This summer, the movie theater business is essentially starting at square one.
For nearly a century, the studio executives responsible for rolling out movies big and small had relied heavily on facts, figures and past precedent to calculate how a film might perform at the box office. Those instincts helped fuel a $42.5 billion-a-year global industry — at least, in pre-pandemic times.
All that went by the wayside with COVID-19, which portended a period filled with more movie delays than debuts and near-empty theaters. As a result, the popularity of streaming services exploded and traditional studios were left with more questions than answers about the best way to reach audiences. And, you know, make money on the movies they produced. Now, during the busy summer blockbuster season — which runs from May through Labor Day — Hollywood will begin to etch the new path forward for the movie theater business.
There are the obvious unanswered questions: Will audiences pay to see a movie in theaters if they can wait a few weeks to watch it at home? And will attendance get a boost when COVID-19 capacity restrictions are lifted in New York City and Los Angeles?
Now that films are actually being released, studios can get more granular: Do certain franchises, or genres, benefit from the big screen experience? After all, Paramount’s horror sequel “A Quiet Place Part II,” the first exclusively theatrical release in eight months, nabbed the biggest opening weekend of the pandemic by far. Then again, people may just be desperate to get out of the house as vaccine rates rise and COVID-19 cases decline. Does having a movie star’s name above the title make a difference? Not in the case of Angelina Jolie’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” which opened to a doleful $2.8 million while streaming on HBO Max.
With each new movie that’s released in theaters, studios and cinema operators are able to fill in some of those blanks. Take “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” The umpteenth installment in the sprawling supernatural horror franchise from New Line and Warner Bros. was greenlit with the assumption that global ticket sales would reach a certain threshold. After at least one pandemic-related postponement, it eventually debuted in theaters last weekend, generating a promising $24 million in 3,102 U.S. theaters while premiering simultaneously on HBO Max. It’s impossible to know the kind of money that was left on the table by giving audiences the option to watch the latest “Conjuring” movie on HBO Max. Of course, that’s not the only marker of success. The dozens of 2021 films from Warner Bros. that will premiere on HBO Max are expected to boost, or at least help retain, subscribers. The studio doesn’t share any viewing metrics for its streaming offerings, so that’s hard to quantify for those of us on the outside.
“‘The Conjuring 8’s’ weekend would be stronger if it weren’t launching one week after “A Quiet Place 2″ and if it weren’t on TV, but in total this is [..] another positive sign for the industry,” says David A. Gross, runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “It’s very good to see.”
There were several factors that likely affected opening weekend revenues for the latest “Conjuring” film. It arrived on the heels of “A Quiet Place Part II,” which added another $19 million last weekend. Those films targeted similar demographics, which likely cannibalized ticket sales, though they still pulled in solid numbers. At the same time, 25% of theaters in the country remain shuttered and many reopened cinemas are still operating at reduced capacity, limiting overall revenues.
“In this new world of hybrid releases, it’s difficult to assess what constitutes a hit or solid debut,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “Streaming services aren’t giving out the number of views. It’s no longer a standard analysis.”
Even if streaming services decided to divulge any sort of digestible viewership data, the metrics wouldn’t necessarily be simple to interpret because there’s no longer a one-size-fits-all method to launching movies. Every major studio has its own system, and even those approaches can vary movie-to-movie — all of which will finally be on display this summer.
At the very least, it will test the resolve of the marketing departments tasked with explaining to customers that Warner Bros. offerings “In the Heights” (June 11), “Space Jam: A New Legacy” (July 16) and “The Suicide Squad” (Aug. 6) will be available concurrently on HBO Max for no extra charge to subscribers, while Sony’s “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (June 11) and “Hotel Transylvania 3” (July 23), as well as Lionsgate’s “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” (June 16) and “The Protege” with Samuel L. Jackson (Aug. 20) will have traditional theatrical releases.
Disney Plus subscribers can see the superhero adventure “Black Widow” (July 9) and “Jungle Cruise” starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson (July 30) on their couches for a premium $30 fee, but the studio’s action comedy “Free Guy” with Ryan Reynolds (Aug. 13) won’t be available on streaming until 45 days after its theatrical debut. Similarly, Paramount’s “GI Joe” origin story “Snake Eyes” (July 23) and the animated “Paw Patrol: The Movie” (Aug. 20) will play in theaters for 45 days before moving to Paramount Plus.
Confused yet? We don’t blame you, but we’ll keep going.
Universal’s summer slate of “F9” (June 25), “The Forever Purge” (July 2) and “Old” (July 23) will screen in only theaters for at least 17 days before making the jump to premium video-on-demand. That doesn’t include “The Boss Baby” sequel (July 2), the studio’s first movie to debut simultaneously in theaters and on the fledgling streamer Peacock.
Though it may be impossible for the average consumer (or even some entertainment journalists) to keep those releases straight, it’ll be telling for industry experts to see what is able to break through the noise.
“This summer is the test kitchen for the industry,” Dergarabedian says. “It’s competitive for the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers. We’re going to have real-world examples of what each [studio’s] model can bring to the table.”