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‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Is a Box Office and HBO Max Hit. Will It Shake Up the Future of Moviegoing?

Godzilla vs. Kong
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Godzilla vs. Kong” proved that buzzy new movies can sell tickets, even if they’re already available to watch at home.

After months of new releases bringing in lackluster box office ticket sales, “Godzilla vs. Kong” racked up $48.5 million in its first five days in theaters. It was the best showing, by a landslide, for a movie since the pandemic struck.

At the same time, “Godzilla vs. Kong” was offered on HBO Max, the streaming service owned by WarnerMedia, for no extra charge to subscribers. A monthly subscription to HBO Max costs $15, which is roughly the same price as a single movie ticket in major cities.

It’s the kind of hybrid release that would have seemed impossible to pull off prior to the pandemic. Today, it’s the clearest indication yet that COVID-19 has forever changed how movies will be distributed. And the results have left Hollywood questioning what the film’s success means for the future of moviegoing.

“The fact that this movie is generating so much interest in theaters, despite an immediate streaming option, underlines the cultural power and meaning of going out to the movies as a communal event. People recognize that does not exist in the living room,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “This isn’t only a win for ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ it’s also a validation of the broader history and future of moviegoing.”

Yet box office analysts admit it’s difficult to draw conclusions considering the lack of transparency for streaming statistics. Did the simultaneous release on HBO Max curb box office revenues or limit streams? Can streaming and theatrical exist simultaneously and harmoniously, selling both movie tickets and subscriptions? It may be unknowable, at least until Hollywood companies find a way to compare viewing metrics.

With “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Warner Bros. said the monster tentpole had a “larger viewing audience than any other film or show on HBO Max since launch.” The benefit in the absence of clarity around digital viewership, at least for studios, is the ability to parcel out information and only share data that makes their services look good. For example, the studio similarly reported in January that “The Little Things,” a thriller starring Denzel Washington, “immediately shot up to No. 1” on HBO Max.” Yet there wasn’t any information given for “Tom and Jerry” or “Judas and the Black Messiah,” two of the studio’s recent releases. Is one to infer from that silence that those films failed to catch fire with Max users?

Box office prognosticators, however, are choosing to focus on the positives, particularly because Warner Bros. has said its day-and-date model will be unique to 2021. Beginning in 2022, the studio is expected to instead have a 45-day window of theatrical exclusivity.

“It proves that when given the choice, no matter the cost associated, audiences will still frequent cinemas,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The streaming component, is not the theater-killing event like many in exhibition have prophesied.”

Indeed, Warner Bros. and its rivals were similarly thrilled by “Godzilla vs. Kong,” interpreting the results to signal that the pandemic didn’t kill the movie business. In a news release about weekend grosses, Warner Bros. celebrated with the message: “BIG MOVIES ARE BACK WITH OUR KAIJU-SIZED OPENING!”

For a big-budget movie like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which cost $165 million to produce, the results are even more significant. When Warner Bros. first announced it was sending its entire slate to HBO Max, the assumption was the studio would take a financial hit because those movies, a crop that also includes “Dune,” “The Suicide Squad” and “Matrix 4,” wouldn’t attract as big of an audience in theaters. “Godzilla vs. Kong” shows Warner Bros. may actually be able to recoup some of its investments at the box office, which is important because many of those films carry budgets well in excess of $100 million.

Still, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and lockdowns in other parts of the world have studios and exhibitors anxious about unanimously declaring the revival of moviegoing. Around 55% of movie theaters in the country have reopened, according to Comscore. But many — including those in New York City and Los Angeles — have been operating at reduced capacity to comply with pandemic safety protocols. Los Angeles theaters move Monday from a 25% limit to 50% capacity.

As the theatrical business begins to rebound, Hollywood studios will continue to experiment with a range of release plans.

“We’re all learning as we go. Studios are experimenting and figuring out how to best reach consumers during the pandemic,” says Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. Post-pandemic, he emphasized, “Warner Bros. believes in a defined theatrical window.”

Upcoming summer releases like Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” (May 28) and “Top Gun: Maverick” (July 2), as well as Universal’s “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9” (June 25) will play exclusively in theaters for a period of time before landing on digital platforms. Paramount is putting its titles on the newly relaunched streaming service Paramount Plus after 45 days in theaters, while Universal can put its new movies on premium video-on-demand after a few weekends. Meanwhile, Disney’s “Cruella” (May 28) is premiering on Disney Plus (for an extra $30 fee) on the same day it opens in theaters, and Warner Bros.’ musical “In the Heights” (June 11) will play simultaneously on HBO Max.

An action-packed, CGI-stuffed franchise film like “Godzilla vs. Kong” had multiple factors working in its favor, beyond just increased vaccine levels and the reopening of theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. Bock describes the match-up between Godzilla and King Kong” as “big, loud and fun” — the type of qualities that movie theater loyalists would argue demand the big-screen experience. Many ticket buyers chose to shell out for premium formats, like Imax and Dolby Cinema.

“Moviegoers have been waiting for an event film like ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ to arrive on the big screen, and the numbers don’t lie,” Goldstein said. “It’s clear that wherever audiences are ready to safely return to the theater, they have, and we’re thrilled with the results.”

Box office experts believe “Godzilla vs. Kong” has the potential to clear the $100 million mark at the domestic box office. It would be the first film in more than a year to cross that coveted milestone. The biggest earners of the pandemic era have been Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” ($57 million) and Universal’s “The Croods: A New Age” ($56 million). At the very least, “Godzilla vs. Kong” will easily soar past those figures in a matter of days.

Globally, “Godzilla vs. Kong” has grossed $285 million to date and looks to soon surpass $300 million. It needs to make at least $330 million to get out of the red.

In Hollywood, all eyes will be on “Godzilla vs. Kong” in its second weekend of release. Will it demonstrate that only superfans turn out to see the epic clash of the titans, or will the general public show up as vaccination rates continue to climb and people feel more confident in returning to normal activities? That’s something that will continue to be measured in the coming weeks. It won’t have much competition until Warner Bros.’ sci-fi adventure “Mortal Kombat,” an adaptation of the popular video game, debuts on April 23.

“We should absolutely continue to view theatrical recovery as a process that will probably ebb and flow,” Robbins says. “This weekend is a giant leap forward and it establishes clear momentum, but there remains work to be done.”