Despite the best-laid plans of Hollywood studio and cinema operators, the movie theater business is still struggling to mount a recovery from COVID-19.
For a while, the box office looked poised for a comeback, with a string of pandemic-era record opening weekends, including “A Quiet Place Part II” ($48 million), “F9” ($70 million) and “Black Widow” ($80 million) in June and July. Despite a few well-timed theatrical hits, multiplexes aren’t home free yet.
The persistent uphill battle that faces the film industry was illuminated last weekend with the release of “The Suicide Squad.” The R-rated comic book adaptation had all the makings of a box office hit: stellar reviews, charismatic super-villains and the cinematic anomaly of Sylvester Stallone as a digitized shark. However, the Warner Bros. movie fell short of expectations, earning $26.5 million in its first three days of release in North America. “The Suicide Squad” generated another $35 million internationally, taking its overall tally to $72.2 million. Those figures, while not entirely unexpected considering the ongoing pandemic, are disappointing because the studio spent a massive $185 million to produce the film, and at least $100 million more on promotional efforts, in the hopes of steering its DC property in a direction that’s both critically and commercially viable.
So what went wrong?
For one, the delta variant has caused the country’s COVID-19 cases to surge, making audiences more hesitant to visit their local multiplex. In an interview with Variety last week, John Fithian, the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), acknowledged the concerning lack of consumer confidence. But, as more people get vaccinated, he’s hopeful moviegoers will return.
“That confidence level has very much improved with rising vaccination rates,” Fithian said. “I hope that the delta dip, let’s call it that, is short-term.”
At the same time, the film wasn’t only available on the big screen. It was released simultaneously on HBO Max, which likely cannibalized ticket sales to an unknowable degree.
“The question remains consistent in terms of whether the results were influenced by the pandemic, a day-and-date release strategy, consumer preferences — or a combination of all three,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore.
In 2021, box office revenues are no longer the only way to determine the financial success or failure of a movie. That’s good for something like “The Suicide Squad,” which carries a sizable price tag and doesn’t stand a chance of becoming profitable in its theatrical run. In the case of “The Suicide Squad,” as well as Warner Bros. entire 2021 film slate, the studio is banking on boosting HBO Max subscribers in addition to selling movie tickets.
HBO Max on Sunday reported “The Suicide Squad” had the second-most viewed opening weekend of any film that launched simultaneously on the platform. Since the company didn’t provide any metrics to back up that statistic, it’s unclear how many people actually watched the movie between Friday and Sunday. More importantly, it’s not certain that “The Suicide Squad” inspired any new HBO Max subscribers, the sine qua non of a major streaming release.
“As the country faces new challenges due to the COVID variant, we’re happy to continue to offer fans the option of viewing movies in their homes,” HBO Max executive VP and general manager Andy Forssell said in a statement. “Many chose to do just that as ‘Suicide Squad’ emerged as the second most viewed film over an opening weekend on HBO Max since we began day-and-date releases with theaters.”
“The Suicide Squad” is a marketing quandary because it’s not exactly a sequel or a spinoff. Rather, it’s essentially a do-over of the critically derided 2016 Warner Bros. movie “Suicide Squad,” which made a ton of money in theaters ($746 million globally) despite terrible reviews.
For comic book enthusiasts, Gunn’s reimagining provided an exciting opportunity for a buzzy filmmaker to offer his take on a group of expendable super-villains. Unlike its predecessor, “The Suicide Squad” was widely praised by critics (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and moviegoers (“B+ CinemaScore). For those unfamiliar with comic book lore, though, it may have been puzzling to distinguish the two nearly identical titles that were released about five years apart.
“While fans of the first ‘Suicide Squad’ movie and DC aficionados would naturally be aware of the distinctions between the 2016 release and this edition, more casual viewers may have had some confusion about their differences,” Dergarabedian says.
In the latest version of the comic book adaptation about reckless baddies, director James Gunn, the filmmaker behind Marvel’s successful “Guardians of the Galaxy” series, brought back Margot Robbie as the deranged Harley Quinn and Viola Davis as the sleek operative Amanda Waller, and added Idris Elba and John Cena into the mix. Despite a buzzy cast, “The Suicide Squad” lacked the kind of star power that fueled the original with a box office draw like Will Smith as Deadshot or a ubiquitous villain like Jared Leto’s Joker.
“The Suicide Squad” also notched an R-rating (the original, directed by David Ayer, was PG-13), which limits younger audience members.
Dergarabedian maintains the best marketing and promotional efforts that Hollywood has to offer won’t do much good if COVID-19 is keeping people at home. “As long as the industry is operating in this unusual environment, we will continue stumbling around a bit in the dark trying to figure it all out,” he says.
That’s the harsh reality of releasing a big-budgeted movie in the middle of a pandemic, one that could cause complications for high-profile films slated for 2021, such as the James Bond sequel “No Time to Die,” Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and Marvel’s “Eternals.” Given the uncertainty surrounding the public health crisis, will these films stick with their initial release plans or will major movies start getting delayed again?