comes to the last 20 years. In 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was the only Disney movie in the top 10. The studio has since become a perennial contender to release the biggest movie of the year and is often seen dominating the top 10 standings worldwide. This has come through a refinement of Disney’s approach to theatrically released movies, focusing even more on animated movies, live-action remakes, and theme park ride adaptations.

Finding Nemo was not a Disney release, as the studio did not acquire Pixar until 2006

However, the studio has also received a massive boost through its acquisitions of Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, and 20th Century during this time. Pixar’s animated movies became even bigger box office hits under Disney, while the studio helped relaunch Star Wars to great financial success in 2015. Furthermore, Disney has ridden the wave of success that Marvel Studios experienced in Phase 2 and Phase 3, allowing it to repeatedly boast of its box office dominance. The result is Disney having four of the top 10 highest grossing movies in 2023.

The success that Disney experienced for much of the 2010s has now started to falter, though. The MCU is no longer making guaranteed box office hits, as seen with the struggles the franchise has had post-Avengers: Endgame. Meanwhile, Pixar has found its own troubling run with very little success, and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is guaranteed to be among the biggest flops of the year. Even the live-action remakes are not performing as well as expected anymore, forcing the studio to reconfigure its strategy and avoid falling back to its standing in 2003.

8 Franchises Were Already King In 2003 – But Even More So In 2023

IP Is The Key To Box Office Success

Neo speaks to the Architect in front of screens in The Matrix Reloaded

The 2003 box office is a prime example of just how dominant franchises are in Hollywood. The top 10 movies that year included five sequels to existing franchises, as well as three movies that became the first installments of an ongoing series. The reliance on franchises extended beyond the list of highest-grossing movies. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, 2 Fast 2 Furious, American Wedding, Scary Movie 3, Spy Kids 3: Game Over, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, The Jungle Book 2, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, Freddy vs. Jason, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all made over $100 million worldwide.

The reliance on franchises has only grown over the last 20 years, with almost every movie seemingly having some connection to an existing franchise or well-known IP of some kind. There are well over 40 movies released in 2023 that have some type of IP connection. These range from direct sequels of continuing franchises, remakes like The Little Mermaid, video game adaptations like Five Nights at Freddy’s, and movies based on popular toys, like Barbie. The dependence on IP has certainly increased, but their success rate is not any better than before, as some of these franchise plays are among 2023’s biggest box office bombs.

7 Comedies Had A Much Better Chance Of Box Office Success In 2003

Bruce Almighty Led A Great Year For Comedies

Jim Carrey with seven fingers in Bruce Almighty

The success rate of comedies has drastically changed over the last 20 years. 2003 was a great year for comedies to find success at the box office, with Bruce Almighty leading the pack with ease. However, there were also notable hits like Something’s Gotta Give ($265.3 million), Love Actually ($244.9 million), American Wedding ($232.7 million), Scary Movie 3 ($220.6 million), Elf ($220.4 million), Anger Management ($195.7 million), and Cheaper by the Dozen ($190.2 million) all finishing in the top 25 of the year. In terms of true comedies, the biggest of 2023 is Jennifer Lawrence’s No Hard Feelings, which only made $87 million worldwide.

6 The Metric For Box Office Success Has Changed A Lot (& So Have Budgets)

Bigger Budgets Have Raised Box Office Expectations

Miami police officers Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett walk away from the burning wreckage of two cars in Bad Boys 2

What a movie needs to make to qualify as a box office success nowadays has changed too. This is due to the heightened expectations of studios for how movies (especially in franchises) should perform and the rise of $1 billion movies. A movie like Bad Boys 2 would likely be considered a box office bomb in 2023 after making less than $300 million worldwide, which would put it well outside the top 10 worldwide. Meanwhile, The Matrix Revolutions would also be seen as an even bigger disappointment after making a little more than half of its predecessor.

A big reason why these movies, and others, would not be seen as successful in 2023 is because of inflated budgets. For instance, Finding Nemo had a budget of under $100 million, but most Pixar animated movies now cost around $175M-$200M to make. That puts added pressure on the movie to perform well, which was not a problem for Finding Nemo. However, Bad Boys 2, both The Matrix sequels, and Terminator 3 would likely be near or above $200 million in production costs, changing the narrative in terms of their success.

5 Horror Movies Are Bigger At The Box Office In 2023 Than 2003

The Genre Is Now Filled With Box Office Hits

Josh Hutcherson in Five Nights at Freddy's with money

One of the impressive changes that has come at the box office in 2023 is the overall success of horror movies. There are essentially no notable horror movies that achieved box office success in 2003, but 2023 is filled with them. Everything from The Nun II, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Insidious: The Red Door, Scream VI, Evil Dead Rise, and The Exorcist: Believer currently have a place in the top 30 at the worldwide box office. There are also notable hits outside this bracket with Saw X, A Haunting in Venice, Talk to Me, and Cocaine Bear all making waves. Much of the success can be seen with franchises.

4 The Era Of Movie Stars Is (Mostly) Gone In 2023

Only Tom Cruise Remains Really


Looking at the biggest movies in 2003, stars like Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, and Keanu Reeves all have hits. While Smith and Reeves’ movies come from franchises, the success of Bruce Almighty and The Last Samurai are almost entirely built on the backs of Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise. They had the star power to draw audiences in almost regardless of what the movie was, but that movie star quality is mostly gone in 2023.

The Mission: Impossible and John Wick franchises are still successful thanks to their involvement, but both Cruise and Reeves have struggled to launch movies outside of them. Franchises are bigger now than the stars at their center, even if Cruise and Reeves are still very much at the center of two major ones. For example, the MCU is a bigger selling point than Chris Pratt, Brie Larson, Paul Rudd, and other remaining stars are on their own. When even someone like Dwayne Johnson can star in box office flops after losing his franchise viagra status, the “Movie Star Era” is a bygone one.

3 A Lot Of 2003’s Highest-Grossing Movies Wouldn’t Be As Successful In 2023 (If They Got Theatrical Releases)

Finding Nemo Could Have Struggled Given Pixar’s Recent History

The success that some movies found in 2003 likely would not have been duplicated if they were made and released in 2023. Given the recent run of Pixar box office bombs and misfires, Finding Nemo‘s $871 million performance looks especially difficult to repeat. The Matrix franchise already floundered with its sequels in 2003, and the drop-off in quality and harsher reviews likely would kill the movie’s box office to an even greater degree now. Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean would likely still be box office hits, but perhaps Bruce Almighty and The Last Samurai would not be given the decreased importance of movie stars.

There is also no guarantee that many of 2003’s movies would even get theatrical releases nowadays. Most of the top 10 would still be safe in 2023. The exception could be Bruce Almighty, which might go to streaming through a Jim Carrey-centric deal similar to Adam Sandler’s with Netflix. In that regard, there’s a world where Something’s Gotta Give also heads to streaming to avoid another comedy flopping. Other 2003 movies that would be released on streaming instead of theaters (if they were even given the green light) include: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Elf, Anger Management, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Spy Kids 3.

2 Not All Of 2023’s Biggest Movies Would’ve Worked In 2003

CGI Requirements & Worse Quality Would Hurt Some Big Sequels

Vin diesel looking worried in Fast X

Just as many of 2003’s movies would not be nearly as successful in 2023, a lot of 2023’s biggest movies would not work two decades ago. Superhero movies were nowhere close to as popular or as successful 20 years ago, so there is a good chance that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and The Flash could struggle given their wackier characters and concepts. Even Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse might have had a simplified story and less revolutionary animation style if it had been made in 2003.

Furthermore, Fast X would not work in 2003 given the state of the Fast & Furious franchise at the time and a bigger reliance on practical stunts as opposed to CGI. It’s also unlikely that Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Meg 2: The Trench, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and others would not be made due to limited audience appeal and technology not yet being up to par. Based on the previous analysis of horror movies not being as popular in 2003, most of the 2023 horror movies also might not have even been made that long ago.

1 2023’s Box Office Shows Improvements In Diversity & Representation Since 2003

Women & People Of Color Are Better Represented Now

An improvement that can be seen with the 2023 box office compared to 2003 is through better representation and greater diversity. There are many more movies led by people of color and women now than there were 20 years ago. There was not a single movie in the top 10 box office in 2003 that had a female lead, but 2023 has three with Barbie, The Little Mermaid, and Elemental. Two of these movies count toward the greater number of movies that are led by people of color, including major franchise continuations like Creed III, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

It is obviously great to see Hollywood moving in the right direction when it comes to diversity and representation rather than taking a step backward or making no progress at all. The last two decades are filled with several examples that broke old Hollywood “myths” that women and people of color could not be the leads of financially successful movies. There is still room for the movie industry to do better in this regard. The continued success of movies at the box office with diverse leads that offer more representation of the human experience will only aid in the advancement of this progress.

Source: Box Office Mojo (2003, 2023)

Source link