“Black Widow” may have crossed $200 million at the worldwide box office on Thursday, but questions are mounting about whether the COVID-19 Delta variant will threaten renewed momentum at the movies at the worst possible moment for the exhibition industry.
The Delta variant, which is more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19, has become the most common version of the virus in the U.S. and is a major factor in rising infection rates in 47 states. In Los Angeles County on Thursday, officials reinstituted a mask mandate in public indoor spaces as daily new case rate rose above 1,000 for the first time since March. Delta variant hot spots have risen in Nevada, Florida and Missouri, with new cases arising especially in the unvaccinated population.
But the bigger concern is overseas, particularly in countries where “Black Widow” was released this past weekend. TheWrap compared the launch totals of the top five overseas markets for the latest Marvel film to the last two MCU installments released in July: “Ant-Man and the Wasp” in 2018 and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in 2019.
The numbers for “Black Widow” in the U.K., Australia, France and Mexico were higher than “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” thanks to a combination of progress in suppressing the virus and bringing audiences back to theaters, as well as greater interest in seeing Scarlett Johansson’s final performance as Natasha Romanoff. But the numbers are also short of the launch of “Far From Home,” with some countries still enforcing audience capacity limits while many interested moviegoers, who are unable to access a vaccine, have stayed home.
And in all of these countries — as well as Korea, which is the top overseas market so far with no Chinese release date set — the Delta variant is causing infection rates to surge while vaccination efforts remain behind the U.S. While stocks for Korean theater chains like CGV have recovered their pandemic losses, daily new cases hit a new all-time high this week, prompting officials in Seoul to resume the highest level of social distancing protocols in the city.
In Australia, officials in New South Wales have announced that the lockdown order in Sydney will be extended for two weeks as infection rates have surged for the first time in months, while the percentage of Sydney residents vaccinated still sits under 10%. And in France, President Emmanuel Macron announced new rules requiring anyone over the age of 12 to have a “digital health pass” confirming they are vaccinated in order to enter movie theaters and other entertainment venues.
These increased surges, which have only come in the last couple of weeks or so, have yet to make a tangible negative impact on box office numbers. And given the increasing availability of vaccines and reluctance from politicians worldwide to force communities back into lockdowns like the ones seen last year, it’s very unlikely that theaters would be forced to close again.
But health experts are warning that infections among unvaccinated people are spreading faster thanks to the Delta variant and could lead to a new wave in August and September. Compounding the potential problem is the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, which will be held without spectators but which experts warn could become a global superspreader event that will particularly hit countries and regions where vaccination rates remain low.
This could mean that Hollywood studios will have another surge on their minds as they finalize release plans for what is expected to be a crowded early autumn release schedule, which includes Disney’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” and MGM’s “No Time to Die.”
Even if audience capacity limits aren’t reinstated, a new wave could increase reluctance among some moviegoers, particularly parents and older demographics, to return to theaters, slowing box office recovery.
“The industry is definitely going to be monitoring major overseas markets where vaccination rates are very low,” said Boxoffice editor Daniel Loria. “There’s so much that’s up in the air about these next two months because the potential for another wave is real, but we just haven’t seen any negative impact yet as ‘Black Widow’ has brought a lot of people back to theaters over the past week.”
In the U.S. the delta variant is now the dominant strain of COVID. This CDC Chart, which tracks COVID trends through July 3, shows the alarming speed at which Delta became dominant:
It would still take weeks for infection rates to get to the point that they could reverse the trend of growing box office numbers seen in much of the world, but with many tentpoles approaching, studios will have to continue their vigilant watch of headlines and infection rates throughout the rest of 2021 and possibly into next year as they figure out the best way to release tentpoles designed for a global audience in an improving but still unstable theatrical market.
And that lingering instability is likely what will make the hybrid release model being used by Disney and Warner Bros. all the more enticing, providing options for interested moviegoers who may be living in COVID-19 hotspots or are simply not yet comfortable with going back to theaters. The $60 million global total that “Black Widow” made from paid streaming sales has shown the strength of Disney’s hybrid model when combined with its most popular franchise.
In fact, Loria says that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Delta variant doesn’t play a factor in Disney’s decision to continue with the hybrid model going forward.
“Disney is in a position where it can do pretty much anything it wants with its movies,” Loria said. “‘Black Widow’ was great news for them. It showed that there’s a strong audience interest in seeing their movies both in theaters and at home, so it would make sense to them to keep providing those options.”