“F9” provided a much-needed jolt to the domestic box office.
The latest entry in Universal’s high-octane “Fast & Furious” saga collected $70 million in its opening weekend, the best start at the U.S. box office since 2019’s holiday release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” The arrival of “F9” is the latest big-screen offering to help usher in a delayed summer blockbuster season and aid in the recovery of the struggling movie theater industry. Yet those in the business of selling film tickets still have a long and winding path to travel before they are able to emerge from the wreckage caused by the pandemic.
“Theaters needed ‘F9’ in the most consequential way; a $70 million opening weekend does wonders for concessions,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. But to justify keeping the lights on, he says, movie theaters will require more than just a hulking Vin Diesel and the cinematic anomaly of cars in space.
“If theaters are going to maintain any sort of profits, a steady diet of sizable debuts will be needed, as well as significant holds week-in and week-out,” he adds. “Box office legs have certainly been the biggest concern in this new era of hybrid release.”
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The “new era of hybrid release” that Bock mentions is the reason why film exhibitors aren’t entirely out of the woods yet. Many of the major movies primed to hit theaters in the next few weeks won’t be playing exclusively on the big screen, something that will likely curb overall ticket sales. With that in mind, there’s at least one big question facing Hollywood as the movie business mounts a revival: is there’s enough momentum to sustain multiplexes throughout the summer?
In the coming weeks, most of Hollywood’s biggest features — including Universal’s family film “The Boss Baby 2” on July 2, Marvel’s superhero spinoff “Black Widow” on July 9, the Warner Bros. sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy” on July 16, Disney’s action adventure “Jungle Cruise” on July 30 and “The Suicide Squad,” also from WB, on Aug. 6 — will be available on subscription streaming services at the same time as they debut in theaters. It’s impossible to measure how much that will affect box office revenues, but industry analysts expect it will limit the number of “record opening weekends” on the horizon.
“We can’t expect every movie to earn $70 million during opening weekend. We’re not in that environment right now,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore.
That could be a problem for many multiplexes in North America. Though 80% of U.S. cinemas have reopened as of last weekend, according to Comscore, their finances are in rough shape. Some theater chains are reemerging from bankruptcy, in the case of Alamo Drafthouse or Studio Movie Grill, while others have had to become heavily leveraged to survive the pandemic, like AMC Theatres with its $5.5 billion in long-term debt. That means they can’t really afford a substantial slowdown in revenues. At the same time, movie theaters and other live entertainment venues are struggling to access the Save Our Stages funding that was intended to provide necessary financial support for the hard-hit sector of the industry. The margin of error is very low, at the moment, and a few sluggish weeks of box office receipts could be the difference between recovery and insolvency.
Still, Dergarabedian notes, “We’re definitely in a good place. If ‘A Quiet Place Part II’ and ‘F9’ underperformed, we’d be looking at a severely under-enthusiastic audience for films in theaters. But we’re not seeing that.” For AMC in particular, the theater chain announced on Monday that it welcomed more than 2 million guests across its U.S. locations over the weekend, its largest turnout since 2019.
An optimistic Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC, said in a statement, “The combination of widespread vaccination and the release once again of blockbuster movies is proving to be the magic formula for the return of moviegoing. We could not be more excited about this post-reopening record weekend, and the coming slate of what look to be more blockbuster movies being released this summer and beyond.”
It’s worth noting that “F9” and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” benefitted as the select cinematic draws to play exclusively in theaters. That strategy is a deviation from the release of recent big-screen offerings, including Disney’s “Cruella” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” as well as Warner Bros.’ “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which premiered simultaneously on subscription streaming services. After 45 days on the big screen, “F9” is expected to move to premium video-on-demand platforms, while “A Quiet Place Part II” will be offered on Paramount Plus, the company’s budding streaming service, at no extra cost to subscribers.
Not every film is landing on Disney Plus, HBO Max or Peacock on the same day it opens in theaters. A handful of titles that hail from traditional studios will maintain exclusive theatrical releases: Universal’s “The Forever Purge” on July 2, the twisted M. Night Shyamalan thriller “Old” and Paramount’s “G.I. Joe” spinoff “Snake Eyes” on July 23 and Disney’s sci-fi comedy “Free Guy” with Ryan Reynolds on Aug. 13. However, none of those films are expected to scale blockbuster heights.
“The back half of summer will be a sum of its parts,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “There wont be as many big openings, but there will be enough high-profile releases. It’ll be about rebuilding the collective momentum of box office.”
It won’t be until fall, when Disney and Marvel’s “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” graces cinemas over Labor Day weekend in September, that movie theater operators will be able to tout another exclusive theatrical release that has a chance of becoming a big-screen sensation. After that, a string of big-budget tentpoles, such as “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the James Bond entry “No Time to Die,” will round out the year.
It won’t necessarily be doom and gloom until then. There’s a sense that next weekend’s July 4 holiday will bring another boost of optimism for moviegoing. Along with “F9,” theater marquees will be offering two new titles, “The Forever Purge,” the latest horrifying entry in the “Purge” series, as well as the animated family film “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” which is debuting simultaneously on the streaming service Peacock. The Fourth of July can be hit or miss when it comes to box office grosses, but this year there’s a little something for all movie lovers.
“You have a selection of potential hits from every genre,” Dergarabedian says of the Independence Day movie selection. “It’s not just about one movie, though ‘F9’ could be the spark — no pun intended for Fourth of July — to build momentum going forward.”