John Wick killed it last year. The film starring the suave assassin played by Keanu Reeves dominated in-flight entertainment, as did a pink-clad feminist (Barbie), bespectacled creatures shaped like ear plugs (Minions) and a fraternity of Nintendo plumbers (Super Mario Bros). Dinosaurs from the Jurassic Age and Hollywood – and sometimes from both worlds โ€“ see Harrison Ford โ€“ also roamed airplane aisles.

To close out 2023, a number of airlines compiled their most-watched movies and TV shows over the year. United originally shared its picks with The Washington Post. We then contacted other airlines for their roundups. A half-dozen carriers replied: Alaska Airlines, Swiss International Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, Qantas, Air New Zealand and JetBlue.

Their findings spoke volumes about the seat-back tastes of the flying public: People want a blockbuster or a comforting favourite.

For the film category, many of the airlines’ top titles were blockbusters that raked in millions of dollars in theatres worldwide. Similar to their counterparts on the ground, passengers gravitated to flicks that were part of a well-established franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or John Wick, featured a megastar such as the Toms (Hanks and Cruise), or were a cultural phenomenon like “Barbie”.

“I cannot argue with most of these picks because they’re just too darn popular,” said Mark Ellis, contributing editor at Rotten Tomatoes. “That’s why your Barbies, John Wicks and Avatars are on there. I know I’m getting great quality entertainment with those.”

The TV shows, meanwhile, are a mix of buzzy new series, such as “The Last of Us,” “Succession” and “1883,” and the stalwarts that never cease to make us laugh, such as “Friends,” “Schitt’s Creek” and “The Office,” which swept the rankings with four airlines.

“Even with the latest entertainment on offer, passengers still choose to watch timeless feel-good classics, such [as] ‘The Office,’ which came out on top for numerous airlines despite being released almost 20 years ago,” wrote Estibaliz Asiain, senior vice president of media and content at Anuvu, which advises and supplies airlines with entertainment content.

According to Comscore, a data analytics firm, the highest-grossing movie worldwide was “Barbie,” which amassed US$1.4 billion last year. The film also ranked first on Australia’s Qantas, hardly a shocker considering that Margot Robbie, who plays the empowering Mattel doll, hails from Down Under. (The company’s data for TV shows covers shows aired on broadcast and cable networks. Only “Young Sheldon,” a favourite on Air New Zealand and JetBlue, appeared in its top 15.)

“‘Barbie’ was so monstrously successful at the box office. Plus, it’s ‘certified fresh’ at 88%, which means that everybody has been talking about it for the last six months,” Ellis said, referring to the site’s special designation for the best-reviewed movies and TV shows.

Joe Pichirallo, a film producer and professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, was surprised that “Barbie” did not have a stronger showing, considering its immense popularity. However, because the Greta Gerwig movie was released in July, airlines may not have added it to its in-flight collection until later in the year.

This was the case at United, which dabbled in its own moviemaking last year with a Christmas short. Four of its titles – “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Ticket to Paradise,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” – dated from 2022. “John Wick: Chapter 4,” which hit theatres in March, had a head start of several months on “Barbie.”

“If you look at the movies that were at the top, those are probably the ones that came out a little bit earlier in the year and were offered throughout the year versus if something came out toward the end of the year,” said Mark Muren, the airline’s managing director of identity, product and loyalty.

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” was the only other billion-dollar earner last year. It also earned the ultimate golden coin as the most-watched film on JetBlue and only JetBlue. None of the other airlines shared its passengers’ penchant for such family-friendly fare as “Elemental” and the 2023 version of “The Little Mermaid.” By comparison, “John Wick” and “Ticket to Paradise” appeared on four lists.

“The one rotten movie on United’s list is ‘Ticket to Paradise,’ which is right at 57%. But then you check out the audience score and it’s super high,” Ellis said. “It also has George Clooney and Julia Roberts, and it’s almost like you’re getting into the vibe of a vacation because that film is about flying to a destination for a wedding.”

Similarly, Ellis said “Jurassic World Dominion” can also put travellers in an aloha state of mind. Its predecessors “Jurassic Park” and “Jurassic World” were filmed in Hawaii, and tour operators run excursions to film sites on Oahu.

“One of the top movies on Hawaiian Air is ‘Jurassic World Dominion,’ and I think that’s partially because people want to go check out Hawaii,” he said. “There’s a lot of tropical elements in the movie. So let’s get to Island Nublar before the plane lands.”

Ellis acknowledged that many of these movies might not win any awards or secure a spot in the pantheon of classic films, but they have loftier ambitions. Their ultimate mission is to distract passengers during the long slog through the stratosphere.

“What matters is, did it get me to my destination and make me forget that I was sitting on a plane with strangers for a couple hours?” he said. “Was it was a good movie to have while I was getting from Point A to Point B? That’s the real goal of entertainment in the air.”

When selecting their in-flight entertainment offerings, the airlines aim to be as inclusive as possible. To ensure a diverse collection of titles, they work with major and independent studios, streaming services and companies such as Anuvu, which acts like a curator or personal shopper.

Asiain said her company assembles a smorgasbord of genres โ€“ drama, comedy, action and documentary – that appeal to passengers of varying ages, interests and cultures. However, Asiain draws the line at scary flicks, including ones that involve airplane accidents.

“We tend to avoid horrors on most airlines. Someone being afraid or even jumping or screaming out loud in a quiet aircraft is not a great experience for the cabin or passenger,” she said by email. “We also avoid scenes that could be disturbing or cause claustrophobia, eg plane crash scenes.”

On routes that are popular with families, she said Anuvu’s experts will choose kid-friendly fare. This could explain why JetBlue’s top films are seemingly lifted from movie nights at sleepover camp.

“‘Super Mario Bros’ is based on a popular video game, and ‘The Little Mermaid’ is a family movie and so is ‘Elemental,'” Pichirallo said of JetBlue’s picks.

The NYU professor, however, raised his eyebrows over “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” a box-office flop that showed up on several lists. Though it’s rated PG-13, he speculated that Harrison Ford was reeling in older passengers nostalgic for the dashing young actor who appeared in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” more than 40 years ago.

A similar rationale could apply to Alaska Airlines’ “80 for Brady,” which stars a quartet of elder actresses and a football quarterback past his prime. Or maybe passengers are seeking movies that don’t require too much brain power, which can be in short supply on long flights.

“These are easy to watch on a plane,” Pichirallo said.

Ellis, who spends nearly half the year travelling for Rotten Tomatoes and his comedy gigs, said his ideal airplane movie will feature a simple plot or a megastar like Tom Cruise. The film that fits his criteria is “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sentiment shared by passengers on United, Swiss and Hawaiian Airlines.

“People love to watch their favourite movies over and over again. We saw this a lot with “Top Gun: Maverick,” Muren said. “It was released almost a year and a half ago and it has stayed in our top five that entire time.”

The same could be said for the TV shows on the airlines’ lists. “Parks and Recreation,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Family Guy” always delight, even after the umpteenth viewing.

“Whether you’re watching it for the first time or 51st time, it’s very comforting,” said Jason Lynch, a curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. “You know what you’re going to get, and I think that’s the type of comfort food that a lot of people are looking for on a flight.”

Lynch said passengers tuning into the more current shows occupy another category: They want to keep up with the pop culture. Travellers who might not have the time or HBO can finally catch up on “The Last of Us,” “Chernobyl” and the second season of “The White Lotus,” which Qantas passengers spent 300,000 hours viewing last year.

“The newer shows, I’ve heard good things. I just haven’t had a chance to watch them,” Lynch said, channelling this type of passenger. “I’m a captive audience for the next couple of hours. Let me finally check it out and see what all the chatter is about.”

The Paley Centre curator said he approved of the most-watched shows but threw out a few suggestions for consideration. He recommended “Reservation Dogs” and “The Bear,” which a passenger could binge on and watch their flight fly by.

Share.