The 2021 summer box office season will be one unlike any other. There’s hope that the blockbusters on the way will be the saviors of a movie theater industry torn apart by long pandemic shutdowns. But with that comes a sobering truth: The days of chart-topping $100 million-plus opening weekends are still a long way away.
“It took three months for theaters to get to where they are now, and it will probably take just as long if not longer to get them back to normal,” one distribution executive told TheWrap. “Everybody is keeping their expectations tempered.”
With two weeks until Memorial Day weekend — which will see Disney’s “Cruella” hit theaters and Disney+ (as a premium offering) while Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II” is released only in theaters — approximately 63% of movie theaters in the U.S. have opened. Hundreds more are expected to reopen as the summer season finally gets underway, but many will do so under capacity restrictions that are still expected to be in place in many states even as major cities like New York and Los Angeles lift them completely by the end of June.
With that in mind, Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said that studios should expect films to leg out more than they usually would during the summer instead of relying on strong opening weekends. “Given that we don’t know just how long it is going to be until we see pre-pandemic levels of audience turnout, we should probably expect a $75-80 million opening for the biggest films on the summer calendar,” he said. “Anything higher than that would make everyone ecstatic.”
Unlike most summers, when studios schedule tentpoles on consecutive weekends and sometimes even head to head, the bigger films this summer will be more spread out on the calendar and have a better shot of legging out over the course of several weeks without big-studio competition.
Even if the ceiling is lower, two of the most reliable franchises of the past decade — Disney’s Marvel and Universal’s “Fast & Furious” — are expected to once again contend for the title of summer’s highest-grossing film. But Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu could provide some surprises with a musical that might just be what COVID-weary audiences are looking for. Let’s take a look at the three films expected to top the charts this year.
“Black Widow” — July 9
The first Marvel film in two years is the odds-on favorite to be the box office champ this year, and it’s not hard to see why. The success of “WandaVision” and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney+ shows that interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just as strong as ever, and that should continue with the long-delayed action film expected to be both a farewell to Scarlett Johansson after a decade as Natasha Romanov and an introduction to Florence Pugh as the next Black Widow, Yelena Belova.
As with Disney’s other big summer film, the Memorial Day weekend release “Cruella,” “Black Widow” will be released both in theaters and as a premium title for Disney+ subscribers. Given the performance of films like Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Godzilla vs. Kong” on opening weekend despite their simultaneous release on HBO Max, the PVOD option shouldn’t cut that much into box office revenue for “Black Widow.”
So if a $75-80 million opening is the expected ceiling for the box office during this COVID-recovering period, where would that put “Black Widow” on the MCU box office charts? The answer is pretty low, as only one Marvel film in the last five years has posted an opening below $80 million: “Ant-Man and the Wasp” with $76 million in 2018. That stands as the fifth-lowest opening in MCU history.
An opening in the $85-95 million range would place “Black Widow” alongside the last Marvel film to hit theaters, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which opened to $92.5 million in July 2019. But hitting that level would not only be a testament to Marvel’s enduring pop culture power but also to the ability of the exhibition industry to rebound way faster than what is currently expected. If “Black Widow” doesn’t push “Ant-Man and the Wasp” out of the top 5 lowest MCU openings, expect projections for September films like “Shang-Chi” and “Venom 2” to be even higher.
“F9” — June 25
If there’s any film that could outperform “Black Widow” this summer, it’s probably the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, which hits theaters two weeks earlier. Since its inception and especially since it was reimagined into a global action series with “Fast Five” in 2011, the Universal Pictures action series has been a reliable source of big-screen spectacle and will surely provide more at a time when theaters are in great need of it.
And unlike Marvel, there’s more built-up anticipation among “F&F” fans. While the MCU has kept fans well-sated this year through its Disney+ series, it has been four years we’ve seen Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and the family. Adding to the hype is John Cena as the film’s villain and Dominic’s long-lost brother, as well as Sung Kang as the beloved Han Lue, back after presumably being killed over a decade ago.
Like “Black Widow,” “F9” would have to draw audiences beyond what analysts and execs are expecting for a post-COVID market to reach the opening weekend performances earned by its predecessors. The last installment of the series, “The Fate of the Furious,” grossed $98.7 million in 2017. But an opening over $60 million — which is what the “F&F” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” made in 2019 — is quite likely.
Another question is how the film will perform overseas. “Furious 7” and “Fate of the Furious” made $1 billion without the help of the U.S. market, but that’s out of the question for “F9” as Europe and Latin America remain deep in the throes of COVID-19 shutdowns. On the other hand, the film could explode in China, where the box office has fully recovered and recently seen “Detective Chinatown 3” pass “Avengers: Endgame” for the highest single-market opening in box office history. “Fate of the Furious” grossed $392 million in China, and “F9” could top that when it is released later this month.
“In the Heights” — June 11
Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical may not be part of a multibillion-dollar franchise, but it has something else that could make it a huge hit: relentless positivity.
In all of its trailers and TV ads, “In The Heights” has flaunted its bright, vivid colors, dance numbers in pools and on the streets of New York City and its diverse cast. The film had originally been set for release at the height of the 2020 presidential election campaign, with its new references to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and immigration giving it a political timeliness. Instead, it comes out as an offering for moviegoers that could be looking for something vibrant and upbeat after a year of pandemic misery.
“You always hear the phrase ‘feel-good movie of the year’ in movie ads. Well, in 2021 that title might have more value than ever!” Dergarabedian said. “‘In The Heights’ will be on the earlier side of the summer season, right as many people will be looking for things to do for the first time since quarantine ended, and I can see this film being the first one that many come back to theaters for.”
The film also boasts a primarily Latino cast — a rarity for Hollywood that may draw an audience that has long been underrepresented on screen despite a track record of heavy moviegoing.
“In The Heights” will also be the biggest test yet of Warner Bros.’ year-long experiment with HBO Max, which so far hasn’t stopped the studio from becoming a godsend for theaters with “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat” providing a starting block for box office recovery. If numbers are robust despite the film’s availability on streaming for the first 30 days of release, it could be another major point for the argument that theatrical and streaming can coexist.