The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the movie business, a few box office successes — and a lot of uncertainty

‘F9’ is about to become the second big theatrical hit of the vaccine era. But other movies have struggled, and no one can figure out why.

Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez in “F9.” (Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures/AP)

Since U.S. movie theaters returned at least to partial strength a month ago, one point has been certain: A pair of movies have brought people back to theaters.

As Hollywood begins its historically crucial month of July, the auto-based action-adventure sequel “F9: The Fast Saga” ends June having taken in more than $75 million, putting the film on pace to earn well above $125 million for its domestic run. That complements the action-horror sequel “A Quiet Place Part II,” which has grossed $136 million in North America since opening a month ago. Both would have been respectable figures even before scientists ever identified a virus known as SARS-CoV-2.

But the news is weak elsewhere. Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” prequel “Cruella” sits at just $72 million after a month at the box office. The Warner Bros. horror title “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” has managed just $59 million, the lowest of any of the seven films in that franchise (not counting the stand-alone “Curse of la Llorona”). And Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated musical “In the Heights” has, in the past three weeks, amassed a paltry $24 million.

As vaccination numbers rise along with consumers’ indoor comfort levels, people are finally returning to movie theaters, negating a major concern that percolated during the pandemic. But they are doing so selectively. And those who work in Hollywood are trying to decipher why.

Is it that the two hits are action-heavy sequels that, in a post-pandemic world, represent the only type of content many people will leave their homes for?

Or is it that they have been the only two major movies not to be available simultaneously on a streaming platform — day-and-date, in industry parlance — as studios increasingly steer new movies to their own or competitive services instead of sending them to theaters?

“I wish I could tell you the reason; I just know we all desperately want to figure it out,” said a studio distribution executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to suggest an industry in a state of confusion. (Welcome to Hollywood.)

Throughout the pandemic the question has been a freighted one: Will people return to theaters? The answer, according to box office results, is shaping up to be yes — but only sometimes. Overall box office this past weekend tallied $98 million, the highest of the pandemic era, but a marked drop-off from 2019, when the box office most weekends from late May to late July exceeded $150 million.

At the issue’s heart is what specifically audiences want to see in theaters after more than 15 months of consuming so many flavors of entertainment at home — and, consequently, which types of films companies should deliver to them.

The reason for a split between “Quiet Place” and “F9” and the rest of the industry is especially pressing as July begins. The month historically is one of the most lucrative on the film calendar, second only to December. Hopes abound this year for a resurgence, with new installments on the way in the Marvel and G.I. Joe cinematic universes; a sequel to the 2017 animated hit “The Boss Baby”; a sequel to the 1990s basketball staple “Space Jam,” now with LeBron James; and a movie with Dwayne Johnson based on Disney’s Jungle Cruise attraction.

A five-weekend period that kicks off Friday will be the busiest time for new releases since December 2019, three months before the pandemic slammed the entertainment economy to a halt.

The $70 million that “F9” earned this past weekend is good news for studio Universal Pictures. It means the film matches 2009’s “Fast & Furious” for the fifth-highest opening in the 10-movie franchise. (The line also includes a spinoff, 2019’s “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.”) Experts consider the number particularly encouraging because about 20 percent of North American theaters haven’t reopened yet, many of those in Canada. (The film has grossed an additional $335 million around the world, nearly two-thirds of that in China.)

“We felt very good about our June 25th date,” said Universal distribution president Jim Orr. “It felt bold when we set it [in early March], but things were pointing in the right direction.”

He acknowledged that the month ahead still brings concerns about whether audiences will come flooding back but said that “there are a lot of reasons to be bullish — the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter every week.” If true, that would benefit Universal, which has three more big releases in July, including the horror movie “The Forever Purge” and “The Boss Baby: Family Business” this holiday weekend.

The idea that it’s mainly the big spectacle of action movies bringing audiences back has garnered its followers, who can point to the vrooming outrageousness of “F9” for support. The Vin Diesel-Michelle Rodriguez movie is the kind of theater experience that stands in sharp contrast with what audiences see at home — making it that factor, not the exclusivity, that gets people buying tickets.

“I think it’s the former,” said Michael Pachter, a theater analyst at investment firm Wedbush Securities, when asked which possibility he believed. He offered a simple rationale. “Blockbusters are really great on the big screen,” he said.

The data, too, suggests it may in fact be a matter of genre. Bruce Nash, who runs the box office analysis firm the Numbers, said the “F9” ticket sales were about 65 percent of the total expected audience, according to his site’s models. If that’s not spectacular given the 80 percent of open theater locations, it is still superior, he said, to family films such as “Cruella” and romantic dramas such as the independent “Finding You,” both of which struggled to reach half their expected audience in theaters.

Underlining the idea that theaters are increasingly only for very specific categories of films: A raft of new projects from studio-owning conglomerates are being directed to the at-home audience. ViacomCBS for example recently announced that a new Bryan Cranston-Annette Bening small-town lottery dramedy, “Jerry and Marge Go Large,” will be distributed on Paramount Plus instead of to theaters. Just a few years ago, a film with that cast and theme would have been routed to theaters.

But Nash said that while he thought genre played a role in the hits, he attributes some of the “F9” and “Quiet Place” box office to exclusivity — what the industry calls theatrical windows.

“It’s beginning to look a lot more likely that it makes a difference,” he said.

That idea has plenty of support too. While Warner Bros., which is putting all its 2021 movies simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, has sought to make the argument that a streaming release gets a movie more awareness for theaters, it also appears to be keeping people home. Theater owners say they see a decisive drop in foot traffic when word gets out that a film can be seen from the couch.

“I don’t think day-and-date is a killer, but it does seem to put a cap on things,” said Bill Barstow, owner of Main Street Theatres, a regional Midwestern chain based in Omaha.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it necessarily makes financial sense for studios to put movies exclusively in theaters. A studio selling a movie on a premium on-demand platform, as Disney did with its $30 Disney Plus Premier offering for “Cruella,” will get to keep all the revenue from each sale. If a theater sells $30 worth of tickets for a film, a studio will keep only about 50-60 percent of that.

Experts say it’s possible that both the action-movie genre and theatrical exclusivity are elements driving people to theaters, making both key ingredients for a pandemic-era hit.

“Both movies are big movies that people want to see,” John Fithian, president and chief executive of the D.C.-based National Association of Theatre Owners, wrote in an email, referring to “F9” and “Quiet Place.” “And both movies have an exclusive theatrical window.”

A telling experiment will come when Disney releases the Scarlett Johansson Marvel movie “Black Widow” on July 9 in theaters and as a $30 purchase on Disney Plus. The movie is a big franchise action-adventure. But it will not have theatrical exclusivity, and if it significantly underperforms compared with previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films, it could cinch the argument that exclusivity matters to theatrical audiences.

Chris Aronson, who runs distribution for “A Quiet Place” studio Paramount, said he would stop short of saying only the action-adventure genre will draw a big theatrical audience in this new climate. But he acknowledged that “there was a confluence of events that came together for us.”

Paramount is deploying a theatrical strategy that puts a premium on brand names. It is keeping big action movies such as “Top Gun: Maverick” and the G.I. Joe origin story “Snake Eyes,” as well as a family title, “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which released a trailer Tuesday, in theaters. But it has sold an original story, “The Tomorrow War,” to Amazon for home release, following its similar move with the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming 2 America."

“I think studios may have to be a little more selective,” Aronson said of theatrical releases. “But I don’t think it’s about one type of film. Good content is good content.”

What studios will do if evidence mounts that only certain types of movies draw a theater audience remains to be seen. The possibility exists for a self-fulfilling prophecy: Studios, worried that audiences wish to see only big action spectacles, decrease further the number of other types of movies they put in theaters. Consumers then become so habituated to not seeing those movies there they come out for them even less.

Theater owners say that would be the wrong move. They believe the factor holding back these films at the moment isn’t fundamental — it’s circumstantial.

“I think it is just going to take time for films to break into normal conversation again,” Barstow said.

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