As Warner Bros Films Like ‘The Suicide Squad’ Hit Box Office Ceiling, Is COVID or HBO Max to Blame?

”The Suicide Squad“ hit theaters and streaming as U.S. infection rates reached highs not seen since February

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While “The Suicide Squad” opened below box office expectations this weekend, with a $26.5 million debut in North American theaters, Warner Bros. faces a bigger problem: The studio’s 2021 films have all hit a box office ceiling.

“Godzilla vs. Kong,” the first big tentpole to hit theaters in March as theaters reopened, remains the only 2021 film from Warner Bros. to reacd $100 million in domestic grosses at the box office. “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which opened to $31 million, fell off sharply after its opening weekend last month and will not reach that mark. Now, “The Suicide Squad,” which fell short of its projected $30 million opening weekend, will also fall short of that milestone after Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II,” Universal’s “F9” and Disney/Marvel’s “Black Widow” all reached it.

“The Suicide Squad” was always going to be a wild card at the box office as an R-rated, $185 million sequel to a DC Comics film that was a financial success but a critical flop. And determining the factors behind its success or failure would mean picking through a variety of factors, some of which are unique to “Squad” and others that have been plaguing all of Warner Bros.’ releases this year.

For one, it’s possible that the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant may finally be starting to affect the box office after weeks of steady numbers for new releases. Daily new infections in the U.S. last week reached an average of 100,000 for the first time since February, and a survey published last Sunday by NRG showed that the percentage of people polled that were comfortable with returning to theaters dropped from 81% on July 11 to 70% on August 1. Men under 25, a major demo for “The Suicide Squad,” saw comfort levels drop from 88% to 78%, so there’s a chance that the variant hurt turnout.

Then there is HBO Max, which has proven a double-edged sword for theaters. While freshly reopened theaters had Warner Bros. hits like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat” to screen after a year of closures, they had to compete on opening night with stay-at-home fans who were able to screen the films for the cost of their HBO Max subscription.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster