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The debut of Legendary and Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs. Kong on HBO Max on March 31, the same day the big budget pic opened in theaters, became an afterthought when the monster showdown roared to a $48.1 million opening at the domestic box office, by far a pandemic best and providing a huge jolt of confidence for the theatrical business.
HBO Max doesn’t divulge viewership figures, so it’s unclear the extent to which the MonsterVerse tentpole drove subscribers to the $15-a-month service. But the consensus among industry insiders is that a simultaneous debut will not become the industry norm for big tentpoles post-pandemic out of fear of hurting a movie’s box office chances. There were unique circumstances surrounding Godzilla. “It was alone in the marketplace,” says a rival studio executive. “What it shows me is that people are dying to get out of the house and go to a movie theater.”
Wall Street came to the same conclusion. “A year from now, I’d be surprised if anybody would do this. You can’t draw any real conclusions from Godzilla vs. Kong in regards to HBO Max. These aren’t real conditions,” says analyst Eric Wold of B. Riley Securities.
Others agree. “I still believe that in order to maximize revenue, you still need an exclusive theatrical window. The window might be shortened but you still need to start with that,” says analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. “What we got was a victory for theatrical. It’s a nice win in a crappy environment.”
For Legendary, which has seen the film gross more than $285 million globally thus far, the plan has been a success. “I think a big movie like this working should tell everyone that if we are rational in how we release the movies, there is an appetite for a shared experience in a theater,” says Legendary CEO Joshua Grode, who adds that the decision to go ahead and release the film in an impaired U.S. marketplace “wasn’t for the faint of heart.”
The film has also been a hit for giant screen exhibitor Imax, grossing $4.5 million so far domestically and $18 million in China.
Without a doubt, the pandemic has had the effect of collapsing the hallowed theatrical window to as short as 17 days — 31 days for bigger blockbusters — versus 74 or so days in years past. But most studios are shying away from a day-and-date strategy out of fear of cannibalizing ticket sales at the box office and infuriating talent and filmmakers. WarnerMedia and Warner Bros. were lambasted after announcing in December that they would release their entire 2021 slate simultaneously in cinemas that were open and on HBO Max for a one-month window.
Warners then walked it back to say this was a pandemic era policy only, and that it would adhere to an exclusive theatrical window for its films beginning in 2022, including 45 days for bigger titles. “I still believe that in order to maximize revenue, you need an exclusive theatrical window. The window might be shortened, but you need to start with that,” says Handler.
One source says Godzilla vs. Kong will soon break even financially, a huge feat in the pandemic era. Yet Hollywood veterans caution that the MonsterVerse feature had the advantage of facing zero competition in terms of other movies. Notes one top exhibitor: “These are still pandemic rules.”
A version of this story appeared in the April 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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