For cinema operators and Hollywood studios alike, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” has been the loudest indication yet that maybe, just maybe, the movie theater business can rebound from COVID-19 wreckage.
The Sony Pictures supervillain sequel sunk its teeth into the box office with $90.1 million, a debut that’s impressively reminiscent of opening weekends prior to the global health crisis. It’s the biggest three-day haul for a pandemic-era release, ranking ahead of “Black Widow” ($80 million), “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($75 million) and “F9: The Fast Saga” ($70 million). The follow-up film also surpassed its predecessor’s $80 million launch in 2018, which set an October box office record at the time. It now stands behind “Joker” ($93.5 million) as the second-biggest opening weekend ever for the month of October.
“Young adult audiences are less deterred by current pandemic conditions than older and family moviegoers, which is benefitting superhero, action and horror movies,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. He adds: “For these movies, playing exclusively on the big screen is clearly an advantage.”
“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” builds on the confidence that has been mounting through big-screen hits like “Shang-Chi” and the Ryan Reynolds sci-fi comedy “Free Guy.” Still, it’s too soon to declare that movie theaters have made a complete comeback. As the pandemic lingers, audiences have remained hesitant to go to the movies and the box office has been fluctuating by the week. But theater owners are hoping the “Venom” sequel, a film that’s playing only on the big screen, will ignite a robust fall season at the box office. In the coming weeks, MGM’s James Bond installment “No Time to Die” (Oct. 8), Universal’s “Halloween Kills” (Oct. 15) and the Warner Bros. adaptation of “Dune” (Oct. 22) look to scare some life into multiplexes.
In some ways, the latest Bond entry, “Dune,” as well as Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (Nov. 19) and “The Matrix: Resurrections” (Dec. 22) — tentpoles that don’t revolve around superheroes — will be a better test to determine the industry’s overall health. Already, “No Time to Die” has galvanized moviegoers at the international box office, where the 007 adventure has generated a mighty $119 million ahead of its U.S. debut.
In the case of “Venom,” its status as a comic book sequel doesn’t mean its box office success was preordained. Sony had been tempering expectations for the film, suggesting it would secure $40 million in its debut. Almost nobody who follows the industry believed its initial grosses would be that low, but few projected its three-day total would surpass $90 million. Still, there were several signs indicating that Tom Hardy’s otherworldly villain would devour the box office.
Directed by Andy Serkis, “Let There Be Carnage” holds a 59% average on Rotten Tomatoes, which is somehow considerably better than the first film’s 30% score. The widely panned 2018 movie beat the odds, generating $856 million globally and proving that “Venom” fans pay little attention to critical sentiments.
What likely mattered more to moviegoers is that “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” was playing exclusively in theaters. People who were eager to see the developing relationship between Hardy’s Eddie Brock and his toxic alien symbiote had to venture to their local multiplex. By contrast, “Black Widow,” “The Suicide Squad” and other major pandemic-era offerings debuted simultaneously on streaming services, which curbed overall ticket sales.
Timing also played a huge factor. It had been weeks since “Shang-Chi” opened over Labor Day weekend and, until this weekend, the Marvel adventure ruled over box office charts without any real competition. Moviegoers were hungry for a new spectacle to take in at the multiplexes.
The better-than-expected success for “Venom” is a welcome sign that people still value the big screen. But audiences have been limited in what they’re willing to show up to watch. Heroes and horror have remained draws, but adult-driven dramas have seriously struggled to sell tickets. It’s resulted in a string of flops, including the likes of Hugh Jackman’s sci-fi drama “Reminiscence,” Searchlight’s biographical drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” with Jessica Chastain, Paul Schrader’s crime caper “The Card Counter” and Clint Eastwood’s Western “Cry Macho.”
Joining that ignominious company is “The Many Saints of Newark,” which collapsed last weekend with $5 million. The Warner Bros. movie, a prequel to “The Sopranos,” premiered simultaneously on HBO Max, which contributed to the low turnout in theaters. It cost $50 million to produce, a curiously high price tag for a film that doesn’t boast major stars, dazzling special effects or international appeal.
Industry analysts have suggested that “Many Saints” had other elements, not just its genre and hybrid release, working against it. Pandemic or not, a movie based on a TV series that launched two decades ago may not have been destined for big-screen glory. The hope would be that “Many Saints” at least spurred new HBO Max subscribers, but in reality, what “Sopranos” fan doesn’t already pay for the premium service?
“Character-driven stories of all genres have been under pressure for years, well before the pandemic,” Gross says. “Covid is raising the bar because they generally appeal to older audiences, who are more cautious to return to the big screen. It makes it tougher when these movies are available to stream at home.”
Before the year ends, there are several promising movies on the film calendar, including awards hopefuls like Lady Gaga and Adam Driver’s “House of Gucci,” the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s period drama “The Last Duel” and “King Richard,” a sports drama about the father of Serena and Venus Williams that is earning Oscar buzz for Will Smith. These will attempt to prosper alongside big-budget fare, such as Disney’s comic book adventure “Eternals” and Sony’s superhero threequel “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
If most of these movies work on the big screen, it could finally signal to the industry that people are still willing to fill theaters. If they fail, cinema owners should bundle up for a bleak winter.