The reasons why F9 snagged the biggest domestic launch ($70 million) since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in December 2019 are almost self-explanatory. The incredibly popular franchise is focused on unapologetic action-packed escapism featuring marquee characters amid a soap opera-like storyline. With large quantities of adults partially or entirely vaccinated from Covid in America, and with around 80% of North American theaters up-and-running, Universal’s “one last delay” from May 28 to June 25 was a canny way to position F9 as the proverbial Tenet of summer 2021.Thanks partially to an “only in theaters” release (at least for the first 31 days), F9 was indeed the big blockbuster to welcome audiences back to blockbuster cinema as the rest of the summer’s biggies followed behind it. But now the question is whether the next batch of summer season biggies can pull similar performances.
If the obvious needs to be stated, nobody expects The Forever Purge to nab a $70 million opening weekend on par with F9, but an opening on par with the $17 million Fri-Sun debut (amid a $31 million Wed-Sun debut) of The First Purge in 2018 would be an optimistic sign. Likewise, Black Widow would now be an unmitigated triumph if it performed anywhere near the likes of Doctor Strange ($88 million debut/$238 million domestic cume) versus Thor: Ragnarok ($123/$315 million). The pandemic and the damage it obviously wreaked upon the movie theater industry has turned some of Hollywood’s biggest and safest franchises (The Fast Saga, the MCU, the James Bond series, etc.), as well as (I’d argue) some of their most cynical IP exploitations (Space Jam: A New Legacy, Top Gun: Maverick, Jungle Cruise, etc.), into “everyone is rooting for them” underdogs.
When Godzilla Vs. Kong opened to $50 million over its Wed-Mon Easter weekend debut in late March/early April, it wasn’t just seen as a halfway decent performance for a franchise that was seen as on the downslope after Godzilla: King of the Monsters ($110 million domestic from a $48 million Fri-Sun debut in 2019). It was hailed by the industry and those covering the industry as a glorious comeback for theatrical moviegoing. I like Godzilla Vs. Kong. My son loves the MonsterVerse. But two years ago, we were all correctly fretting about how much of the annual moviegoing dollar was being spent on the biggest of big franchise event flicks like Godzilla Vs. Kong. Most of the theatrical box office was generated by Marvel/DC superhero movies and Disney nostalgia plays along with periodic franchise-specific horror flick, franchise-specific animated feature and live-action musical.
By late 2019, we were relishing the glimmers of hope offered by the likes of Little Women, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and John Wick: Chapter 3. But now? Well, first, Rian Johnson and friends (understandably) took $450 million to let Netflix distribute the next two Knives Out sequels, depriving Lionsgate and Hollywood in general of a valuable original theatrical franchise. Second, a slew of potentially promising theatrical flicks (Soul, Luca, The Tomorrow War, The Mitchells Vs. the Machines, The Trial of the Chicago 7, My Spy, etc.) being offloaded to streamers has left open cinemas heavily reliant on only the most obviously bankable/safe IP plays. I’ve spent five years worrying about a future were only the biggest “event movies” play theatrically while everything else goes VOD/streaming. But now that the big tentpoles are playing theatrically is considered a win.
The current normal is worse than my “darkest timeline” prediction. With Wall Street seemingly prioritizing streaming revenue over theatrical profits, we may be approaching a point where the biggest of big movies are (in theory/to shareholders) more valuable as cogs in the streaming wars even as the actual rate-of-return revenue on a per-film basis far exceeds subscriber bumps for almost any high-profile feature film. Even The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has quadrupled its $39 million budget in global theatrical release. Yet if the industry prioritizes their streaming platforms and considers their biggest IP to be more useful as streaming premieres, even the biggest of big movies will have to justify their theatrical existence. We’ve gone from “Curses, everyone only goes to theaters for Marvel movies!” to “Yay, this new Marvel movie will get a 45-day exclusive theatrical window!”
We’ve gone from rolling our eyes at the idea of a LeBron James Space Jam sequel or a Tom Cruise Top Gun sequel to hoping they put audiences’ butts in multiplex seats. It would be bad enough if this were a normal summer and we would be hoping that the likes of David Lowery’s The Green Knight or M. Night Shyamalan’s Old would offer hope for the validity for non-franchise fare. But now, especially with In the Heights down for the count, we’re all in a position to treat even the halfway decent theatrical grosses of what otherwise would be the safest and/or most cynical IP-specific flicks in town as a kind of triumph for Hollywood. Thanks to the new normal, even conventional wisdom (like an MCU or James Bond movie being a global blockbuster) is treated as an unconventional victory.
Maybe Wall Street will see a few “as huge as expected” theatrical blockbusters and realize that theatrical moviegoing and streaming can coexist. Maybe even an original franchise like John Wick will explode overseas on the fourth go-around (as did Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious) and make folks stake more stock in the value of a cinema-first smash. Or maybe Covid will exacerbate the trends brought about since late 2015/early 2016. With general audiences shifting their casual viewing to streaming, the old-school movie will be increasingly commercially unviable in theaters leaving only the biggest and safest franchise plays for global exhibition. The cruel irony is that, after the changes wrought by Covid and the streaming wars (which increasingly seems like an alibi for consolidation), those with an interest in theatrical will not mourn the change but be grateful that it wasn’t even worse.
The $70 million domestic debut for F9 is cause for relative celebration, as will (we hope) the $80 million-plus domestic debut of Marvel’s Black Widow. But until we return to a point where the blockbuster success of a Fast Saga sequel or a James Bond flick are taken for granted, until we can cheer for a studio programmer (like Jason Statham’s Wrath of Man which is near $100 million worldwide) to break through the IP-specific noise and find even modest theatrical success, until we can explicitly call out the failings of a given franchise play without feeling like kicking an entire industry while it’s down, then we’re still not back to normal. Or maybe this is the terrible post-pandemic normal, where we celebrate a Willy Wonka prequel or a “live-action” Lion King sequel because at least it’s something “big” opening in theaters.
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