What Overseas Box Office Means for U.S. Exhibition Comeback

What Overseas Box Office Means U.S.
Yinchen Niu/VIP

With the long-awaited return of the New York City and Los Angeles box office markets underway, pondering when domestic gross will roar back to life is more prescient than ever.

Studios are already expediting big releases in response, with Paramount’s “A Quiet Place” sequel now bowing May 28 instead of Sept. 17 and a new “Peter Rabbit” from Sony set to hit theaters a month ahead of schedule on May 14. Likewise, Disney’s “Black Widow” is still on the calendar for May 7.

When evaluating the domestic exhibition market’s chances of regaining some vital health come May, three key factors to consider can be gleaned from how overseas markets are doing.

Domestic Gross Is Currently Upheld by Poor Restrictions

If you’re oblivious to how territories comprising the top box office markets in 2019 responded to the pandemic, a look at their grosses from last summer through today would have you believe the U.S. kept COVID-19 rates from getting out of control.

The domestic box office has generally stayed within $7 million-$15 million each weekend since early September, with fluctuations above $15 million attributed to the Labor Day, Thanksgiving and December holiday weekends, when “Tenet” and sequels to “The Croods” and “Wonder Woman” hit theaters, respectively.

But while some regional markets closed again after reopening due to what would soon be COVID’s peak in the U.S., gross didn’t take much of a hit throughout the worst months.

Elsewhere, Japan and South Korea saw gross trend downward in the winter months upon the resurgence of positive cases, while the U.K. shut exhibition down altogether in response to its surge.

Contrarily, sporadically huge bumps in Chinese gross have occurred in tandem with consistently healthy turnout, thanks to an obvious reality of global film exhibition.

High Box Office Turnout Is Still Contingent on Tentpoles

“Detective Chinatown 3” set a record $775 million for the Chinese New Year weekend in February. With COVID practically nonexistent in China, its film industry has the privilege of releasing native tentpoles to wide audiences again.

As it recovers from a surge, the South Korean industry is overly cautious about releasing big titles, as CJ Group has made a Kilar-esque move to set a dual theatrical-streaming release for “Seobok,” deemed one of the region’s hottest titles of the year, via CJ’s SVOD service Tving.

Even if COVID is still present in these regions, China’s neighboring box office leaders are primed for audiences to make swift and willing returns to public outings when restrictions lift again, as exhibited by the very low rates of citizens obtaining vaccinations.

It’s a matter of how soon American studios will enact global rollouts for their tentpoles given their delays stateside and a far more dire need for vaccinations.

Vulnerability to COVID Has Not Lessened in the U.S.

Just as the March 2020 closures of cinemas coincided with the whims of reckless spring breakers, health experts fear spring break has returned with a vengeance alongside rapidly spreading COVID variants.

To make matters worse, states such as Texas and Mississippi have walked back their COVID restrictions (including mask mandates) amid slower vaccine rollouts on their end.

New COVID cases in the U.S. are around the same level as the summer 2020 surge that followed rushed state reopenings led by the Lone Star State.

With things as fragile as they are, further spikes could again extend the suffering of theatrical exhibitors like AMC ($4.6 billion lost in 2020), Regal (operations suspended last fall after a brief reopening) and Alamo Drafthouse (bankrupt and sold to a private equity firm).

Even with lower COVID rates, the U.K. isn’t reopening cinemas until the latter half of May, further heightening the risk factor at play in the U.S.

With COVID variants, dragging vaccinations and terminated state guidelines in the balance, a stubborn group of moviegoers keeping box office numbers up above last summer’s performance will be ineffective if sudden closures of key markets scare tentpoles away from cinemas again.

Box office enthusiasts can salivate over China’s numbers as much as they want, but failing to understand why gross bounced back there before attempting the same stateside will ensure theater aisles and marquees gather dust again.