Before the industry could calculate summer 2021’s final box office figures, they had to wait for Disney, which had the final say.
Because when you have a Marvel movie like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings programmed during the final weekend of the season, and it delivers a Labor Day holiday opening of $94.67 million, it swings everything.
Before the opening of Shang-Chi, Universal (including Focus) was leading the summer box office period of May 7-September 2 with $393.9 million, according to Comscore, ahead of Disney’s $382.3M. But following the Marvel Cinematic Universe title’s release, Disney jumped to No. 1 with $483M. If you include 20th Century Studios and Searchlight’s grosses, the Disney-20th Century combo is $586.1M, per Comscore. Universal and Focus ranked second for the summer with $407.4M.
That means a win for the hybrid theatrical day-and-date model, right?
No, dummy, box office is product-driven. That was proven again and again over the summer right up until the end with a Marvel movie having the ultimate exclamation point; not to mention Disney had the power of Marvel, Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and one of its vintage animated villainesses brought to life for a millennial generation.
This summer, which clocked in $1.75 billion at the domestic box office and reps 80% of the current year-to-date total of $2.21B, was always intended to be one of rebuild and hodge-podge. That was due to Disney’s experimenting with theatrical day-and-date distribution on the PVOD tier of Disney+ with Cruella, Jungle Cruise and Black Widow, and Warner Bros dropping theatrical titles in their first month on HBO Max (Uni and Paramount weren’t entirely innocent; they respectively had Boss Baby: Family Business on Peacock and Paw Patrol on Paramount+) as studios looked to find a financial way during a continued pandemic where kids under 12 aren’t cleared for vaccinations.
All in, summer 2021 is up 893% from the same first weekend in May through Labor Day period last year, which posted a notorious low of $176.4M. The last time summer was around this $1.7 billion level was 29 years ago in 1992, when the season grossed $1.73 billion.
The good news is that we had a summer, unlike last year when the pandemic forced theaters to remain shuttered. Not only that, Los Angeles and New York were finally allowed to reopen this spring, which as we witnessed from the lackluster results of Warner Bros’ Tenet ($11.6M), makes a huge difference when they’re not around.
Does the hybrid formula work? If you ask Scarlett Johansson, that’s an absolute “no” from a money standpoint. However, it’s important to remember in regards to the downside of the model that it’s not just about money moving forward from a previous ancillary, and a window collapsing. It’s far more severe than that. Piracy, is the absolute killer here. Black Widow, according to piracy and distribution sources with knowledge, is officially the most pirated feature of the summer. Disney knows this; and Disney+’s Loki was up there too. Don’t Breathe 2 was the most pirated movie this week according to Torrent Freak. How’s that? Because a clean copy via PVOD was made available for the taking. Streaming titles such as HBO Max’s The Suicide Squad and Amazon’s Cinderella were also in the most recent week’s list of the most copied pics (Samba TV reported that Cinderella was watched by 1.1M Smart TV households over the four-day weekend, one of the lower turnouts of late for an Amazon Prime feature, but the second-most watched feature musical of the pandemic behind Disney+’s Hamilton).
Sure, the war cry about piracy is decades old, going back to MPA chief Jack Valenti’s rants about the videotapes of current theatrical releases available on New York City sidewalks. However, those finance executives who are completely drunk about streaming need to realize that when a movie or TV series is made available digitally, it spreads like poison ivy online. And it’s not just some washed-out copy of a bobbing camera in a movie theater on the other side of the world, but a pristine one, available and in several languages. It’s not just the studio and exhibition coffers that lose here, but the content creators too. Piracy stats have shown that when a film is available theatrically day-and-date in the home, piracy spikes for that title immediately, versus a film that has a theatrical window. When a copy is made available on PVOD three weeks or more than a month later, that’s when thieving for that particular title spikes. For example, on Torrent Freak, Shang-Chi was the No. 5 most-pirated movie for the period ending September 6, as compared to Black Widow which was No. 1 promptly in its first week.
The in-home availability also notoriously impacts film’s second weekends at the box office, i.e., Black Widow (down 68%, the steepest for a Disney MCU title), Space Jam: A New Legacy (-69%), as well as openings, i.e., Suicide Squad ($26.2M) and In the Heights ($11.5M). As far as that grand average hold of -34% by Jungle Cruise over five weekends? At $106.8M through six weekends, the town knows that great Rock movies like this can feasibly make that amount of money in a week to 10 days’ time.
Many say we’ll be back to normal at the box office when we begin to exceed 2019 levels on a consistent weekend-to-weekend basis. The past four days racked up $139M — great start,14% ahead of the Labor Day frame two years ago. But, of course, the whole summer season is behind 2019’s $4.35 billion by 60%, and as the chart below shows, most of the majors are down from two years ago. The exception is Paramount, up 17%, propelled by the $160M performance of A Quiet Place Part II versus 2019’s majority dollars from Rocketman and Crawl. It was the Quiet Place sequel that got summer going over Memorial Day weekend with a $57M four-day start.
Between 2015-2019, summer repped 38% of the domestic box office year. At that pace, we’d get to $4.6 billion by year’s end, though AMC CEO Adam Aron had loftier goals (before Paramount pushed Top Gun: Maverick to next year) of $5.2 billion. He’s just announced a new $25M TV campaign for his chain, arguably the first ever for a U.S. exhibitor.
It’s obvious that not only does the industry need to be free of hybrid models and return turnstiles to their peak, but also become independent from Delta variants — in particular the older art house crowd which has proven itself slow to return, i.e., after MGM/United Artists Releasing’s Respect came in under a $10M start. The Aretha Franklin biopic literally had no choice but to follow an exclusive 13-day window versus the standard 17-day window for a specialty feature. Not having the Hollywood Arclight and Cinerama Dome in the mix for specialty releases is a major loss to those distributors looking for a small, robust kickoff.
Lastly, despite all the fears of the Covid variants, will movie theaters close down again?
“I don’t think that’s going to happen in North America,” NATO president and CEO John Fithian told Deadline at CinemaCon two weeks ago.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen because we’re seeing our local jurisdictions respond to outbreaks in waves like Nevada, where patrons are wearing masks in theaters again, and in Southern California,” he said. “We’re seeing proposals from places like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans to require vaccinations to come back.”
This is coupled with the fact that there haven’t been recorded Covid outbreak cases in cinemas around the globe, per NATO’s extensive research; the org is behind the huge year-long-plus campaign CinemaSafe, which provides protocols during the pandemic so patrons feel at ease.
“It’s really safe compared to other forms of activities to begin with, and we’re also working with local regulators to continue that,” adds Fithian. Another circuit boss we spoke with at CinemaCon who prefers not to be named, echoed Fithian’s outlook: With vaccinations going up (currently per the New York Times at 53% for two doses for all ages, 62% one dose) it’s going to be near impossible to close down movie theaters again.
And with Shang-Chi‘s super performance here at the end of summer, it only makes everyone more excited for a continued rebound this fall.