With light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the box office is mounting a slow recovery
It's officially been one year since the COVID-19 Era, as we now know it, began in the United States, a weary anniversary that arrives at perhaps the country's most hopeful moment since that day. With vaccinations well underway and proving effective at staving off the virus, COVID cases are decreasing in the United States, and experts are cautiously projecting an optimistic outlook for the summer. Meanwhile, on March 5, movie theaters opened in New York City for the first time since the Great Shutdown of March 2020, a milestone marked by widespread, if tentative, excitement (and at least one appearance by Liam Neeson).
"It was a relief, when we opened, that our customers were all excited and positive and enthusiastic," says John Vanco, general manager of Manhattan's IFC Center. "It's going to take a while for people to come back to the movies in large numbers, but in the same way that more and more people are being vaccinated every week, I think more and more people are going to get comfortable with the idea of being a movie theater. We look forward to regular improvements in attendance."
Indeed, things are already trending upward. The last two weekends have been the third and second best for the domestic box office since the pandemic began, with the weekend of March 5 totaling about $23.7 million, according to data from analytics firm Comscore. (The Christmas weekend is still number one, but just barely, with $23.8 million.) The previous week, Tom & Jerry notched the second-best debut of the COVID era with $14.1 million, behind only Wonder Woman 1984, which made $16.4 million in its opening weekend. The (relatively) strong numbers seem to indicate a real recovery beginning for movie theaters, even if that recovery will be quite gradual.
"We're really in a good spot, considering where we've been," says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "There's actually now cause for hope. Cautious optimism is often an overused phrase, but I think it applies here, and we might even be a little [better] than cautious."
That hopeful trajectory can be credited to a few interrelated factors. As Dergarabedian puts it, "Vaccines, plus falling COVID cases, plus more open cities and theaters, plus studio confidence, plus new movies, equals more patrons going to the movies." And the coming weeks could lift the box office to still greater heights; Los Angeles, the nation's largest moviegoing market, is also poised to finally reopen its theaters next week as California's restrictions slowly begin to ease. Should cases continue to fall, theaters around the country will also increase their capacities, allowing more moviegoers per screening. (New York and L.A. theaters are currently limited to 25 percent capacity.)
Meanwhile, studios are delaying films by a matter of weeks rather than months now, and some release dates have even moved up: A Quiet Place Part II, which was pushed to September 2021 just over a month ago, is now set for May 28 — just about the time, according to President Joe Biden, that the U.S. will have enough COVID vaccine for "every adult."
Yet the situation remains fragile, akin to a shaky Jenga tower. Should one block — falling COVID cases, open theaters, studio confidence, consumer confidence — be yanked away, the entire box office recovery could come crashing down.
For studios, "it's not so much about the movies themselves, but more about, where can they strategically place these films to give them the greatest shot at success and profitability?" Dergarabedian says. "When are enough cities going to be open that it makes financial sense to release these films in theaters?"
At the same time, he adds, "Without new movies, you're not going to generate the kind of interest and excitement that you need to generate big numbers."
Adds IFC's Vanco, "There's [currently] not a lot of content that hasn't been available on other platforms. That's clearly a factor that is kind of holding back or tamping down some of the enthusiasm."
Here, again, the ominous specter of streaming descends upon the scene. Paramount announced last month that A Quiet Place Part II and Mission: Impossible 7 would begin streaming on Paramount+ after just 45 days in theaters — an announcement that, a year ago, would have been a bombshell, but barely registered in the wake of Warner Bros.' HBO Max announcement, Disney's "Premier Access" strategy, and Universal's deal with AMC Theatres.
It is notable, however, that both Tom & Jerry and Wonder Woman could be streamed on HBO Max at the time of their theatrical debuts, while Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon, which can be purchased and viewed on Disney+ for $30, topped last weekend's box office with $8.5 million. And though somewhat underwhelming, Raya's softer opening arguably had as much to do with the film not screening at Cinemark theaters as its presence on streaming. (Cinemark, the third-largest theater chain in the U.S., has "not yet reached agreeable licensing terms" for Raya, a representative told EW in a statement.)
"The sky didn't fall when some of these movies went day and date," Dergarabedian says. "People are frustrated; they want to go out. Dinner and a movie is something people have been thinking about for about a year. They have a need, and a want, and desire to — safely, I should add — go out to a brick-and-mortar venue and see a film."
Looking ahead, that "pent-up demand," as Dergarabedian puts it, will largely drive the box office in the weeks to come. Neither of the biggest titles slated for March and April — Godzilla vs. Kong on March 31 and Mortal Kombat on April 16, both Warner releases — would be a surefire hit even in normal circumstances. (2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters underwhelmed with $110.5 million domestically, and the track record for video game adaptations is spotty, to say the least.) The true test will arrive (or is expected, for now, to arrive) on May 7, the current release date for Black Widow. Slated as the first Marvel movie to hit theaters in almost two years, the superhero tentpole now moves into the unenviable position (the Tenet position, if you will) of serving as a box-office bellwether.
"I think that the bigger tentpole titles will help get people comfortable," says Vanco. "There are some people who are not going to come out of the house until there's something thrilling like a Marvel movie. They're not going to go out for something that they think is marginal entertainment, but they're going to come out for something that they think is a milestone bit of entertainment. And that's going to help the business overall."
But again, the Jenga analogy applies. If the box office can't maintain promising levels, studios will start to panic, leaving theater owners out in the cold once again. And should COVID cases rise again — a likely scenario, according to experts — or vaccinations hit a snag, the health of the film industry will suffer as well. Hoary as it may seem by now, that old motto from the first days of the pandemic springs to mind: We're all in this together.