In pre-pandemic times, a PG-rated family comedy starring Robert De Niro would be deemed a bomb if opening to $3.6 million at the domestic box office. Yet when The War With Grandpa earned just that over the Oct. 9-11 weekend, it was celebrated for coming in ahead of expectations as cinemas struggle to remain open amid the ongoing pandemic and a lack of Hollywood product.
The 101 Studios release overperformed — some thought it might only take in $2 million — in the South and Southeast, were moviegoing has been consistently stable since cinemas began flipping on the lights in late August for Solstice Studios’ Unhinged and Warner Bros.’ Tenet. Those cities include Dallas, Houston, Austin, Atlanta and Orlando. The movie appealed to families and moviegoers over 55, both elusive demos in current times.
Elsewhere across the country, other markets that have seen a strong turnout in the past six weeks include Phoenix, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Denver and Orlando as cinemas reopened on a staggered basis.
And while indoor cinemas haven’t been allowed to resume operation in Los Angeles County proper, the combination of revenue from the county’s drive-in theaters and revenue from nearby Orange County indoor cinemas have put the larger Los Angeles market back at the top of Comscore’s list of top-grossing DMAs (designated market areas).
“This is a marketplace like we’ve never seen before. The dynamics are so unique depending on where you are. Some theaters that are open are at 20 percent capacity,,” says Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “You can’t make a blanket statement about theaters, but what you can say is that content is king.”
According to a Comscore survey, the No. 2 DMA behind the greater Los Angeles area since late August has been Dallas-Fort Worth, which ranked No. 5 during the same period last year. That’s followed by Phoenix at No. 3, verus No. 13.
Other examples of markets that have moved up the list: Salt Lake City, normally No. 33, ranks No. 7; Houston ranks No. 6 instead of No. 10; San Diego — where theaters have been allowed to reopen — ranks No. 10 instead of its usual 28; Denver ranks No. 13 instead of No. 17; Las Vegas is No. 19 instead of No. 40; and Austin, No. 17 instead of No. 47.
Markets where indoor cinemas haven’t been open as long, or are still closed in some counties, have dropped on the list (no surprise) as they rely primarily on drive-in grosses. Chicago, normally the No. 3 DMA is No. 5, while New York, which includes parts of New Jersey, is No. 8. Boston, normally No. 7, is No. 15. The San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose DMA is No. 21 instead of No. 6.
In normal times, Los Angeles is the No. 1 DMA, followed by New York — where no hardtops have been allowed to reopen. Together, they would contribute about 16 percent of total box office grosses.
As of earlier this week, only 55 percent of the country’s theaters were open, or roughly 3,010 location, after mega-circuit Regal Cinemas closed all but seven of its 535-plus locations because of a lack of product.
Drive-ins, which are a seasonal business in many locales, are also closing as inclement weather approaches. Over Labor Day weekend, there were 286 drive-ins open. Now, that stat stands at 217, according to Comscore.
Nearly half of consumers polled by leading entertainment marketing and research film National Research Group remain wary about returning immediately to an indoor theater. Studio sources tell THR they’d feel far more comfortable if that number stood at 75 percent.
And drive-ins by far remain the most attractive proposition. Nine of the top-10 grossing theaters for War With Grandpa were drive-ins, led by the Stars & Stripes in Austin. A poll commissioned by 101 Studios found that moviegoers in Dallas had almost no concerns about COVID-19, while just 27 percent of Orange County buyers were concerned.
“We are really pleased that 101 Studios was able to offer audiences a comedy that is bringing the whole family back to theaters,” 101 Studios president of distribution Laurent Ouaknine said.
Year to date, North American box office revenue stands at $2.1 billion, compared to $8.7 billion at the same point, a 76 percent dip.