“Right now, the word of mouth isn’t so much about the movies in theaters as it is the experience of going to the movies,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian tells TheWrap
For months, distribution execs and movie theater owners have had no idea what the box office will look like in the pandemic era. This past weekend, the numbers finally gave them a reason for optimism.
Solstice Studios’ “Unhinged,” the first wide release in North America since the start of the pandemic, made a respectable $4 million from its opening on 1,823 screens, as theaters in a majority of U.S. states got back in business. Meanwhile, the opening weekend of Huayi Brothers’ “The Eight Hundred” was an unqualified success, earning $116 million in China and giving the country its first box office hit of the year after the pandemic crippled the cinema industry for seven months.
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“There really was a lot to smile about,” said one major studio exec who spoke to TheWrap on condition of anonymity. “‘The Eight Hundred’ showed what we’ve believed all along: that if theaters stay safe and the titles are there, moviegoers will come back. ‘Unhinged’ is a good first sign that this could be true in the U.S., as well.”
“Unhinged” does not have the same box office expectations as films that are still planning a theatrical release, including “Tenet” in two weeks, but its solid performance with more than 2,000 American theaters still closed has given studios a baseline that they hope the box office will improve on this fall. The threat of another surge of COVID-19 infections will always be hanging over the industry, but for now, there are several positive results that Hollywood can take away from this weekend.
Here are three signs why studios and exhibitors see signs of life in moviegoing after this weekend.
1. “Unhinged” turns lemons into lemonade
In a normal world, “Unhinged” would have been a minor release on the box office calendar from a newcomer indie studio looking for a solid start. Instead, it was able to use an unprecedented crisis for movie theaters to make a strong first impression. While some studios like Disney and Universal have made headlines for getting into conflicts with exhibitors as they figure out what to do with their films during the pandemic, Solstice said it has been able to get on the industry’s radar by committing to theatrical release.
“We’re feeling very good about how ‘Unhinged’ is going to perform in the coming weeks,” Solstice distribution head Shari Hardistone told TheWrap. “We were planning to put the film out in 2,700 screens before the pandemic, but a $4 million result with the smaller screen count is a really positive sign for us. And I think that theaters have recognized that we want to be a partner with them going forward because we’ve gotten more calls from theaters that are reopening next weekend and want to screen ‘Unhinged.’ We’re hoping to expand to 2,300 next weekend and with such little competition, we expect that the film can leg out to $30 million domestically over the next few weeks.”
Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian agreed with Solstice’s projections, saying that they have done a good job gaining a foothold in exhibition and helping theaters get back on their feet.
“They didn’t just talk the talk. They walked the walk,” he said. “They were committed to the theatrical experience and as a result, ‘Unhinged’ was elevated in the industry. It sort of speaks to how radically the pandemic has shaken the market that a $4 million opening is seen as such a positive result not just for one wide release, but for theaters as a whole.”
2. Moviegoing interest is rising
While infection rates are declining in several U.S. hotspots, including Los Angeles, it is still expected that hundreds of theaters will still be closed by the time “Tenet” is released, as states like California and New York have shown no signs of allowing them to reopen any time soon. But that isn’t stopping a growing renewed interest in going out to see films again.
Beyond the $4 million opening for “Unhinged,” which did not have theaters for several major markets available, there are other signs that people are looking up information on theaters. Data and marketing platform SEMrush reports that regional chain Marcus Theaters has seen its highest web traffic since May, and the phrase “what movie theaters are open right now” has seen a 381% spike in search engines in the last week.
Meanwhile, the best performing theaters for “Unhinged” this weekend were not reopened conventional theaters but rather drive-ins in cities that do not have theaters open yet. In order, the top five theaters for the film were the Paramount Drive-in (DI) in South Los Angeles, the Solano Twin DI just northeast of Oakland, the Sacramento 6 DI, the Fort Wyoming DI in Detroit, and the Capitol 6 DI in San Jose.
While the social distancing constraints on capacity for traditional theaters played a factor in these stats, they show hopeful signs for the movie theater industry that months in quarantine may not have diminished their interest in going to the movies. If this interest continues to rise, “Tenet” may be able to salvage some solid box office numbers in September.
“Product is still king, but I think that right now, the word of mouth isn’t so much about the movies in theaters as it is the experience of going to the movies,” Dergarabedian said. “Whether it’s traditional theaters or drive-ins, people want to get out again.”
3. “The Eight Hundred” proves that China is back
For several weeks, Chinese movie theaters only saw a slow trickle of returning audiences as they filled their screens with classic films. That all changed with “The Eight Hundred,” a blockbuster about the Sino-Japanese war that brought moviegoers out in droves and reportedly filled thousands of screenings to the 50% capacity limit mandated for COVID-19 safety. There is no guarantee that upcoming Hollywood blockbusters will perform as well as a local event release tailored specifically to Chinese tastes, but the fact that any film could perform as well as “The Eight Hundred” given the circumstances is still a major relief for American studios.
That’s especially true for Disney, which has moved “Mulan” to premium video on-demand release on Disney+ in most markets but will still release it in Chinese theaters as the streaming service is not available in that country. China was always expected to be a critical market for “Mulan,” but the pandemic threw the country’s potential as a box office revenue stream into question. Such a strong turnout for “The Eight Hundred” could mean that “Mulan” won’t have to rely as much on streaming subscribers paying an extra $30 to see their newest film at home.
It’s also a hopeful sign for Warner Bros. as it begins to release “Tenet” in overseas markets this week. A re-release of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” earned solid numbers in China; and while COVID-19 infections are beginning to surge again in South Korea, “Tenet” was able to gross a solid $717,000 from two days of preview screenings.
The country has seen triple-digit increases in new infections for almost two weeks now, and there are fears that theaters and other businesses could be forced to shut down again if the most recent outbreak worsens. But the numbers from both Asian markets show an interest in Nolan’s brand of extremely complex sci-fi, an interest that Warner Bros. will need to grow if it is going to make back its $200 million production budget for “Tenet.”