There’s a lot riding on “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the Marvel movie that opens in theaters this weekend, and not because it’s the first installment in the premier film franchise to feature an Asian star and predominately Asian cast.
Though it marks an important step in onscreen representation, “Shang-Chi” will also prove vital in determining the way Disney releases its movies, at least while a pandemic is still raging. The superhero adaptation, starring Simu Liu as the eponymous hero, is the first Marvel movie since Sony’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in July of 2019 to play exclusively in theaters. Since COVID-19 struck and forced movie theaters to close, Disney has put the majority of its new movies — including the Scarlett Johansson-led Marvel entry “Black Widow,” family adventure “Jungle Cruise” and “101 Dalmatians” prequel “Cruella” — Disney Plus under its Premier Access banner, while Pixar titles “Luca” and “Soul” skipped theaters entirely.
That’s precisely why ticket sales for “Shang-Chi” could serve as a bellwether at a time when surging COVID-19 cases are keeping many away from their local multiplex. Will “Shang-Chi” sell more tickets because audiences can’t watch it at home? With or without a pandemic, Labor Day isn’t a traditionally busy time at the box office as families prioritize outdoor activities. However, “Shang-Chi” is expected to galvanize many movie fans when it launches this Friday in approximately 4,200 North American theaters. According to early estimates, the film should generate between $45 million and $55 million in its first three days of release, with some industry tracking services projecting that figure could reach $60 million.
At the international box office, “Shang-Chi” is premiering in most overseas territories (excluding China, where it does not have a release date), where it looks to collect another $40 million.
Should estimates hold at the domestic box office, “Shang-Chi” would smash the previous Labor Day opening weekend record, which is currently held by 2007’s “Halloween” and its $30.6 million debut. Still, even the higher end of expectations would represent the lowest start ever for a Marvel movie, an expected yet dispiriting distinction for plague times. Marvel films typically carry production budgets around $200 million and cost at least $100 million more to promote on a global scale. The comic book tentpoles are given massive budgets because they are routinely the highest-grossing movies of the year at the box office.
As a superhero, Shang-Chi isn’t as well known to the general public as a character like Black Widow, whose standalone adventure opened earlier in the summer and set a pandemic-era benchmark with its $80 million box office debut — not including the $60 million from Disney Plus subscribers. Despite its hybrid release, “Black Widow” stands as the highest-grossing movie of the year in the U.S. with $181 million. Not everyone is happy with how things turned out. Johansson later sued Disney in a bombshell lawsuit, asserting that the decision to simultaneously release “Black Widow” in theaters and on Disney Plus cannibalized the film’s box office revenue and cost her tens of millions of dollars in backend deals.
Disney, in return, said it gives “no merit whatsoever” to Johansson’s pay lawsuit and later revealed the film grossed $125 million in streaming and download receipts. At the global box office, “Black Widow” generated $367 million, which isn’t a bad result for pandemic times but ranks as one of the lowest-earning Marvel movies.
Results for “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi” are expected to help Disney determine release plans for upcoming MCU entries, like “Eternals,” which is slated to debut on Nov. 5. Disney has been curiously vague about the rollout for that film, which was directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao and stars Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kit Harington, Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani.
“Shang-Chi” will play in theaters for 45 days before moving to digital platforms, a rollout the studio first deployed with the Ryan Reynolds sci-fi comedy “Free Guy.” After its better-than-expected $28 million start, “Free Guy” has held steady in subsequent weeks and has generated $80 million to date. “Free Guy’s” legs at the box office, plus the “Black Widow” lawsuit, could make a strong case for preserving some sort of exclusive theatrical window. Prior to the pandemic, movies had to play on the big screen for at least 75-90 days before studios could move them to digital platforms.
In any case, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek referred to the 45-day window for “Shang-Chi” as an “interesting experiment” during the company’s recent earnings call. “The prospect of being able to take a Marvel title to the [streaming] service after going theatrical at 45 days will be yet another data point to inform our actions going forward on our titles,” he said.
Liu, who portrays the eponymous comic book character, seemingly responded to Chapek’s comments earlier this month, saying “Shang-Chi” — a watershed moment for Asian representation in the superhero genre — is “not an experiment.”
We are not an experiment.
We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year.
We are the surprise.
I’m fired the f**k up to make history on September 3rd; JOIN US. pic.twitter.com/IcyFzh0KIb
— Simu Liu (刘思慕) (@SimuLiu) August 14, 2021
“We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year,” Liu wrote. “We are the surprise. I’m fired the f**k up to make history on September 3rd.”
The good news for “Shang-Chi” is that new movies offered only in theaters — as opposed to hybrid releases like “Black Widow” and Warner Bros.’ “The Suicide Squad” — have been holding on strong at the box office and selling more tickets than anticipated. That means the well-reviewed “Shang-Chi” could have a lengthy run in theaters even without a record-shattering debut. Another factor that could influence Disney’s decision for future Marvel movies is the reality, as industry analysts have indicated, that putting a film concurrently on streaming services is less profitable in the long run because it cuts into downstream revenues.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi” takes place after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” and centers on a skilled martial artist who moves to San Francisco and works as a valet. But Shang-Chi, who goes by Shaun, is forced to confront his past when he is targeted by the covert Ten Rings organization. The ensemble cast includes Hong Kong legend Tony Leung, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Like the majority of Marvel movies before it, “Shang Chi” received strong reviews and holds 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.