The movie industry, two months after theaters began reopening in earnest with the Memorial Day release of A Quiet Place Part II, has been grappling with an existential question in that time. Namely: What does success look like?
It’s a question without an easier answer. But that hasn’t stopped the industry and press from trying to determine A) what it is and B) if anything over the last eight weeks qualifies.
Consider the following points:
- After being pushed by a year, A Quiet Place Part II opened with $57m, the best opening weekend since widespread shutdowns in early 2020. That amount was half of what Aladdin grossed when it opened the same weekend in 2019.
- The total box-office for Memorial Day weekend was $96.5m, a far cry from 2019’s $220m.
- Since then, there have only been three weeks where the total weekend box office gross topped $90m and only one that cleared $100m. In 2019 only three weekends *didn’t* gross at least $150m and two were over $200m.
- Both F9 and Black Widow opened well – $70m and $80m, respectively – only to drop by 67% in their second weekends.
Given all that, it’s clear we’re grading on a curve here when trying to score what a win for the theater industry looks like.
It makes sense. After all, we’re still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic whose…fourth?…wave is building up speed in the U.S. as vaccination rates plateau and a more easily transmissible variant spreads in that unvaccinated population. Local and federal guidance on mitigation efforts changes regularly, resulting in a confusing situation for those who *are* vaccinated.
Add to that the availability of many titles on streaming either simultaneous with theatrical release or shortly thereafter, which is going to lead some people to make different choices.
So then why are we not only desperately judging this year’s results by outdated standards but engaging in narratives that seem inaccurate at best?
the wrong yardstick
The first question brings to mind the kind of media analysis frequently offered by commentators such as Jay Rosen. He often points out that political journalism only knows two framing devices: “both sides” and “horse race.” Regardless of the context or truth of a story, the political press will frame it in one of those ways because it helps them maintain the veneer of objectivity.
So too the entertainment press doesn’t do context very often. For instance, this past weekend was labeled “slow” and the fault was put on the movies available. That may have been part of the reason why both Old and Snake Eyes underperformed projections, but the coronavirus resurgence and continued wildfires, along with other issues going on in other parts of the country, also likely played roles.
In short, the measure of what constitutes a success needs to be not only recent but also be constantly adjustable based on conditions. While extreme events like region-wide snowstorms etc are often noted in box-office reporting this should be taken up several steps and made more specific.
an inconsistent narrative
Black Widow brought in $80 million during its opening weekend, but when it dropped 67% from its first to second weekends everyone freaked out. Hot takes were written about what might be behind that drop, one of the biggest of the MCU franchise, and what it means for the future. NATO was quick to blame Disney for that drop, citing the simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.
If that were the case, what’s NATO’s theory for why F9 dropped 67% from Week 1 to 2? After all, that movie isn’t available on any streaming or PVOD service, getting an exclusive theatrical release. Do NATO or other parties have theories on why the Week 1-to-2 drops for movies like Boss Baby: Family Business and Cruella, both of which were in theaters and paid streaming tiers at the same time, weren’t as dramatic? And why wasn’t F9’s drop greeted with similar condemnations and hand-wringing?
Also, Black Widow:
- Had the highest opening weekend of 2021 to date, beating even the much-vaunted F9
- Is the second highest grossing movie of 2021, a mere $3m behind F9 despite being in theaters for half the time
- Black Widow has grossed more – about $13m more – in its first three weeks than F9 did in its first three weeks
And again, it did all that while also being available on Disney+ Premier Access, where it brought in an additional $60m.
It seems that if there’s going to be a narrative established – namely that streaming availability hurts long-term box-office success – it should be backed up by more than one example. Otherwise you’re making arguments the facts don’t support.