As the first all-audience tentpole to exclusively grace the big screen in some time, the movie theater industry is looking to “F9” as the benchmark for this summer’s blockbusters. The season will be noticeably lighter this year, with fewer releases and more hybrid distribution plans, but film exhibitors are still optimistic that “F9,” along with upcoming offerings like “Black Widow” (July 9) and “The Suicide Squad” (Aug. 6) will drive moviegoers to the theater.
“F9” touches down in theaters on Friday and is expected to set a new pandemic-era opening weekend record. The film, starring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and John Cena, is expected to surpass $60 million in its first three days of release. While that’s nowhere near a traditional opening weekend for a “Fast” movie, it would be a sizable start given COVID-related constraints and hesitations around moviegoing. It’s playing in approximately 4,000 North American cinemas, the largest theater count in the 18 months since theaters were forced to closed.
For the time being, John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic thriller “A Quiet Place Part II” holds the title for the biggest debut of pandemic times. The Paramount Pictures film amassed a mighty $48 million between Friday and Sunday and posted $58 million through the Memorial Day holiday weekend. It has since generated $124 million in the U.S., making it the highest-grossing film at the domestic box office in 2021. If box office expectations hold, “F9” should easily supplant that benchmark.
“F9” has deployed a staggered theatrical rollout since different parts of the globe are recovering from the pandemic at different paces. Already, the film is nearing the $300 million mark from 23 international markets — with $203 million of that haul coming from China alone. Over the weekend, those ticket sales helped propel the “Fast” franchise past the “X-Men” series to become the fifth-biggest property globally. With $6.2 billion worldwide across 10 films, the Fast Saga ranks next after Marvel, Harry Potter, James Bond and Star Wars in terms of box office revenues.
Though ticket sales for “F9” are strong by pandemic standards, they lag far behind any recent “Fast” installment. For measure, 2015’s “Furious 7” and 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious” eclipsed the $1 billion mark overseas with ease, with the former collecting an additional $226 million in the U.S. and the latter generating $353 million at the domestic box office. Even the 2019 spinoff “Hobbs and Shaw,” which wasn’t expected to gross as much as the core “Fast” movies, tapped out theatrically with $173 million in North America and $585 million internationally. That means “F9” will have to remain in overdrive throughout the summer to recoup its $200 million-plus production budget.
After several pandemic-related delays, “F9” is hitting theaters more than a year behind schedule and arriving in a dramatically different moviegoing landscape. While movie theaters were closed, Universal forged historic deals with major cinema chains, including AMC and Cinemark, to bring movies more quickly to the home. Under the terms of the agreement, Universal can put new films on premium video-on-demand platforms in as little as 17 days. However, titles that generate at least $50 million in opening weekend ticket sales will have to play in theaters for 31 days. “F9” is the first movie from Universal that has a shot of clearing that threshold and will likely have a longer exclusive run in theaters due to the popularity of the franchise.
As the box office attempts to bounce back from COVID-19, audiences have been gravitating toward well-known properties (such as “A Quiet Place Part II”) and nonstop action adventures (like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat”), two factors that should work in favor of “F9.” Though it’s gotten mixed reception — Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman says the film “gets stuck in franchise overdrive,” adding that “it goes through the motions with more energy than intoxication” — the “Fast” franchise has always been less reliant on reviews and more dependent on increasingly zany stunts (this go-around somehow takes the cars to space) to sell the film. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie received a 66% weighted average, which is standard for the series.
Directed by franchise veteran Justin Lin, “F9” sees former street racer Dominic Toretto living peacefully off the grid with his family. Their serenity is quickly upended when he’s forced to reassemble his crew to stop a world-shattering plot by a skilled assassin and high-performance driver — who also happens to be Dom’s brother. The cast also includes Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris.