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The latter half of September is historically a sleepy corridor at the box office as the summer tentpoles finish their runs and go home. Not this year.
The weekend of Sept. 24-26, for example, symbolizes Hollywood’s mad dash to release the films that were waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. Set to open that weekend are no fewer than four high-profile titles: Venom 2: Let There Be Carnage; the Sopranos origins pic The Many Saints of Newark; the teen musical Dear Evan Hansen; and Antoine Fuqua’s sci-fi adventure Infinite, starring Mark Wahlberg and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Venom 2 and Infinite are part of an action genre glut that lasts all through October. Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune launches a week later, on Oct. 1, followed by the James Bond installment No Time to Die on Oct. 8. While technically a horror film, Halloween Kills also is considered part action, while the title of Ridley Scott’s historical drama, The Last Duel, starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck, says it all. Both of those male-skewing titles unfurl on the big screen Oct. 15.
“The long-reaching impact of the pandemic on the release calendar is now resulting in a traffic jam on the box office superhighway,” says Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “It’s a bevy of riches, I guess.”
Tentpole anchors in the fall and early winter include No Time to Die and Top Gun: Maverick closer to Thanksgiving.
Adds a studio executive, who predicts more changes due to the pileup: “We’re squeezing two years into one. The fall is really scary. There is no oxygen. You normally wouldn’t have so many action films all at once, even if some cross over to other audiences.”
With the next Oscar season nearly upon Hollywood, the specialty side of the business also is anxious, considering that it’s unclear whether the Cannes Film Festival — a launching pad of sorts for the fall awards season — will take place this summer.
A hint of a U.S. box office revival arrived in late March with the release of Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Godzilla vs. Kong, which has grossed more than $80 million domestically and nearly $400 million worldwide. The next big test will be Memorial Day, when Cruella and A Quiet Place Part II both debut.
It’s common for weekends in the summer — when kids, high schoolers and college students are out of school — to bring a big new release every weekend. The fall months are different, at least until the year-end holidays, when the marketplace can support multiple offerings. While California theaters are expected to be operating at 100 percent by mid-June, New York City cinemas so far are capped at 33 percent. June titles include Vivo and Spirit Untamed, which open opposite each other June 4, followed by Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway on June 18. Space Jam 2 opens against Cinderella on July 16, followed by Hotel Transylvania: Transformania on July 23 and Jungle Cruise on July 30.
The summer’s biggest all-audience tentpoles include Fast & Furious installment F9 on June 25 and Black Widow on July 9.
“For the most part, things are decently spaced out. I’m not worried about cannibalization. There is pent-up demand,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. “This entire year is about recovery. Every new film gives us new data. It’s just going to take time.”
Analyst Shawn Robbins of BoxOffice Pro agrees, particularly on the summer season.
“There is fair reason to be cautious and not overcrowd the market too fast, and the summer will still likely be below normal levels as the transition period extends throughout 2021,” Robbins notes. “That said, true recovery cannot progress further until fresh content is out there on a more regular basis. That recovery is going to have families at the heart of it, spreading organic word of mouth about the fact that theaters are back in business and studios are putting out crowd-pleasing, mainstream movies again. The demand is there, and it’s only increasing as time goes on and pandemic fatigue heightens.”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Sterling K. Brown