3 Reasons Why Omicron Variant Is Unlikely to Vacate Cinemas

3 Reasons Why Omicron Variant Is
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

Film exhibition is in an undeniably better situation than it was earlier in the pandemic.

After theaters in key markets like Los Angeles and New York resumed operations in early spring, the domestic weekend box office finally surpassed the $100 million mark in July.

As it stands, 2022 could be the first full year of the pandemic to see domestic film exhibition operate unabated by closures and capacity restrictions, given the wide availability of vaccines.

It’s understandable that the new omicron variant of coronavirus may worry exhibitors, distributors and cinemagoers alike, but there are encouraging signs in recent days. Dr. Anthony Fauci has already stated omicron might be “less severe” than the delta variant, which became dominant over the summer. Likewise, Pfizer says its booster shot has “neutralized” omicron in lab tests.

But regardless of how impactful omicron ends up being, there are indicators from the delta phase of the pandemic that concerns are overblown regarding how film exhibition will hold up in the coming months.  

1. The 2021 Box Office Has Flourished in Spite of Those Staying Home Due to Delta

One could argue the downturn in weekend gross seen throughout August after delta set in, in which its high point barely scraped past $75 million following the record pandemic grosses of prior months, could indicate omicron will spell similar trouble. August has always been a spotty month for film grosses, pandemic or not.

But a November survey conducted by film research firm The Quorum found that of roughly 2,500 Americans who attended cinemas before the pandemic, nearly half are currently staying home and have been doing so predominantly due to concern over delta—all while the box office bounced back throughout the fall, setting new weekend and monthly records in October.

If omicron is unlikely to be as bad as delta, this dynamic of cinema attendees shouldn’t change, as current filmgoers will still feel fine attending the movies due to ample vaccine access, while risk-averse people will remain cautious and stay home.

2. Box Office in Blue States Have Remained Fairly Stable Amid COVID’s Political Divide

Since public sentiment regarding the pandemic and related restrictions isn’t exactly consistent from region to region, it’s worthwhile to get a look at how certain domestic markets have fared.

Between the Memorial Day and Dec. 3 weekends, Los Angeles saw its share of weekend gross fall and stay below 8% for the duration of August, hitting a 7.2% low before picking back up after Labor Day Weekend. By contrast, New York City saw its share waver considerably without hitting a low for that range during August, instead registering a 4.4% low for the last weekend of July.

Per the Quorum survey, most of the group actively avoiding cinemas since the summer leans Democratic, while those continuing to attend cinemas skew slightly more Republican. 

Given that Los Angeles and New York City saw capacity limits for theaters lift much later than DFW and Atlanta, which were under the jurisdictions of red-leaning Texas and Georgia, it makes sense that regional weekend results for bluer markets would reflect more apprehension toward cinemas, and DFW and Atlanta’s gross shares were stable throughout August.

Since the two market leaders’ shares of weekend gross picked back up during the fall in tandem with national gross as vaccine mandates for indoor activities were instituted in both areas, omicron shouldn’t be as worrisome as delta was, especially if available boosters are as effective as Pfizer says.

3. 2022 Will See More Films Play Exclusively in Theaters, Which Matters

The big release of the Aug. 6 weekend was Warner Bros.’ “The Suicide Squad,” which was also available to stream on HBO Max. As a superhero tentpole, it underperformed considerably, unlike Disney and Marvel’s “Black Widow,” which led July 9 to then-record weekend gross for the pandemic, despite it being available to stream on Disney+ as well.

Per Comscore, top regional markets saw negative or flat weekend-by-weekend growth rates for Aug. 6, following fairly weak growth for July 30, when Disney’s Dwayne Johnson-led “Jungle Cruise” also hit theaters and Disney+ simultaneously – suggesting the box office suffered from theatergoers opting to stream the new releases amid concern over delta.

But Aug. 13 saw domestic gross rise back up, with DFW and Atlanta experiencing the strongest growth curves. That weekend was led by “Free Guy,” an original IP from 20th Century that Disney was forced to keep exclusive to theaters, per a locked distribution arrangement. “Free Guy” exceeded expectations and sustained decent gross throughout the month.

After theatrical exclusive “Shang-Chi” brought weekend gross up to its highest point since July over Labor Day Weekend, with strong growth rates returning for Los Angeles and New York after their August lulls, Disney committed the rest of its 2021 slate to exclusive theatrical releases, leading “Eternals” to give the box office a big bump on Nov. 5.

Warner Bros. has already agreed to keep its 2022 theatrical slate exclusive to cinemas, so even if the omicron situation veers back into heightened concern, exhibitors won’t have to worry about anyone electing to watch the March 4 release of “The Batman” and other Warner Bros. tentpoles at home. If Disney sticks to its current strategy, the 2022 box office will continue to fare that much better.