Hollywood's chaotic summer reflects a film industry in transition — with no end in sight
What a difference two weeks can make. As August drew to a close, and with it, the squandered summer of 2021, chaos reigned, and morale was low in the film industry. For Hollywood and the country at large, the glorious Hot Vax Summer everyone envisioned never quite materialized. Instead, vaccinations stalled, the Delta variant surged, and the box office topped out at less than half of summer 2019's total.
Even the summer's top-grossing film, Black Widow, was seen as a disappointment, and as the release of Marvel's next film loomed, there was a widespread sense that this fall would look an awful lot like last fall — delayed releases, scant tentpole fare, and hope for a box-office recovery deferred. Paramount blinked first, pushing Top Gun: Maverick to 2022, while rumblings grew that Sony's Venom: Let There Be Carnage would follow, as the studios' rallying cry of "The big screen is back!" started to turn once again into "Just wait till next year." After a year and a half of COVID, Hollywood was still holding out for a hero.
And then it got one. Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings shattered box-office projections with a $75 million opening, the second-best debut of the pandemic (after Black Widow), and the best ever for a movie opening over Labor Day weekend. You could practically hear Hollywood exhale: Even before the final numbers for the long weekend were in (Shang-Chi would add almost $20 million more that Monday), Sony announced that Venom would indeed move — but forward, not back, with its release date now set for Oct. 1. Later that week, Disney, which had spent 2021 dropping its biggest titles in theaters and on Disney+ at the same time, announced that its fall slate would receive theatrical-only releases, as Shang-Chi did.
"Shang-Chi sent the summer out on a very high note," says Comscore Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "This was uncharted territory for Labor Day weekend, which is typically a very slow weekend. What I think this movie proves is that there's a seismic shift in favor of a movie theater-first release, as was traditional."
But that high point, and studios' ensuing show of confidence, was a capper to a chaotic summer that reflected a film industry in a messy state of flux. The movie business is transforming before our eyes, grappling with a deadly virus that is here to stay, the high-stakes Streaming Wars, and widespread uncertainty about what qualifies as a successful release these days. No one is entirely sure what the "new normal" will look like, even as many in Hollywood project optimism about the upcoming fall movie season. As the past two weeks have proven, the current landscape could look very different in a very short amount of time.
"We're very flexible right now," says Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Sony's Motion Picture Group. "It used to be, you'd pick a date two years in advance, and you didn't move for hell or high water. But now you move on a dime. Moving Venom up sooner, barely three weeks before the release, that's unprecedented."
"Venom shows you how closely every studio is looking at the marketplace and studying what every other studio is doing," Dergarabedian says.
Adds Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, "We're still in the eye of the hurricane. All the pieces are moving right now, and that's why you're seeing all these different options and release dates changing just weeks out. That's the new normal, unfortunately: Nothing is sacred, everything's written in pencil."
The summer got off to a promising start over Memorial Day weekend, as A Quiet Place Part II scored the best three-day haul of the COVID era with $47 million, ultimately grossing over $100 million, the first film to do so since the pandemic began. A month later, F9 opened to $70 million before zooming to a $172 million domestic total and over $700 million worldwide. Two weeks later, Black Widow, the first Marvel movie to hit theaters in two years, broke the pandemic opening weekend record again with $80 million. Despite the film's simultaneous release on Disney+, it seemed Hollywood's optimism had been validated: The big screen was indeed back.
But the tide turned for Black Widow with dizzying speed. The blockbuster posted the biggest second-weekend decline in MCU history (67 percent) and continued to plummet as July wore on, taking in just $6.4 million in its fourth weekend. It never reached the no. 1 box office spot again, and was widely written off as a disappointment, even as it became the top-grossing movie of the COVID era in North America. Worldwide, it grossed less than $400 million, the lowest total for a Marvel movie since 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger.
It seems clear that Disney's "Premier Access" strategy damaged Black Widow's box office prospects, both by offering moviegoers an alternative to theaters and enabling widespread piracy. (The National Association of Theater Owners said as much in a blistering statement directed at Disney after Black Widow's steep second-weekend drop.) And indeed, a clear pattern starts to emerge when comparing summer movies' release strategies. A Quiet Place Part II, F9, Free Guy, Candyman, and Shang-Chi all played exclusively in theaters and beat box office expectations, while Jungle Cruise, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, and In the Heights — all of which were available for home viewing while playing in theaters — were among the summer's high-profile disappointments.
"There's a growing realization that the exclusive theatrical window works," Sony's Rothman says. "It's not speculation anymore; it's fact. The only thing that's surprising is that it's surprising to people."
Says Greg Laemmle, CEO of a small chain of theaters in Los Angeles, "There did seem to be a faster bleed on those [day-and-date] pictures, lots of steep drop-offs."
The question, of course, is whether that matters to studios, most of which are ever-more focused on building their streaming subscribers at all costs. Despite horror movies' generally strong performances this summer — in addition to A Quiet Place and Candyman's impressive numbers, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It grossed more than $200 million worldwide — Universal recently opted to release the upcoming Halloween Kills on Peacock and in theaters on the same day.
"Right now, Universal and every other studio in town would rather recalibrate and try to boost their streaming while simultaneously keeping the box office afloat," says Bock. "The studios are thinking long-term, which is why they're trying to bolster their streaming entities. Peacock and Paramount+ aren't in people's lexicon right now, and they need to change that. There's only going to be a handful of these streamers that survive."
He continues, "There's a way that this can work for [both] streaming and theatrical, and obviously that would be the best of both worlds for everybody. But it's going to take some time. This [summer] was the first crack at it, and it's going to take a year or two to really figure this out."
Many exhibitors feel the same way. "Studios need a profit center, and theatrical-exclusive releases can do that for them," says Patrick Corcoran, VP and chief communications officer at NATO. "And [the movies] will also be provided value when they get to streaming. [Theatrical and streaming] tend to have the same audiences to a degree, so why use up your opportunities to get to that audience multiple times and cannibalize something that is a consistent moneymaker?"
"I have never been in the camp that [theatrical and streaming] are enemies," says Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain. "I'd love to have a more holistic relationship with the studios, of not being afraid to promote streaming through the cinemas. We're all just interested in promoting movies we love, so I think there's lots of ways that we can work together."
In the meantime, we're entering a fall movie season like no other, with more tentpole releases than usual — including The Matrix Resurrections, the long-awaited James Bond flick No Time to Die, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Marvel's Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home — plus a robust slate of prestige pictures with potential to become crossover hits (Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho, Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, and Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley among them).
"There's a very strong lineup of terrific films [this fall]," Rothman says. "The product's going to be there, and that really hasn't consistently been the case during the pandemic. This is the first time that there's going to be a consistent, week-to-week run of A-level product."
Echoes Corcoran, "At this point, it's more of a supply problem than a demand problem; there just aren't enough movies. When we get to a full slate of a broad range of movies that are being released with windows, we're going to see a recovery."
But as the COVID curve goes, so goes the industry. Theater owners say moviegoing had been on a healthy upward trajectory before the Delta surge struck this summer, "right as we were building momentum," Laemmle says. According to the National Research Group, a film industry consultant, 66 percent of moviegoers felt "very or somewhat" comfortable going to the movies in the first week of September, down from 81 percent in mid-July. Another nationwide uptick in COVID infections could undo everything Shang-Chi has wrought.
Much will also hinge on how well Shang-Chi holds up in the coming weeks. The film scored the best second-weekend gross of the pandemic with $34.7 million, dropping only 53 percent (in line with tentpoles' typical second-week declines pre-COVID). But should it take massive plunges going forward, theaters could once again be stuck in limbo for several weeks — unlike Black Widow, Shang-Chi faces minimal competition until Venom arrives in October.
"As a theater owner, you can't even exhale," Bock says. "You can only hope that you have giant openings for these films — big enough that if the drop is big, it's okay because they opened so large — and just keep hoping that Hollywood will still release new movies every week."
There is reason for hope. Relatively speaking, the box office is doing well, and the industry is undeniably in a much better position than it was at this point in 2020. Experts say the Delta surge is beginning to level off in the U.S. But it's still unclear when anything resembling our old ideas of normalcy will return, if ever — and certainly not before next year.
"With any shake-up, with any change, there's going to be a lot of growing pains, fear, and speculation," says Comscore's Dergarabedian. "2022 will give us some return to a more normal marketplace, if that's even possible, or at least one where we can apply a hypothesis that will last more than a week. Or a day," he adds with a laugh.