‘Free Guy’ Reminds Hollywood That Star Power Can Still Matter

‘Free Guy’ Reminds Hollywood That Star Power Can Still Matter
Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform; Free Guy, 20 Century Studios

The Aug. 13 box office weekend was somewhat of a headscratcher.

The prior weekend saw “The Suicide Squad,” the latest filmic entry in Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, hit theaters and HBO Max simultaneously. The R-rated but big-budget superhero ensemble ultimately grossed below expectations, failing to break $30 million domestically, as other hybrid releases have managed to under pandemic pressure.

Yet “Free Guy,” a new IP from 20th Century and the first wide Disney-distributed film to hit theaters exclusively in 2021, exceeded expectations on Aug. 13 even as the Delta variant has exhibitors nervous again.

While theater exclusivity certainly helped, star power was just as big of a factor.

Ryan Reynolds has been a highly paid actor for some time, to the tune of $20 million per pic as recently as Netflix’s upcoming actioner “Red Notice,” in which he stars alongside Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot.

From the looks of his pre-COVID box office track record, it’s possible Reynolds is one of very few lead actors working today who still has uniquely potent star power — so much so that drawing any conclusions about theatrical exclusivity from “Free Fall” could mean you’re basing projections off an outlier.

Reynolds has helped films earn good gross as far back as 2009 romcom “The Proposal,” but his turns as Marvel’s foulmouthed Deadpool in 2016 and 2018 elevated him to superhero relevancy in a much higher fashion than 2011’s “Green Lantern.”

After that, his voice-acting role as Pikachu in Pokémon’s live-action/CGI mashup “Detective Pikachu” saw the film nab nearly a third of weekend box office in its opening back when 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” was still in the early stages of its record-shattering run.

Before “Free Guy,” he had leading roles in sequels to “The Croods” and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” that saw those films hit #1 in their respective weekends. In turn, “Free Guy” helped lift domestic weekend gross back up after “The Suicide Squad” failed to do so.

It’s impressive for a new property, and while “The Suicide Squad” was hampered by its hard-R rating and availability on HBO Max, it was also missing the biggest star from its 2016 predecessor: Will Smith.

That film, simply titled “Suicide Squad,” was a massive hit that earned more than $300 million in its domestic run. Likewise, Smith’s “Bad Boys for Life,” released in January 2020, capped out at just above $200 million domestically, the last film to do so before COVID-19 swept the nation, per Box Office Mojo.

“Bad Boys” was also a hard R. Even with returning top talent like Margot Robbie and Viola Davis, “The Suicide Squad” just wasn’t firing on the same cylinders without its main star back.

That’s in contrast to “A Quiet Place Part II,” the third most successful film of the COVID era thanks to the return of its star Emily Blunt. She also had a lead role opposite Dwayne Johnson in “Jungle Cruise,” a hybrid release that grossed better than “The Suicide Squad.”

A smaller film, “Cruella” still saw modest gross off the back of old IP with Emma Stone in the lead role. Stone was once in a little musical called “La La Land” that earned $150 million domestically ahead of 2017’s Academy Awards. Likewise, Stone lent her voice opposite Reynolds for both “Croods” films.

With the Aug. 20 weekend featuring a pileup of less-hyped releases, including two hybrids, “Free Guy” could either enjoy a second weekend at number one or lose the spot to Lionsgate actioner “The Protégé,” but Aug. 27 and Sept. 3 could see “Candyman” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi,” respectively, enjoy turns in that spot thanks to their exclusivity and the clearer calendar at those times.

If star power continues to remain viable, expect significant openings for theatrical exclusives “No Time to Die” (Oct. 8), the last Bond film to star Daniel Craig, and especially “Top Gun: Maverick” (Nov. 19), which sees Tom Cruise reprise his role from the '80s hit ahead of Thanksgiving weekend.

While Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney for an alleged violation of back-end gross in her contract could alter how salaries for top talent are crafted, it’s clear that the right talent can still fill theater seats beyond a pure reliability on well-worn franchises.