"Barbenheimer" makes waves for July's movie spending, but box office recovery still lags

By Amina Niasse

NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Barbenheimer" - the twin-bill summer box office phenom - sure helped to drive U.S. consumers back to cinemas last month, but movie-going is still struggling to catch up to other recreational spending categories post-pandemic.

Outlays for movie theater-going grew in July at an annualized rate of nearly 11% from June, outshining the spending gains last month at sporting events and concerts or live theater, data out Thursday from the Commerce Department showed. Total consumer spending increased a stronger-than-expected 0.8% last month.

The release of Warner Bros.' "Barbie" and Universal's "Oppenheimer," marketed as an unlikely double feature, spurred ticket sales and they continue to defy what is typically an end-of-summer slump. While that helped long-suffering box office receipts, it made less of a splash for overall consumer spending when compared to larger categories like clothing and household furnishings, economists at Oxford Economics said.

"'Barbenheimer' appears to have had only a limited direct impact on spending last month, with the outsize $700 million annualized, or 11%, increase in real spending at movie theaters only a small part of July's gain," said Michael Pearce, lead U.S. economist.

It made a big difference in the live-event spending area though, at least for the moment.

Movie theater outlays in July came in at an annualized rate of about $10 billion, up from around $9 billion in June, and were the key driver behind live-event spending growth on the month of 1.9%. This summer’s box office has been out of the ordinary with ticket sales for the season up $500 million from last summer’s sales, according to data firm Box Office Mojo.

How long that momentum lasts is uncertain amid ongoing strikes by actors and writers that have clouded the outlook for the new release pipeline.

While other categories of live-event spending have fully recovered from the hit delivered by pandemic shutdowns, film attendance outlays remain at roughly 65% of their pre-COVID levels.

Sporting events were the first to rebound, and live performance admissions came through after that, with concertgoers - many spending about $1,300 per show on Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour - making an impact.

That tour is projected to generate $5 billion in economic growth for the U.S. economy according to market research firm QuestionPro. The tour prompted attention from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which said Swifties, as Swift's fans dub themselves, drove up hotel revenue in the city.

Beyonce's "BeyHive" is also shelling out big bucks for tickets to her Renaissance Tour. The tour garnered $295 million through her Aug. 1 show at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, according to Billboard Boxscore.

(Reporting by Amina Niasse; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)