Wednesday, July 14, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Five Biggest Takeaways from Black Widow's Box Office

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

This past weekend, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in two years opened in theaters around the world. Black Widow finally hit the big screen and the film managed to generate solid box office results. But as with everything happening in the world of COVID-19, this debut now begs the question of what its larger significance is for the world of theatrical exhibition as a whole? Well, there are plenty of significant things one can examine from this opening, including how it reflects the world of domestic cinema as well as what Disney's investment in the future of theatrical-exclusive releases could be.

Theatrical cinema still packs a wallop

Watching opening weekend grosses constantly go up over the last seven weeks has been quite impressive. Before May 2021, no domestic title released after the pandemic began opened to over $35 million. Then, A Quiet Place: Part II debuted to $48 million, F9 zoomed to $70 million, and now Black Widow has opened to $80.4 million. Those last two numbers are particularly impressive since they're on par with pre-pandemic opening weekend numbers for summer blockbusters. The significant increases across these bows, along with the fact that all combined titles grossed over $100 million this past weekend, demonstrate that theatrical cinema is still valuable and packs a mighty financial wallop.

Even better, it looks like this ongoing recovery won't be just limited to the last seven weeks. The near future slate of releases is full of further blockbusters from a variety of genres that could totally attract moviegoers. The big screen has always had a significant presence in the entertainment landscape and the strong opening weekend numbers from titles like Black Widow showcase that this is just as true as ever. 

We're still in recovery mode and that's ok

Black Widow's opening was behind the debuts of all other Marvel Cinematic Universe features since July 2015 save for Ant-Man and the Wasp. That would normally be a DEFCON-5 level problem, but under the circumstances, it doesn't look like there's anything to worry about. None of those other MCU titles from the last six years had to deal with a simultaneous premium-video-on-demand release or the lingering effects of COVID-19 or the majority of movie theaters being closed in Canada. With all these factors at play, it's apparent that Black Widow's debut is totally fine. 

It's also an indicator that the domestic box office is in an ongoing recovery mode. Luckily, this is still allowing films like F9 and Black Widow to open to over $70 million, but it does mean we'll have to wait two or three months for domestic titles to crack $100 million. Once more films engage in theatrical-only releases, like A Quiet Place: Part II and F9, and audiences become re-engaged with the idea of new theatrical titles debuting on a weekly basis, something resemble normalcy at the domestic box office will re-emerge. Until then, we're in recovery mode basically until the end of August (Candyman will kick off the norm then of major tentpoles largely getting theatrical-exclusive titles).

Reliable franchises are emerging unscathed...but what about the smaller films?

Fast & Furious and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are emerging from this pandemic largely on par with their pre-pandemic box office performances. That's cool to see given how much of a boost both of their most recent entries have given to the worldwide box office. However, everyone largely assumed beloved big-screen franchises would emerge from the pandemic largely unchanged. After all, those are the kind of films Hollywood and general moviegoers alike have been shifting more and more of their focus to in recent years. That's a welcome but certainly expected turn of events.

Where the uncertainty comes in is in how smaller titles will fare on the big screen. So far, no major indie titles released in the last three months have managed to take off. However, that's partially because these films have gone way too wide right away and have also covered more niche material (like the band Sparks) rather than more mainstream storytelling material that's been the backdrop of the biggest pre-pandemic indie hits. Plus, certain movies have left an impact financially without a Marvel Studios logo, such as the solid numbers drummed up by the documentary Summer of Soul or the enduring appeal of The Truffle Hunters, which will soon crack $500,000 domestically despite never playing in more than 105 locations.

PVOD makes films extra frontloaded

The individual Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have been remarkably consistent in terms of how well they play from day to day, with the most frontloaded non-Avengers title (in terms of how much Thursday night box office plays into overall weekend grosses) previously being Ant-Man and the Wasp. That title has now gone to Black Widow, which made nearly half of its opening weekend from just its opening day. Given that metrics from moviegoers don't indicate any drastically different word-of-mouth than your typical entry in the franchise, what gives?

Partially, this is likely due to many general moviegoers still being hesitant to venture out into a movie theater, leaving die-hard MCU fans and those comfortable with that environment as the primary audience for Black Widow. That's a sizeable demographic, clearly, but it also explains why Black Widow opened to $80 million instead of the $90-92 million debut its opening day would've suggested had it played like a normal MCU movie. An even greater culprit, though, is probably that premium video-on-demand debut on Disney+. People who wanted to see Black Widow in theaters saw it right away while a chunk of general moviegoers who would've seen it on Saturday and Sunday watched it at home.

The good news is that Black Widow still scored a sizeable, even by pre-pandemic standards debut, so this is basically splitting hairs. Unless you cost over $300 million like Justice League, a $70+ million bow under any circumstances is great. But if Hollywood wants to go even higher in the next few months, it'll have to commit to theatrical exclusivity. As a sidenote, this would also explain why only one Warner Bros. 2021 release has cracked $30 million on opening weekend. Poor In the Heights got boondoggled in its theatrical run by its distributor refusing to commit to a big-screen experience.

20th Century Fox may prevent Premier Access from catching on

Let's not beat around the bush: Disney announced, for the first time ever, exact revenue from one of their Disney+ Premier Access titles. Black Widow made $60 million for Disney through PVOD sales on Disney+. With the norm established of Disney blockbusters getting simultaneous theatrical and streaming debuts, the question hovering around the entertainment industry the last two days is whether or not this becomes the new normal for Disney. The company has not announced further updates on the matter in the days since Black Widow's box office got reported. Meanwhile, advertising for Disney's next two blockbusters, Free Guy and Shang-Chi, have utilized "only in theaters" in their respective marketing materials.

The former title might be part of a detail that keeps Disney sticking to theatrical-only titles, at least for now. Free Guy, like all 20th Century Studios titles until the end of 2022, has a pay-TV deal with HBO. They cannot be put on Disney+ or Hulu, if Disney forgoes a theatrical release, the revenue will go to HBO instead. Thus, Disney's sort of forced to give these movies a theatrical-exclusive release for the time being. It's why Disney hasn't given any 20th Century Studios titles* theatrical releases in 2021. Disney projects like Cruella and Jungle Cruise can make up for any lost theatrical revenue through PVOD releases. 20th Century Studios films like The King's Man cannot.

With this studio being forced to stay theatrical-only due to contractual issues, it's likely Disney will be keeping its other major theatrical features exclusive to the big screen for the time being too. It's not impossible to imagine Disney just making Premier Access the norm for non-20th Century Studios titles (the studios lack of commitment to theatrical releases in the first pieces of marketing for Encanto and Turning Red is certainly worrisome). But it's also hard to imagine Disney executives explaining to Kevin Feige that Death on the Nile is more fitting for a theatrical exclusive release than Eternals. At the moment, it looks like 20th Century Studios could get Disney to return to theaters, but the success of Black Widow on PVOD means that it's unlikely the studio will permanently abandon this method of release.

* A pair of movies (Nomadland and Summer of Soul) have gotten 2021 theatrical runs from the companies sister studio, Searchlight Pictures.

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