Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Spongebob (Paramount Animation)
After prolonged closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, movie theaters in the United States and other parts of the world are slowly starting to turn the lights back on, welcome patrons and hear their cash registers ring again.
In modern times, opening weekend ticket sales have been the benchmark of success for any given movie. But in a post-pandemic era, that metric will be less relevant. For one, the scant number of movie theaters that have reopened are limiting capacity to ensure social distancing, putting a cap on the number of tickets that can be sold over a weekend. But beyond that, studios and exhibitors will have to focus more on word-of-mouth — and not just about the films themselves. They’ll be relying on customers telling others that they felt safe seeing a movie in theaters at a time when coronavirus is still rapidly spreading in many areas in the U.S.
For those reasons, distributors aren’t expecting new releases to start with a bang. Though box office reporting has recently started to quietly ramp up again, this weekend is perhaps the most significant yet since cinemas first closed in March. Two new movies — “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” from Paramount and Russell Crowe’s “Unhinged” from Solstice Studios — opened in Canada. Both got off to a slow start, screening in just a few hundred theaters across the country, but plan to expand to more locations in the coming weeks.
“SpongeBob,” the third feature film based on everyone’s favorite absorbent fry cook, amassed $900,000 from 300 theaters in Canada. The animated kids movie is skipping theaters in the U.S., where it will launch on premium video-on-demand before landing on CBS All Access, the streaming service owned by the studio’s parent company, ViacomCBS.
“Unhinged” also debuted in about 300 theaters and generated $582,000 — almost half of what “SpongeBob” made. Solstice Studios’ head of U.S. distribution Shari Hardison said drive-in and suburban locations have been moving ticket sales. “It’s a little upside-down from a traditional release,” she pointed out.
Mark Gill, the president and CEO of Solstice Studios, said opening weekend numbers for “Unhinged” represented a “good, solid start.” He’s aware that releasing a new movie amid massive uncertainty presents a bold risk. But he’s confident that “slow and steady wins the race” during a pandemic, and feels strongly that it will continue to draw audiences as it expands to the U.S. next weekend.
“Canadians might be too nice to go to ‘Unhinged,'” Gill said. He’s optimistic that the movie, centering on a young woman who is harassed by an unstable stranger after a road rage altercation, will have a stronger appeal in the U.S. He notes, “82% of Americans have experienced road rage — the highest number in the world.”
Box office experts concede that the atypical landscape makes it difficult to immediately gauge the success or failure of a new movie. Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, says the film industry will have to use a different approach when it comes to assessing facts and figures in the age of coronavirus.
“For now, most of the traditionally acknowledged metrics of a movie’s performance — opening weekend gross, year-to-date numbers and year-over-year comparisons — have to take a back seat,” Dergarabedian said. “We need to interpret the reported data through the lens of this unusual and indeed unprecedented marketplace.”
Though it’s unusual for a new movie to premiere in Canada before it hits theaters stateside, studios have all but thrown away the conventional playbook given the unconventional times. Indoor theaters in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Jersey — among the biggest moviegoing markets in the country — are still closed without a set date to reopen. AMC, Cinemark and Regal, the largest cinema chains in the world, haven’t opened most of their locations yet but hope to be almost fully operational by the end of August. Currently, 1,386 of the 6,021 venues in the country are open, according to Comscore, 316 of which are drive-ins.
Since cinemas were forced to shutter earlier in the year, drive-ins became a boon for the exhibition community, serving as one of the few ways for cinephiles (or those just itching to leave their houses) to safely watch a movie on a big screen. Pre-pandemic movies like Disney and Pixar’s fantasy adventure “Onward” and Universal’s thriller “The Invisible Man,” as well as fresh offerings from smaller studios like IFC’s “The Wretched” and David Ayer’s “The Tax Collector” with Shia LaBeouf, from RLJE Films, dominated the few screens that were able to remain open.
Though a handful of independent distributors continued reporting box office grosses during the pandemic, major studios stopped releasing information about ticket sales altogether. Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” and Andy Samberg’s romantic comedy “Palm Springs,” from Neon and Hulu, screened at drive-ins and simultaneously dropped on premium rental services. But those studios didn’t report grosses.
That’s left those still reporting numbers with bragging rights to claim that they have launched the No. 1 movie in America, a difficult metric to determine by traditional standards given the sparse reporting from studios. Typically, summer fields most of the highest-grossing movies of the year. But as studios have scrapped or delayed plans to unveil blockbuster-hopefuls and others have forged ahead with new offerings, the box office has entered an area of inscrutability. In any case, it has been an unexpected way for smaller films to get their moment of box office glory.
IFC Films is one of the independent studios that has been launching new movies and reporting numbers, finding huge success at outdoor venues. Horror films, such as “The Wretched” and “The Rental,” claimed the top spot on box office charts in recent weeks.
IFC opened sci-fi thriller “Sputnik” in 31 venues this weekend, generating $12,000 in ticket sales. But that wasn’t the studio’s biggest title over the last three days. “The Rental,” the directorial debut of Dave Franco, pulled in $78,000 from 144 screens. That film has been a big hit by pandemic standards, collecting $1.3 million to date. Also from IFC, the Liam Neeson-led romantic comedy “Made in Italy,” pulled in $21,000 from 101 locations this weekend, bringing its total haul to $73,332.
Throughout the rest of August and into September, studios will continue to test the appetite for moviegoing. On Sept. 3, Christopher Nolan’s oft-delayed sci-fi epic “Tenet” is expected to touch down in select cities in the U.S., even without theaters open in New York City or Los Angeles. Disney and Fox’s superhero thriller “The New Mutants” is scheduled to bow a week earlier, on Aug. 28. The reception to those films could determine the path forward for other major films in 2020.
“Are moviegoers ready to return to theaters? That’s the bottom line,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It’s going to be the biggest weekend we’ve seen all summer in terms of how films are presented in 2020.”
Variety's Rebecca Rubin contributed to this post.