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On May 19 at the AMC Century City multiplex in Los Angeles, Arnold Schwarzenegger took to the stage with his usual bravado to promote the theatrical experience. “Now is the time to wind down the pandemic period and get back to the big screen,” he said before asking the audience — mostly entertainment press — to chant, “we’re back, we’re back.”
After months of cinema closures and sending high-profile content directly to homes, Hollywood is jumping back into the box office trenches and supplying a steady stream of big movies. In the U.S., the campaign begins Memorial Day weekend with Disney’s Cruella and Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II.
There are good, as well as ominous, signs. As the pandemic eases in many parts of the globe, the number of people who feel comfortable returning to the movies is growing dramatically, according to leading research firm National Research Group.
In China, the comfort level is 98 percent, helping to explain why Universal’s latest Fast & Furious installment opened to an impressive $136 million there during the May 21-23 weekend, the second-biggest bow of any title in the series (only the previous film in 2017 brought in more). F9 opened in seven other foreign markets ahead of its June 25 U.S. bow, earning an impressive $163 million all in.
“I can’t be anything but cautiously optimistic,” says Paramount domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson as he prepares to release Quiet Place Part II. At the same time, Aronson is among many in Hollywood who are pondering the pandemic’s long-term impact on moviegoing: “We simply don’t know yet. Only time will tell.”
As part of the mad dash to catch up with the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix, WarnerMedia and Disney furiously tried to grow HBO Max and Disney+ during the COVID-19 crisis by offering day-and-date releases. And, in a surprise turn, Universal said May 24 that it will launch the sequel The Boss Baby: Family Business simultaneously on sister streaming service Peacock as well as in theaters on July 2.
So far, ViacomCBS says Paramount event pics, including Quiet Place Part II, won’t debut on Paramount+ until 45 days after their theatrical release. And Disney CEO Bob Chapek, in explaining his studio’s hedged bet on movie theaters in 2021, told investors May 24: “We didn’t want to delay Black Widow again, but we couldn’t put all our eggs in the theatrical distribution basket.” That Marvel film hits theaters July 8 and will be made available to Disney+ subscribers the same day for a Premier Access charge of $30.
Chapek stressed that his company continues to value the power of theatrical, and will abide by an exclusive window once there are clear signs of a box office recovery.Disney will test those waters with release of Ryan Reynolds and 20th Century broad comedy Free Guy in mid-August and the Marvel Studios’ Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in early September.
“That is later in the summer when we hope — we hope, we’re not sure — that the theatrical marketplace will recover more fully, and that type of distribution makes sense,” Chapek said. “At some point, you have to step off the dock and onto the boat … we’ll see how it goes.”
Indeed, all the major studios — such as Disney — have indicated they will adhere to a 45-day window post-pandemic or major releases per new dynamic windowing deals with theater owners. (That’s half the traditional 90-day frame.)
Studios have tried for years to collapse the window, considering that more than 95 percent of ticket sales occur within the first 45 days of a film’s big-screen release.
The May 19 gathering at AMC Century City gave studios a chance to present their summer slates in full form, much as they do at CinemaCon, the annual gathering of theater owners and media that was scrapped in 2020. It was sponsored by a Big Screen Is Back consortium, made up of marketing executives, the National Association of Theatre Owners and the Motion Picture Association.
NRG’s Ethan Titelman and Matt Blong have been polling movie-goers around the world since the pandemic began. At the lowest point, in early January, the comfort level among U.S. con- sumers was 42 percent, according to Titelman. Now, it has jumped to 71 percent and is expected to reach 80 per- cent or more by the time In the Heights and F9 open domestically in June. Another bright note for the box office: NRG has found in recent weeks that consumers trust movie theaters more than indoor restaurants.
Imax Entertainment president Megan Colligan predicts a surge in filmgoing as restrictions ease. “Interest in movies will be higher than it was pre-pandemic,” she says. “It will be like the Roaring ’20s. The NRG numbers are very real, and the films that hit the zeitgeist in the right space are really going to be massive benefactors.”
Colligan also referred to the record $11 billion-plus in North American ticket sales collected during the two years leading up to the pandemic, proving that the might of theatrical cannot be ignored when creating such streaming offerings as Disney+’s The Mandalorian and WandaVision.
A version of this story appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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