Universal Supplants Warner Bros. as Hollywood's Box Office Hero

The Croods: A New Age
Universal Pictures/Photofest

The Comcast-owned studio had been public enemy No. 1 after shortening the theatrical window to 17 days — until Warners came along and announced Dec. 3 that it will debut its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max and in cinemas simultaneously.

Universal and DreamWorks Animation's The Croods: A New Age topped another tough weekend at the North American box office with $4.4 million for a 10-day domestic total of $20.4 million amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. By Christmas, though, the animated family film will be available in the home via premium VOD.

After months of being derided for daring to use the pandemic to shorten the theatrical window to as short as 17 days, Universal has suddenly supplanted Warner Bros. as Hollywood's conquering box office hero, while the latter studio has become persona non grata.

On Dec. 3, Warners. — hailed for releasing Christopher Nolan's Tenet exclusively in theaters — did an about-face and announced that it will debut its entire 2021 slate of films simultaneously on HBO Max and in cinemas, shattering any window that's left.

The initiative, orchestrated by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar with the blessing of his AT&T bosses, caught Hollywood and exhibition utterly off guard and was done in service to growing HBO Max, according to numerous sources. Publicly, the company insists it remains committed to the big-screen experience, and that the day-and-date strategy is for next year only.

Warners didn't bring any exhibitors on board before issuing its proclamation. Universal, conversely, struck a key deal with market leader AMC Theaters before announcing its new PVOD strategy,

"Universal, just a short while ago, was the enemy of the biz. With the Warner move, Universal has moved from the outhouse to the penthouse," says one rival studio executive.

Before the pandemic, the traditional three-month theatrical window was sacrosanct. Cinema operators had enough clout to prevent Hollywood studios from experimenting with windows. COVID-19 changed things.

"Keeping up with the almost constant evolution of theatrical release strategies by studios in reaction to the pandemic over the past many months has been a challenge to say the least. Hardly a week goes by without a new — and increasingly confusing — variation of a hybrid, or big screen/small screen) release model," says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

PVOD has allowed Universal to stay in the theatrical business. Just before Croods 2 was released over Thanksgiving, the studio also signed deals with mega-circuits Cinemark and Cineplex.

Over the Dec. 4-6 weekend, titles from the Universal stable commanded six of the top 10 slots on the chart.

PVOD isn't widely available overseas, so Universal is releasing Croods 2 in a more traditional fashion. The family pic has earned $40.3 million from its first 47 markets, including a strong $36.6 million from China, for a foreign tally of $40.3 million and $60.6 million globally.

Focus Features, Universal's specialty label, took the No. 2 spot with the comedy Half Brothers, which debuted to $720,000.

Blumhouse and Universal's Freaky came in third with $460,000 in its fourth weekend for a domestic cume of $7.7 million and $13.3 million globally.

Universal's All My Life debuted to opened to $350,000 to come in No. 4.

Among other distributors, 101 Studios' sleeper hit The War With Grandpa rounded out the top five with $330,000 for a domestic tally of $17.6 million.

When it comes to Warners, it remains to be seen what retaliatory measures cinemas pursue once moviegoing resumes in earnest sometime next year.

Prior to the Dec. 3 announcement, AMC and the other big circuits had agreed to play Wonder Woman 1984 because of "pandemic rules" and the goodwill from Tenet, which has earned nearly $360 million globally. The superhero sequel debuts day and date Dec. 25 on HBO Max and in whatever U.S. cinemas remain open. It will get a more robust theatrical release overseas.

"The bottom line is that movie theaters operate in an environment that is heavily dependent on two main variables: a well-managed pandemic response and appealing, new movies to drive people to the multiplex," says Dergarabedian. "Strategies that serve that end should be welcomed by all parties and should be viewed as solutions to a highly unusual and ever-evolving set of circumstances. However, sweeping pronouncements about the future of the business should be put on hold since as history has shown us things can look a whole lot different in a very short amount of time."