The Santa Monica-based movie-ticketing service Atom Tickets has pre-sold more tickets for "Godzilla vs. Kong" than any film since the start of lockdown.
Following a disastrous year for the box office, its performance could be a litmus test for Hollywood and the many theaters that teetered on the brink during the pandemic.
The big-budget action movie from Warner Brothers debuted on HBO Max this week and is hitting the big screen while many schools are on spring break.
"You're afraid to be like, 'It looks like we're almost at the end,' but it feels like we're making a lot of progress," said Atom Tickets co-founder and chairman Matthew Bakal. "The hunger of people going back is pretty palpable."
One big reason for the boost is that more seats are for sale as theaters have increasingly reopened. Several cinemas in Los Angeles opened on March 15th at 25% capacity. That will expand to 50% on Monday. Earlier in the month, theaters began opening at limited capacity in New York City and San Francisco.
These three regions comprise about 20% of the overall domestic market, Bakal said. Partly as a result, "Godzilla vs. Kong" will be playing on more American screens than any pandemic-era film.
"In November the story was, no one was sure what the future holds," he added. "Now it seems pretty clear that the future includes robust moviegoing as we get into this summer."
Another sign of pent-up demand is that outside the U.S., fans have been flocking to the silver screen.
"China, Japan [and] Australia have been booming for moviegoing," Bakal said. "It's like 110-115% of pre-COVID revenue, even at a 70% attendance cap."
Despite the optimism, in certain ways the pandemic likely has irrevocably changed the movie business. The theatrical window – the period when new films play exclusively in cinemas – has continued to erode. Warner Bros. will be debuting its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time the films hit the big screen, a decision that studio chief Ann Sarnoff described as "temporary." Disney recently announced "Black Widow," its biggest blockbuster since lockdown began, will be available on Disney Plus the same day it hits theaters this summer; the company has not taken a definitive stance on whether that will become the norm.
Many industry insiders have long argued that the window has been overdue for a washing.
The Theatrical Release Window: Will the Changes Last?
"If you're doing 90% of your business in 30 days, it's silly that there isn't an opportunity to see films at home on day 31," former Disney exec Craig Kornblau told dot.LA, when Universal and AMC were publicly feuding over the film studio's decision to debut its "Trolls" sequel on NBCUniversal's Peacock streaming service.
For decades the window has been steadily shrinking. At the beginning of the millennium, major studios generally adhered to a period of 150-200 days, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Just before the pandemic, that had fallen to a 90-day standard, which now appears set to shrink further – though not quite shut.
"It looks like people are coalescing around a 45-day window," Bakal said, pointing to a string of recent announcements from several studios and theater chains.
"Ninety percent of revenue from theatrical movies are made in those first couple of weekends," he noted. "So as long as there's a solid exclusive window, things should return to relative normalcy."
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