Movie theaters across the globe have been experiencing a kind of pent-up demand that hasn’t been seen in… a while.
At the center of stratospheric anticipation is everyone’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, who takes the spotlight in Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The comic book epic, which serves as a culmination to the Tom Holland-led trilogy and co-stars Zendaya as MJ and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, hits theaters on Dec. 17.
When tickets went on sale on Nov. 29, some online sites crashed because they had trouble keeping up with demand. Hundreds of showtimes sold out immediately, leaving theater owners to hastily add as many additional screenings as their venues could realistically handle.
Immediately selling out showtimes? In this economy? It’s a welcome champagne problem for the beleaguered movie theater business. After big-budget tentpoles like “No Time to Die,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” started the box office’s slow recovery, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” presents the best chance yet to reinvigorate ticket sales and bring audiences back to cinemas. But the movie faces an adversary even more threatening than Doctor Octopus or Mysterio: Omicron, the newest strain of COVID-19 that is spreading around the world, potentially ushering in a new spike in cases. Though there’s little known about the variant, it could deter people from indoor activities, like going to the movies.
For now, audiences do not appear to be concerned.
Online ticketing service Fandango reported “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has shattered its pre-sale records for 2021, beating out Marvel’s “Black Widow.” Impressively, it’s keeping up with films that premiered prior to COVID-19, resulting in Fandango’s best first-day advance ticket sales since 2019’s superhero smash “Avengers: Endgame” (which ultimately debuted to a head-spinning $357 million). On Fandango, “No Way Home” is actually outpacing blockbuster titles such as “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
Though “No Way Home” is expected to notch a heroic start at the domestic box office, news of robust pre-sales does not necessarily mean Holland’s latest “Spider-Man” adventure will beat — or even match — opening weekend tallies for “Infinity War” ($258 million domestic debut), “The Last Jedi” ($220 million domestic debut), or “The Rise of Skywalker” ($177 million domestic debut). Buying movie stubs beforehand indicates there’s solid anticipation among the property’s core fanbase, but it doesn’t always translate to inaugural box office records. For instance, Fandango reported in October that pre-sales for “No Time to Die,” the latest James bond sequel, had been pacing ahead of “F9: The Fast Saga” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” as well as its 007 predecessor “Spectre,” at the same point in their sales cycle. But when final weekend numbers were tallied, “No Time to Die” had generated $55 million, a lower three-day haul than all of the aforementioned titles.
Since the pandemic, general audiences have gotten in the habit of purchasing tickets early to snag seats that aren’t too close to other customers. Also, several major chains have eliminated the option to buy tickets in person, so patrons have had to digitally reserve chairs before getting to the theaters.
“For a lot of theatergoers, seating placement is much more important now than in pre-pandemic times, given that social distancing is a major component of being safe and feeling safe these days,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Before it was a matter of getting the best seat for a viewing experience. Now, it is more about getting away from the crowds.”
“Black Widow” ranked as Fandango’s top pre-seller of 2021 prior to “No Way Home,” but it’s Sony’s “Venom” sequel — with $90 million in North America — that landed the biggest domestic opening weekend of the year. “No Way Home” hopes to supplant that benchmark. When it comes to Holland’s prior solo ventures, 2017’s “Homecoming” opened to $117 million and 2019’s “Far From Home” bowed to $92 million.
“‘Spider-Man’ is destined to be the largest debut of 2021, as long as Omicron doesn’t shut down theaters and/or spook audiences,” Bock says.
Beyond bragging rights to be among the first to watch Peter Parker — a.k.a. Spider-Man — grapple with the fallout of the whole world finding out his true identity, theaters operators are incentivizing moviegoers with decidedly 2021 gimmicks. In one case, AMC Theatres has partnered with Sony Pictures to offer 86,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to A-List subscribers who buy tickets to Dec. 16 screenings.
Movie industry experts have several reasons to be optimistic about “No Way Home.” At a time when superhero stories have never been hotter, Spider-Man is easily the most ubiquitous Spandexed vigilante to headline a feature film in 2021. “Shang-Chi” ($75 million domestic debut) and “Eternals” ($71 million domestic debut) were high on radars for Marvel enthusiasts, but those title characters weren’t yet household names. By contrast, nearly everyone on the planet has at least heard of Spider-Man. And, in what’s expected to be the biggest crossover event since “Avengers: Endgame,” director Jon Watts managed to feature villains from past “Spider-Man” franchises, including Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Jamie Foxx’s Electro. It’s a call sheet that’s sure to have fans salivating.
Spidey is especially vital to the box office because of his global appeal. “Homecoming” hit $880 million at the worldwide box office, while its follow-up “Far From Home” glided by the $1 billion mark.
In the United Kingdom, Holland’s birthplace, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is experiencing some of that sky-high interest. Theatre chain Vue says it sold more than 150,000 tickets to “No Way Home” on Monday alone, setting a company record for the highest volume on launch day in history. Sales were double that of pre-orders for Vue’s previous record-holder “Avengers: Endgame” (which opened to $55 million in the U.K.) and four times as much as “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (which opened to $37 million in the U.K.).
“We have seen this week just how excited our customers are to see the much-anticipated film, with its opening day of pre-sales smashing all our previous records,” Eduardo Leal, head of screen content at Vue Entertainment said. “This goes to show just how much […] demand [there is] for great films, such as this, on the big screen, where they belong.”
At many theaters in the U.K.’s biggest cities, including London, evening showings on the opening day are completely sold out. British cinema chain Cineworld also reported that the movie had broken records for the number of ticket sales in its first 24 and 48 hours.
Being one of the first crowds to watch “Spider-Man: No Way Home” comes with perks, something so elusive that tickets for first-day screenings have been listed on eBay in the U.K. for tens of thousands of dollars. However, none have attracted buyers and bids… yet.
One seller was attempting to sell four tickets to a 7 p.m. 2D showing at Showcase Cinema de Lux in Nottingham for £15,000 ($20,000), although a handful of tickets were still available for that showing (albeit not seated together). At the time of writing, the listing had 11 watchers.
Another seller was offering four tickets to a 12 p.m. showing at the Odeon cinema in London’s Leicester Square for £650 ($865), despite around a third of the tickets for that showing still being available for that screening. The group of tickets originally cost £70 ($93) and, at the time of writing, the listing has five watchers. A 7:30 p.m. screening of the film at the same theatre is entirely sold-out, however.
Scalpers or not, film exhibitors are eager to welcome Holland’s web-slinging hero back to the big screen.
“We are excited for the release of ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ on the big screen, another milestone as the sector continues to recover,” an Odeon spokesperson told Variety. “We truly believe films like this are best experienced at the cinema, with the magic of the big screen, comfortable seats and delicious food and drink treats.”