The movie business is breathing a provisional sigh of relief today after weekend box office numbers show "Godzilla vs. Kong" broke several pandemic-era records. But Hollywood still has reason to worry.
In its debut domestic weekend, the Warner Bros. film played on over 3,000 screens and raked in $32.2 million, both highs since lockdowns began. None of these figures would represent big wins in normal times, though this is hardly normal.
Pre-pandemic average opening weekend of 2019's top four box-office hits was about $200 million. And for the first time, Warner Bros., Disney and other studios have simultaneously released what would normally be theatrical tentpoles on their streaming services.
"It's clear that wherever audiences are ready to safely return to the theater, they have, and we're thrilled with the results," Jeff Goldstein, who heads domestic distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures, said in a release announcing the numbers.
The new data suggest Hollywood, which had an abysmal box-office year with theaters across the country shuttered, is headed in the right direction – even if the cinema business is in decline. And with only 55% of theaters operating in North America according to Comscore, and most of them at limited capacity, there is still plenty of room for recovery.
The box office figures represent about a 50% increase in screen count and 278% jump in revenue from Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon," the most recent big-name film to debut in the U.S., in early March.
The film also set pandemic-era records for largest opening day since lockdowns began ($9.6 million, on Wednesday last week) and largest single day ($12.5 million, on Saturday). Overall, it has earned $48.5 million since its mid-week release. Including international, where it has been showing for about two weeks, it's brought in over $285 million.
For further comparison to the film's $32.2 million weekend, the pandemic-era debut of "Wonder Woman 1984" took in about $16.7 million domestically over Christmas weekend, while "Tenet" earned $20.2 million over its opening weekend in September.
Like "Wonder Woman" and "Raya," "Godzilla vs. Kong" viewers had the option to watch the new film on a streaming platform. "Raya" was sold for $30 on Disney Plus, while the other two were available on HBO Max for no extra fee. The extent to which this impacted their box office performance is unclear.
Given the relative success of "Godzilla vs. Kong," though, there may be some cause for optimism that the magic of the silver screen still has its charms–perhaps especially so for spectacles like superheroes, explosions and nuclear lizards fighting giant monkeys.
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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Production in Hollywood dropped for the second month in a row in December and is expected to remain slow as coronavirus cases surge in Los Angeles.
Warner Bros. TV, Universal Television, Disney Television Studios, CBS Studios, Sony Pictures Television and other production studios have halted production until at least mid-January after FilmLA circulated a Christmas Eve alert from county health authorities strongly recommending production companies limit or pause activity through the end of the year.
Both SAG-AFTRA and the Producers Guild recommended a halt on on-set commercial production in the region on Jan. 3 .
According to FilmLA, the nonprofit that issues filming permits for the county and city, permit applications fell 24.9% from November to December. That's up from the 7.6% dip in applications between October and November.
FilmLA spokesperson Philip Sokoloski said larger budget products like feature films and scripted TV may not resume filming until the middle of this month or later.
"There's a lot pending but no real understanding of exactly when the work will return," he said.
FilmLA sent out the alert on the recommendation of county health officials who were facing zero capacity at hospital intensive care units by mid-December. Sokoloski said public health officials opted not to shut down production as they did in March because "there's a very high level of voluntary compliance" among studios.
TV production accounted for 27% of permit requests in December. A handful of series began shooting locally, including "Insecure" (HBO), "Tacoma FD" (HBO Max) and "The L Word: Generation Q" (Showtime).
Commercial shoots for products by companies including Haagen Dazs, Honda and Mountain Dew comprised 28% of permits issued last month. Feature film production made up just 6% of permitting across 26 films, mostly independent projects, including "Monstrous," "Slayers" and "This Land."
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