With Top Gun: Maverick opening up to over 150 million for the four day weekend. I thought it would be nice to revisit the sudden shut-down of theaters and their road to recovery.
2020 movie theaters everywhere shut down. The only major Hollywood film to get a theatrical exclusive run was Tenet. Tenet ended up grossing 362 million dollars. What was seen as a disappointing gross at the time ended up being aspirational as theaters started to open up.
The only films that opened throughout 2020 were small genre and art-house films that would end up on PVOD sooner rather than later. Things like The War With Grandpa, Unhinged, and Freaky. December we got the release of a couple of awards films like Promising Young Woman and News of the World. Their grosses were small and largely insignificant. Mostly coming from a few states were theaters were opened at reduced capacity and Drive-Ins that stayed open throughout the winter to try to give people something to do before the roll-out of the vaccine.
While Disney sent Soul to Disney+, Warner Bros decided that they would release Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day simultaneously in theaters and on HBOMax. Wonder Woman grossed a respectable 166 million world wide. That’s all we could expect at the time, especially for a film that wasn’t well received by either critics or audiences. Although it still grossed less than Tenet and The Croods 2 domestically.
And then, the big news happened. Warner Bros said that they would be releasing all of their 2021 films day-and-date with HBOMAX. While a big reason for this was due to the pandemic, the likelier reason this decision was made was in order to build up HBOMax. The launch of HBOMAX, which happened at the start of the pandemic, was an utter disaster. Confusion with HBOGo’s subscription, along with a variety of other factors, led to MAX not getting enough subscribers. So the day-and-date strategy was put into effect to boost subscription numbers (this plan indeed worked, although they were met with immediate backlash from filmmakers).
I won’t go over every film that released in 2021. More or less just the important ones.
January and February 2021: Wasteland
The only major movies that released in these months were awards contenders The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland and children’s film Tom and Jerry. The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Tom and Jerry were all Warner Bros. films which means they also released on HBOMAX (which is how I watched all of them). This was an interesting period where theaters were actually grateful for the day-and-date release of these films. Vaccine rollouts were still low and restrictions were still in place. Warner Bros. releasing these films in this way meant that theaters were at least getting something that they could play. The films made some money, the highest grossing being Tom and Jerry, but nothing anywhere near we could consider normal.
March and April 2021: Uptick
In March Disney released Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters and on “Disney Premiere Access.” Unlike with WB you would both need a subscription to Disney+ and also pay an additional thirty dollars to watch the film at home. The film made a decent amount of money. In April, Mortal Kombat released, also making a decent amount at the box office.
But the true star of both of these months was Godzilla vs Kong.
At 32 milion, Godzilla vs Kong became the largest opening weekend of the pandemic era, beating Tenet’s 20 million. It beat all expectations. Despite being available to anyone with an HBOMAX subscription, people decided that this was the type of film you need to see in a theater. They wanted to see a big gorilla and a big lizard fight each other on the big screen. And while it wasn’t the first movie of the pandemic to gross 100 million at the domestic box office, it crawled its way to the finish line.
May 2021: A Quiet Place Part II
Exactly a year ago, A Quiet Place Part II opened. What was originally meant to premiere March 2020 ended up premiering Memorial Day weekend 2021. As a theatrical exclusive the sequel toppled Godzilla vs Kong’s opening weekend record to open at 47 million. Releasing in far better conditions than any movie had opened prior (this is actually the first time theaters in my state re-opened), it became the first film of the pandemic to cross 100 million domestic. Although it ended up grossing less than it’s predecessor (in normal times it would have out-grossed it), this became a watershed moment for the box office. Godzilla vs Kong gave them hope, but A Quiet Place proved that theaters were on their way to recovery.
Cruella also released on this weekend, having a Premiere Access release just like Raya, it ended up opening to 21 million and grossed 89 million. With how warmly received it was by audiences it’s fair to say it would have had a shot at making Maleficent numbers (700M WW).
Everything was on the rise at this point.
June - August 2021: Rocky Road
In The Heights. Poised Oscar contender, great critical acclaim, and seemingly great audience scores. It was supposed to be a star-making blockbuster. And it could have been, had the pandemic not happened. But the box office tells another story. Initial projections had In The Heights opening at over 20 million. Fantastic for a non-franchise film with no stars, and for a day-and-date film. But as the weekend went on those projections lowered... and lowered... and lowered. Until it opened at 11 million. The musical ended up grossing 29 million domestic. The disappointment of In The Heights told a story here, one of older audiences refusal to return to the theaters. But because it was the first, all people saw was a box-office bomb.
F9. Theatrical exclusive, opened to 70 millon. Again, breaking the opening weekend record for the pandemic. While its domestic reception was lackluster, it’s international reception was wildly better. It ended up grossing 721 million dollars World Wide. At the time, it was seen as a little bit of a disappointment. There was a chance that this could be the first 100 million opening weekend since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It did not meet that, and it’s legs (that being how it performed week after week) were weak domestically. However, this can’t be seen as anything other than success thanks to grosses in Latin America.
Black Widow. Here we go. The first MCU to be released since Spider-Man: Far From Home. It was originally supposed to be the start of the summer season of 2020 but ended up getting pushed back several times. Disney decided to release Black Widow with Premiere Access. This would lead to Scarlett Johansson suing Disney but that’s a whole other thing. Black Widow, like F9, had a lot of hope of being the first 100 million opener of the pandemic. This seemed plausible all the way up to Friday. Its estimates lowered from 100 to 90, and then it kept lowering until the film opened to 80 million.
What was to blame? Audience reception? Perhaps, with an A- Cinemascore it didn’t have the greatest reception in the world (MCU films usually get an A Cinemascore). There’s a couple things we can blame it on actually. Black Widow released just as the Delta variant was making the rounds. More importantly, in my opinion, it was Premiere Access. Take that away Black Widow would have been the first 100 million opener of the pandemic. This also affected it’s legs. Premiere Access cut down on repeat viewings from fans, and audiences that would have waited to watch the film in later weeks decided to just watch the film at home. Still Black Widow grossed a respectable amount for the circumstances it was released in.
Jungle Cruise. Also a Premiere Access release. The 200 million dollar film opened to a decent 35 million but, somehow, was able to leg its way to 100 million. A rounding success for “original” movies. (The press would refer to Jungle Cruise as an original movie despite being based on a ride. Does that make it IP or Original? It’s been debated.)
The Suicide Squad. Bomb bomb bomb. My lord did this bomb. Not much to say on this. The general consensus is that this would have bombed regardless of the pandemic. Rated R, low audience reception, it just wouldn’t have been financially successful. Which is a shame because it’s such a good movie.
Free Guy. A through and through original movie. Free Guy opened modestly at 28 million, but because it was so well liked by audiences it managed to leg out to 121 million dollars domestically. The Ryan Reynolds comedy then got greenlit for a sequel. While Jungle Cruise didn't make a profit theatrically, Free Guy at least broke even. In normal times both of these grosses wouldn't have warranted sequels, but these weren't normal times. Crossing 100 million during the pandemic was the equivalent of grossing 200 million in pre-pandemic times. As a non-franchise, non-IP film, Free Guy was an important sign of movie theaters health.
Candyman. If there was one genre that was doing well under the pandemic it was horror. Due to low budgets the films were able to gross enough to not be box office failures. During the summer, Candyman ended up grossing the most. It was the 10th highest grossing movie of the summer domestically. At 61 million, it outgrossed The Suicide Squad. Ending the summer on a positive note.
September - November 2021: The calm before the storm
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Another MCU film. This time it was a theatrical exclusive. Disney actually used this as a test. It was to determine whether or not they would release the rest of their films as theatrical exclusives or keep doing the Premiere Access thing they did with Black Widow and Jungle Crusie. Lucky for us, Shang-Chi managed to beat expectations. Managing to open at 75 million and legging it out to 224 million domestically and 432 million World Wide. Again, in normal times this gross would be disappointing at the very best, and a bomb at the very worst. But 200 million was the equivalent of grossing 400 million in normal times. Shang-Chi became the first film of the pandemic to meet this threshold.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The second movie of the pandemic to reach 200 million domestic. The film managed to beat expectations on opening weekend. Becoming the highest opening weekend of the pandemic with 90 million. It took a big second weekend drop but it ended up stabilizing and ended up having pretty good legs. A pattern that would become common throughout the pandemic, and that continues to this day.
No Time To Die. While the latest Bond film could be considered a disappointment domestically, the film was aiming to open at 100 million for the weekend and ended up opening to half that with 55 million. What No Time To Die did was jump-start the box office in Europe. It broke records in the UK and ended up grossing 760 million world wide. Beating F9 as the highest grossing Hollywood movie of 2021 (at the time).
Dune. Since before the pandemic, Dune was always touted as a future box office bomb. It was too heady, too nerd oriented, in order to be a box office hit. And now it was releasing simultaneously on HBOMAX. There was no way it could do well. The film went on to open to 41 million. And went on to gross 100 million domestic and nearly 400 million world wide. People decided, like they did with Godzilla vs Kong, that this was the type of film that needed to be experiences in cinemas.
The Last Duel and Last Night in Soho. The Last Duel opened to a measly 4 million and grossed only 10 million domestically and 30 million world wide. Last Night in Soho had a similar performance but grossed less world wide with 22 million. This is around the time that the narrative became clear. Older audiences (those being over the age of 25) were not coming back to the theaters. The only things that were making money were movies aimed at younger audiences or (in the case of NTTD and Dune) big budget blockbusters aimed at older audiences. Adult dramas were struggling. This put the performance of In The Heights in an entirely different perspective.
Eternals and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. These are being grouped together because they were the biggest films released in November. Eternals, once again, was thought to be a possible 100 million opener. However, word of mouth came around and it was bad. The film ended up grossing 71 million on opening weekend and a total of 164 million domestically. International reception was a little better and it ended up out-grossing Dune with 402 million world wide. Ghostbusters: Afterlife opened at 44 million and with general positive audience reaction it grossed 129 million domestic and 204 million world wide. It actually out-grossed the 2016 Ghostbuster domestically, and because this one had a smaller budget (Ghostbusters 2016 had a 144 million dollar budget and Afterlife had a 75 million dollar budget) it was far more profitable for Sony. Considering Afterlife outgrossed 2016 which was released pre-pandemic and was a summer movie, it's fair to say had this opened in the summer of 2020 like it was supposed to it would have made a killing at the box office.
House of Gucci. Adult dramas, as I've said, were struggling. In comes Gucci. With Lady Gaga's star power and a Thanksgiving release, it beat all expectations and opened to 15 million for the three day weekend but 21.8 million for the five day weekend. Thank god for Gaga. Adults finally came back to at least one drama. Gucci ended up grossing 53 million domestically and 148 million world wide. While this gross would be considered a disaster for its 75 million dollar budget. Considering the state of adult oriented films at the time, this can't be seen as anything other than a success.
Encanto. On the other side of things. Encanto managed to score the best opening weekend for an animated film during the pandemic. Disney had sent their animated films either straight to Disney+ or Premiere Access. Encanto was the first animated film from Disney to be a theatrical exclusive. With a shortened window of 35 days before being put on Disney+, Encanto managed to gross 96 million domestically and 230 million world wide. The highest for an animated film during the pandemic. Had Disney given the film a longer theatrical window, there would be no question it would have hit 100 million domestically.
December 2021: Release the Spider
Before we get to the big one. Let's discuss some of the smaller releases.
West Side Story and Nightmare Alley. Two big award films releasing wide in December. West Side Story fared better than most adult oriented films. Opening to 10 million but out-grossing In the Heights to a 38 million domestic gross and a 75 million gross world wide. A bomb, technically speaking, compared to its 100 million dollar budget. But as we've learned, these grosses took on a different connotation during the pandemic. Nightmare Alley did not fare so well. A failed attempt at counter-programming opening the same weekend as Spider-Man. The Guillermo del Toro film opened to a shockingly low 2.8 million for the weekend. Grossing only 11 million domestically and 37 million world wide. Even in the context of the pandemic, this was nothing else but an utter disaster for the 60 million dollar film, the most expensive film from Searchlight. All of this signaled that older-audiences were still reluctant to come back.
The King's Man, The Matrix: Resurrections, and Sing 2. The long delayed The King's Man (originally slated for 2019 before being pushed to early 2020, then pushed again to late 2020, and then pushed a few more times due to the pandemic). Opened weak with 5.9 million for the three day weekend and but managed to stay around grossing a total of 37 million domestically and 121 million world wide. A commendable run for a film that wasn't well received and which lost audience interest due to the numerous delays. The Matrix: Resurrections grossed about as much as The King's Man. Difference was that it opened to twice as much. Word of mouth from audiences was toxic. The film fared a bit better internationally grossing 156 million world wide. It would be the last day-and-date release form Warner Bros. Sing 2 surprised everyone. Opening to 22 million, higher than The Matrix and having an incredible run. Due to being the only family film in the market for months. It grossed 162 million domestically and 402 million world wide. The highest grossing non-Spider-Man film that released in December.
Spider-Man: No Way Home. Here's the big one. People were expecting it to be big. But most people did not expect it to be this big. Despite an Omicron resurgence, Spider-Man opened to 260 million for the weekend. Beating the previous December record holder Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Spider-Man would go on to play week after week. Grossing 800 million domestically and a billion internationally for a total of 1.8 billion world wide. Had the film opened in China, it very much would have grossed 2 billion.
Spider-Man was the film that brought audiences back to the cinemas.
As much as I deride trickle-down economics, there might actually be some truth to that theory in terms of this specific example here. There's almost a clear difference between box office grosses before Spider-Man and after Spider-Man. As Paul Thomas Anderson said, "You know what’s going to get [audiences] back in movie theaters? 'Spider-Man.' So let’s be happy about that".
So let's see what the Spider-Man effect brought us.
January - February 2022: Not much
Scream. The only major release of January. The legacy sequel beat Candyman by opening to 30 million and grossing 81 million domestically, 138 million worldwide. Horror movies, especially R-rated horror film, rarely make 100 million domestic, and this getting close was a great sign. Both Scream and Candyman were well received horror films that were part of a franchise. Both films being so similar, shows us the direct difference between audiences pre-Spider-Man and after-Spider-Man.
Jackass Forever, Death on the Nile, and Dog. Jackass opened to 23 million, finished with 57 million domestically and 74 million worldwide. Despite sporting the best reviews for the franchise it did not outgross Jackass 3D. Which brings us to the fact that the Omicron spike started happening quickly around this time. While states had relaxed restrictions, cases were spiking. Depressing turnout for theaters. Death on the Nile grossed less than half of what its predecessor Murder on the Orient Express did, despite a similar reception from both critics and audiences. Another blow to adult dramas. In comes Dog, a PG-13 drama that is still debatable whether it was aimed at families or adults. Dog managed to beat the opening weekend gross of House of Gucci and legged out better domestically. Grossing 61 million, though had less international appeal, grossing only 74 million world wide. Still, this pointed towards a better direction for dramas.
Uncharted. Hot off the success of Spider-Man, Tom Holland drew in audiences for the video game adaptation. Opening to 44 million, getting positive reception from audiences, it legged out to 147 million domestically and 400 million world wide. Although those weren't Spider-Man numbers, it was the numbers that MCU movies were making pre-Spider-Man. This gross is more impressive when looking at other video game adaptations. Uncharted managed to beat Detective Pikachu at the domestic box office in order to become the second highest grossing video game adaptation. It beat Sonic the Hedgehog's world wide gross of 319 million. And is currently more than Sonic the Hedgehog 2's 385 world wide gross. Video game adaptations were never big money makers, but Uncharted manage to outgross several of them while cases were still on the rise. Had the COVID situation been better, there's a chance Uncharted would have unseated World of Warcraft as the highest grossing video game movie ever.
March 2022: He's here. Who? The Batman
The Batman. The DC film became only the second film of the pandemic to have an opening weekend above 100. At 134 million the film went on to gross 369 million domestically. Internationally the film was a disappointment, no doubt due to the situation in Eastern Europe and also the COVID situation in China. Early predictions had the film grossing between 800 and 900 million, but the film grossed 770 million instead. Still it beat No Time To Die, even as a disappointment. Not bad for the first installment in a Batman reboot that was also nearly three hours long.
The Lost City. The Sandra Bullock starring romantic comedy originally titled "The Lost City of D" was set as a test to see if adults, and specifically women, were still hesitant to return to theaters. It didn't disappoint. The film opened to 30 million and became only the second original film (or third if you count Jungle Cruise) to cross 100 million at the domestic box office. Signaling that both adults in general and adult women in specific were in fact coming back to the theaters.
Everything Everywhere All At Once. If there was something that was struggling more than adult dramas at the box office, it was the indie market. Licorice Pizza has done banger numbers while in limited release, but was ultimately a box office disappointment. Grossing less than 20 million domestic. In comes EEAAO. While not specifically targeted at adults, generally speaking it was targeted at young men between the ages of 18 and 25, it still suggests a return of the indie market. The film is still playing today, having small drops week after week. Beating Uncut Gems to become A24s highest grossing film domestically.
April 2022: Flop City
Before we get to the flops, let's talk about the successes from this month.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and The Bad Guys. Sonic 2 beat it's predecessors opening gross of 58 million by opening to 72 million. It has outgrossed the first both domestically and world wide (though the first film's theatrical run was cut short due to the pandemic). Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is currently the only film that opened in April that grossed over 100 million domestic. The Bad Guys opened at number 1 with 23 million. The Dreamworks film was warmly received by both critics and audiences. It's been holding well week after week, currently at 81 million domestically and 197 million world wide. While it likely won't hit 100 million domestic, it should get close.
Ambulance, The Northman, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. All three films had at least somewhat positive reception from critics. Audience reception was good for Ambulance and was decent for The Northman and Massive Talent. All three are considered flops. Ambulance opened to 8 million for the weekend. While this is better than other adult films like The Last Duel, it still signaled that adults weren't coming out. A well received Michael Bay action-thriller would have been a hit a couple of years ago, but today people decided to stay home. The film grossed 22 million domestic and 51 million world wide. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent didn't fare much better. Opening to 7 million grossing 20 million domestically and 25 million world wide. The Northman was the most successful of all three films. Slightly beating expectations, it opened to 12 million. Grossed a total of 33 million domestically and 66 million world wide. Although with a budget of between 70 and 90 million it is considered a flop. Though all three films flopped at the box office, I think what they did was get at least some people, specifically some older audiences, back in the mojo of going to the movies. As James Gray puts it, these films were an investment to try to maintain broad base interest. Which is a big reason why something like Top Gun: Maverick was able to open so big.
Morbius and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbeldore. Here we have big franchise films. A Marvel film and a Harry Potter film. Both of them flopped at the box office, but their performances cannot be blamed on COVID. At the very least COVID is only a small reason as to why these films flopped. They are IP movies aimed at younger audiences, at the very least that's the case in Morbius, though Fantastic Beasts audience is slightly older. Morbius opened to 39 million. Originally it was looking to open at 60 million. But, word of mouth was incredibly toxic, so the film dropped dramatically. Had the movie been good it would have crossed 100 million easily. But the film was so bad it didn't even double it's opening weekend grossing a total of only 73 million domestically and 162 million world wide. Fantastic Beasts is a dying franchise. Crimes of Grindelwald, the previous installment, was poorly received by both audiences and critics. It grossed 600 million world wide, dropping 200 million from the first installment. The Secrets of Dumbeldore opened to an okay 42 million, but reception was so tepid it still hasn't crossed 100 million domestic and will not be crossing 100 million domestic. International reception was slightly better, but not by much in places that should have liked it more like the UK. Germany is liking the movie a lot though, so Fantastic Beast will be reaching 400 million worldwide. Though with a 200 million dollar budget, it will not be breaking even. Both of these films would have bombed regardless of COVID. They were bad movies, and they were always destined to flop.
May 2022: Back to normal?
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Benefiting from being the next installment in the MCU. The film opened to 187 million. Disney's first 100 million opener since The Rise of Skywalker (Spider-Man is distributed by Sony). Despite the film's large grosses, it was still seen as a disappointment. It was looking to open above 200 million but word of mouth was pretty bad so the opening weekend fell day after day. The film looked to be making a billion dollars (making it only the second film to hit that mark during the pandemic) but will now be looking to make around 900 million world wide. It's a disappointment through and through. But here's the thing, 1) it had no China or Russia or several Middle East countries, and 2) it's still going to be making 900 million dollars. 900 million dollars world wide being considered a disappointment is fantastic. In pre-pandemic times, it was almost normal to consider movies making this much a money a disappointment. Notable Pirates of the Caribbean 5 made nearly 800 million world wide but was still considered a disappointment. It shows us how far we've come when last year were happy when a movie barely made 100 million, that now a film that will gross 400 million domestic is a disappointment.
Top Gun: Maverick. Top Gun has re-energized older audiences. Being now the fourth film to open over 100 million in pandemic times. It's looking to gross over 400 million domestic (in fact it could outgross Doctor Strange). It is the highest opener for a Tom Cruise, beating War of the Worlds. And is a film that audiences have embraced both domestically and internationally.
Downton Abbey: A New Era also opened in May. The adult-oriented film took a big dive from the first. Opening to half of what that film opened to in 2019 and suffered a big second weekend drop (no doubt due to Maverick's success with older audiences). So older audiences are returning, but just to specific films. Will Maverick lead to older audiences coming back to other films made for them such as Elvis? Maybe. Hopefully.
Things are looking up from here on out. Grosses seem to be hitting pre-pandemic times. And while there's less movies being released in 2022 than there were pre-pandemic (due to the production problems caused by COVD). It's nice to see how much things have bounced back in the past year.
Things like Jurassic World: Dominion, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Avatar: The Way of Water, look to be making 500 domestically. In the case of Jurassic and Avatar we could be looking at 600 million+ domestic grosses and a potential 2 billion world wide grosser in Avatar. It is incredible the journey the box office has had.