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MGM’s movie studio has delivered its first knockout punch at the box office since being absorbed by Amazon Studios, creating a unique situation whereby a streamer is now flexing its muscle in the same theatrical ring that streamers have been accused of trying to harm.
Over the March 3-5 weekend, Michael B. Jordan’s Creed III debuted to a rousing $58.4 million domestically, the biggest opening of the series, as well as the biggest start ever for a Hollywood sports film, not adjusted for inflation. The Rocky spinoff series is one of MGM’s most important franchises (the most important, of course, is James Bond). Overseas, it started off with an equally impressive $43.1 million for an early global total of $101.5 million.
Creed III caps months of speculation as to what MGM’s film operation will look like in the Amazon era. The ecommerce giant closed its $8.45 billion deal to buy the storied studio nearly a year ago, but it wasn’t until now that the picture became more clear, including the hire in recent days of veteran Warner Bros. production executive Courtenay Valenti as Amazon and MGM’s new head of film. She’ll report to Amazon and MGM Studios chief Jennifer Salke.
“Everything they are doing [at Amazon] shows their commitment to theatrical,” says MGM’s head of distribution Erik Lomis, a veteran Hollywood executive who did an earlier stint at the studio during the days of Rocky. “Nobody else is positioned the same way with a full-fledged theatrical, marketing and distribution team.”
In another key move, Amazon Studios signaled in February that it will indeed use its newfound association with a legacy Hollywood studio to give at least some of its movies a splashy big-screen release when announcing that Ben Affleck’s upcoming movie Air, starring Matt Damon, will open exclusively in theaters across the globe in early April versus going straight to Amazon Prime Video.
And both Creed III and Air will have a proper window before appearing in the home (in the pandemic era, the average window has collapsed to between 31 and 45 days). Nor is Amazon hiding grosses, as it has in the past when giving original films a select release in some cinemas.
In deference to filmmakers, Netflix has given many of its films an early release in theaters, but it still won’t report grosses. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has repeatedly made it clear that its subscribers are the priority, not moviegoers.
Salke’s operation is taking a different tact. Behind the scenes, Amazon has absorbed United Artists Releasing, a distribution co-venture between MGM and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. UAR was the distribution apparatus that allowed MGM to release its movies directly into theaters — including 007 installment No Time to Die — versus having to partner with another studio, at least domestically. Overseas is another matter, where Amazon and MGM movies will still be distributed by Warner Bros. International, including Creed III and Air (Universal Pictures International handled No Time to Die and also has rights to the next, yet-be-announced Bond pic).
And Amazon used its might to help market and promote Creed III. “They superchcarged the campaign with all of their verticals,” says Lomis.
For cinema owners, the foray of Amazon into theatrical is welcome news, even if it makes for a strange marriage. But that’s not say that every movie project, such as Air, will get a major release on the big screen. Affleck’s Nike drama was originally intended for streaming, but Salke and her team changed their minds. “Nobody else in town is positioned to pivot like this. Nobody,” says a source. “Some movies are better with theatrical and some are better with streaming.”
Adds Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, “This weekend’s stellar performance of Creed III in movie theaters offers up solid real-world evidence of how this type of synergy can work even with two entities that at first glance seem like the most unlikely of partners. When executed in the right way this business model can prove advantageous for the big screen and small screen alike and may open the door for more such deals in the future as the lines are being further blurred in the wake of the disruption of the pandemic that has ushered in a new era of movie business dynamics.”
MGM’s upcoming 2023 slate as of now includes Luca Guadagnino’s romantic-themed tennis drama Challengers, starring Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor, and Snoop Dogg’s sports comedy Underdoggs.
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