The industry was holding its breath to see how this weekend’s new theatrical exclusive entries would perform. This weekend was the first time during the pandemic that three new movies were released in over 2,000 theaters without a single streaming entity making them available at home. With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, the weekend was likely going to be a barometer for studios to decide how to manage their fall and holiday releases. We’re not out of the woods yet, but one film did just enough to allow those eyeing delays on their schedules to exhale for a moment.
Everything is on notice after The Suicide Squad underperformed last week. If a high-concept, (mostly) family-friendly film like Free Guy that can only be seen in theaters could not pull in a decent number this weekend, just how willing would the folks behind No Time To Die, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Top Gun: Maverick be to gamble on reduced attendance if the COVID-19 numbers kept trending upwards?
Hope was struck on Friday morning when the numbers showed that Free Guy, which Disney took on after acquiring Fox but did not make available via Premier Access on Disney+, sold $2.2 million worth of tickets Thursday night. With those numbers in hand it was time to start predicting the weekend haul. Charting 16 PG-13 films that had previously grossed $2 million-$2.4 million in Thursday night previews, the average opening gross was $30.5 million; only three of those films went on to have weekends under $20 million, and, of the five that opened over $30 million, four of them were sequels. So between $20 million and $30 million felt right for Free Guy. Earlier in the week, many felt anything under $25 million would give industry folk pause, but when analysts began downgrading expectations to under $20 million, the film was given a solid cushion to land on. When the numbers came in on Sunday, revealing Free Guy pulled in $28.4 million for the weekend, it felt like a real triumph.
(Photo by 20th Century Studios)
That is the seventh-best opening of the pandemic and not just better than The Suicide Squad last week, but actually the best opening for an original film. (The word “original” being used a little loosely here as one can recognize Tron, Wreck-It-Ralph, The Truman Show, and They Live amongst its influences. But, still, unlike Black Widow, F9, A Quiet Place Part II, Jungle Cruise, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Space Jam: A New Legacy, it is neither a sequel, prequel, reboot, nor based on existing IP – like a ride.)
It is too soon to call the legs on this one. No film yet that has made less than $60 million in its first 10 days during the pandemic has reached $100 million. Then again, Free Guy is likely to remain no. 1 for a second straight week, remain in the top five for its first full month, and stick around in the top 10 at least until the beginning of October. It will all depend how severe the drops are, which will likely be based on how comfortable everyone continues to be going to theaters.
(Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/™ & © DC Comics)
Whether it’s concern over the rise of the Delta variant, the lure of staying home and catching it on HBO Max, or some lack of interest in the latest DCEU movie – despite it being Certified Fresh at 91%, among the best-reviewed movies in that universe – The Suicide Squad continues to underperform. The movie experienced a 70% drop from last weekend and fell to fifth place with $7.7 million. With just $42.9 million in its first 10 days, it is trailing what The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It had in the bank at the same time (not to mention that movie scored a $10.3 million second weekend). Looking at August releases historically, The Suicide Squad is charting a similar-looking path to the 2012 remake of Total Recall, which dropped 68.7% in its second weekend to $8 million and had $44.1 million. It finished with $58.8 million. As suggested last week, in normal times without a pandemic and without a day-and-date streaming option, The Suicide Squad would have likely had an opening weekend higher than that even with the most conservative of estimates. With those variables in place it appears it may not even top $60 million total.
(Photo by courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Last week we gave Disney’s Jungle Cruise a puncher’s chance of making it to $100 million and it is definitely punching. It made $9 million this weekend, giving it $82 million after 17 days; that is a great number in that no film released in July or August to have at least $80 million in that stretch failed to eventually clear $100 million. It would be Disney’s second film with a simultaneous Disney+ Premier Access release, after Black Widow, to reach the milestone. Cruella, which had a similar release and just signed Emma Stone for a sequel, is also the sixth highest-grossing film of the pandemic with over $85 million.
Moving over to the new titles of the week. Don’t Breathe 2‘s $10.6 million may have looked good when the best the genre was getting was The Unholy and Separation. But the pandemic has given us a mild stretch with the third Conjuring, The Forever Purge, and Old, in which fans seemed ready to make the genre something of a box office over-performer. Still, Don’t Breathe 2 looks to be more in the Spiral and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions realm, a sequel few people felt they needed, and which could underperform. That $10.6 million start (aided in part by a “hey, let’s go see it on Friday the 13th” contingent) is far less than the original’s triumphant $26.4 million start in August 2016 on its way to over $89 million. The sequel will be hopeful to end up in the $25 million-$30 million range.
The release of the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, with Jennifer Hudson, delivered something of a blow to the kind of mid-range films for adults – which could be the big box office story going forward coming out of 2021. The ceiling is not being raised for these films and the $8.8 million Respect made is more evidence that age groups outside of those typically targeted by studios are taking their time when it comes to a night out at the movies. M. Night Shyamalan’s Old breaking $43 million feels like a legit standout at this point versus all the IP making up the current theatrical cashflow. In the Heights, Wrath of Man, and Nobody all earned between $27 million and $30 million (all better than Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins), and Respect may join them, but how long will studios hold on to these kind of alternatives as theatrical exclusives (Heights notwithstanding) before day-and-date streaming helps them out sooner?
Arguably the biggest title opening on a very crowded weekend will be Paw Patrol: The Movie. But with it streaming concurrently on Paramount+, how much of a splash will this really make? (Remember that Paramount moved Clifford the Big Red Dog off the schedule from September due to “Delta concerns” but left this one to take its chances in August.) One thing Paw Patrol has on its side? A 100% Fresh Tomatometer Score, so far. Also streaming while in theaters next week is the Hugh Jackman sci-fi tale, Reminiscence. It will be on HBO Max. That leaves a pair of R-rated thrillers to take a shot at the mid-range crowd. Lionsgate’s The Protégé, from action director Martin Campbell, stars Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, and Samuel L. Jackson. And then there is David Bruckner’s The Night House, from Searchlight Pictures; the horror film premiered at Sundance in 2020 and currently has a Fresh Tomatometer score of 84%.
[box office figures via Box Office Mojo]