what constitutes box-office “success” should be redefined

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So then why are we not only desperately judging this year’s results by outdated standards but engaging in narratives that seem inaccurate at best?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.

black widow – marketing recap

How Marvel Studios has sold a long-awaited – on multiple levels – super hero solo film.

Over a decade after being first introduced in Iron Man 2 and following several supporting appearances in other MCU movies, Scarlett Johansson strikes out on her own in this week’s Black Widow.

Set in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, which gets around the fact that Natasha Romanoff sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame, the story follows Natasha as she’s on the run from the authorities. A series of events lead her to reunite with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a fellow agent of Russia’s Red Room who shares a sister-like bond with Natasha, as well as former Black Widow Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov / Red Guardian (David Harbour), the Russian equivalent of Captain America. All four, a surrogate family of sorts, face off against Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), a villain who can copy anyone’s movements and who is after the same MacGuffin sought by Natasha and Yelena.

Originally scheduled for May of last year but delayed multiple times because of Covid, the movie hits both theaters and Disney+ Premier Access this week. It’s notable for a number of reasons:

  • It is, of course, the first solo movie Marvel Studios has released with a female lead character, the only founding Avenger other than Hawkeye to not get a standalone story (and his turn is coming via a Disney+ series later this year).
  • It’s the first MCU release in two years, the longest the franchise has been absent from audiences since the gap between the first two Iron Man movies.
  • It’s the first MCU feature film to be released on Disney+ day-and-date with theatrical, a circumstance brought on because plans made during the worst of the pandemic were hard to adjust on short notice.

First reactions have been largely positive, with critics calling out the movie’s spy genre heritage as well as the strong performances, particularly Pugh’s. That’s resulted in an 81% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a film that’s received a full court press campaign from Disney that’s focused on Johansson finally getting her own turn in the spotlight. This confluence of events has led to speculation the movie could score a pandemic-high opening weekend box office of $80 million or more.

The Posters

In November 2019 the first teaser poster (by artist Andy Park) came out offering a look at Natasha as she stands at the forefront of an arrangement of the other characters, the red “X” that will dominate the film’s branding from here on out in the background.

The second poster (by marketing agency LA) from December of that year brings that branding even more to the surface as the solid red “X” dominates the design, Natasha shown at the bottom walking toward the camera ready for action. It’s inspired by a cover from the character’s 2016 comics series.

An exclusive poster handed out at CCXP in early December 2019 features an artistic drawing of Natasha’s face looking weary and tired, as if she’s come through a difficult battle.

Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year.

The four major heroes received character posters released in February 2020, each standing in front of a background made up of heavily-redacted documents, the kind a bunch of spies would be very interested in.

Everyone’s brought together on the initial theatrical poster, which came out in March of last year, including a handful of faceless women at the bottom who look very much Black Widow and are walking away from the Kremlin, establishing them as part of the same program that trained Natasha.

Another poster came out in March of this year that shows Natasha in her white uniform.

More character posters, including ones for Taskmaster and the agent played by O-T Fagbenle, came out in May.

A similar approach from the character posters is taken on the final one-sheet, with Natasha at the center of her surrogate family, with other supporting characters scattered around as well.

Additional posters for RealD 3D, Dolby Cinemas, ScreenxUSA and IMAX offered their own takes on the character and settings.

The Trailers

The first trailer, released in early December 2019, opens with Natasha’s lines from Endgame about how the Avengers gave her a home and a family. At this point she’s ready to confront her past and so heads home, leading to an interesting reunion with her sister. The two set out to investigate the organization that made them what they are, but why is unclear. What is shown are brief looks at Taskmaster and his goons along with an extended introduction to Natasha’s father, who can still fit into his Red Guardian costume.

One thing that’s not clear is the movie’s time period. Natasha’s comments and narration are vague, so you have to have some foreknowledge that the story takes place before the events of Infinity War.

A “Special Look” trailer came out in mid-January 2020 that introduced a key premise of the film, that there is a new generation of Widows being trained that Natasha and her family must confront before they’re loosed upon the world.

The bond between Natasha and her chosen family is the focus of the next trailer, released in early March. It starts with her and her sister reconnecting and sharing the lies they’ve told and ends with everyone gathered around the table as we see the same kind of dynamic that might be found in any family. In between we’re shown Natasha has found some of the mistakes she made before becoming an Avenger have caught up with her. The Taskmaster is introduced as the new head of the Russian training facility she came out of, but he’s more cruel and so she sets out to stop him and free the girls that have been sent to kill her.

The final trailer, released in early April, is all about secrets and dealing with the sins of the past. It’s the same basic message being sold here about family and such, but with a few new shots and the promise of a lot of action and a lot of drama.

Online and Social

Marvel’s page for the film featured some videos, posters and other background information, but not much details on other aspects of the marketing campaign. There were also social profiles that offered a bit more.

Advertising, Press and Publicity

After years of speculation, rumors, comments by Marvel Studios execs about how they’d “love to” make a Black Widow movie (as if they were subject to someone else’s whims), it finally moved into the realm of reality when Cate Shortland was hired to direct the feature. Many people pointed out as the synopsis was released that the story sounded more or less just like 2018’s Jennifer Lawrence-starring Red Sparrow about a female Russian agent trained to seduce and spy at all costs in the service of the Motherland.

The topic of the movie’s existence came up during the Avengers: Endgame press tour, but Johansson remained mum on whether it was happening or not, part of Marvel’s strategy of not officially announcing any future projects.

Plans became much more official when the movie was part of Marvel’s Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2019. That event featured revelations about the cast, characters and story, including Johansson commenting on her desire to keep playing Natasha over the last decade. Marvel put out a video of footage from the panel that included insights from the cast.

There were more comments from Johansson about the timing of the project and what it means for her and the character. She kept teasing the movie while promoting other projects in 2019.

In addition to the trailer shown, attendees of Disney’s D23 Fan Expo in August of 2019 were able to see costumes from the movie on the show floor.

The first paid promotion came via a commercial aired during the College Football Playoffs on ESPN in January, 2020, when the movie was still expected to be just a few months away.

A featurette released in mid-January 2020 had Johansson talking about the potential for future stories the character has while also reflecting on the fact she’s been playing Natasha for 10 years now, with this movie offering audiences something new as well.

Marvel had three Black Widow comics already on the schedule for May, all of them focusing on characters that would be seen in the movie, when it announced in January the launch – also in May – of a new ongoing series for the character. Later on the publisher showed off movie-themed variant covers for some issues of those titles.

Widow has unfinished family business in the Super Bowl commercial that shows the drama and action of the story, including some of the threats she’ll face off against.

An explanation of who Red Guardian is was the subject of a video released by Marvel in mid-February.

The movie was a major part of Marvel’s promotional presence at two major conventions earlier this year. Toys based on the film were shown off at ToyFair in February, while C2E2 in March included Black Widow merchandise for sale.

A profile of Johansson had her talking about her long history with the character and what it means to finally have her stand on her own in a film. Another piece had her sharing what she felt were the character’s best scenes from over the years.

An Omaze campaign was launched in March with a video featuring Johansson telling people they could win a trip to the movie’s premiere. That was followed by an International Women’s Day greeting from Johansson and Pugh.

At that point – early April 2020, about a month after Disney pulled it from the schedule – the first date change happened as the movie was pushed to November, when we thought things would be back to normal again.

Harbor spoke about his character of Red Guardian and what it means in the context of the story.

In an interview from last July, Shortland revealed the film essentially puts a cap on Johansson’s time in the MCU and lets Pough’s character pick up the baton going forward. Another feature package in Empire came out in September that had more comments from Johansson and others along with exclusive new images. Shortland also commented on how the story, which mixes super heroics and family drama, evolved during development and production.

Another interview with Johansson and Pugh had the two talking about production of this movie, the pandemic-related delays and what future plans there might be for both of their characters.

In November Black Widow, sporting the same white uniform she’s wearing in many of the trailers, was added to Fortnite.

The question of release seemed to be settled in December of last year, when Disney made it clear during its investors presentation that the movie was still planned as a theatrical-only title. It reiterated that commitment in February during the company’s earnings announcement, which also included the news Disney+ had grown to 94 million subscribers.

A few months later, in March, that commitment was (unsurprisingly) called into question when Disney announced A) one last date shift – from May to July – as well as B) that the movie would get a simultaneous theatrical and Disney+ Premier Access release.

Johannson presented the movie as being a chance for audiences to finally get to know Natasha’s true story in a video released on National Super Hero Day in early May.

Additional footage was included in the “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video also from early May. It’s not a lot, but it puts this film in the context of the previous MCU entries while also playing up the communal experience of theatrical viewing.

The first clip came in mid-May during the “MTV Movie & TV Awards” broadcast, where Johansson accepted the “Generation Award.”. It shows Natasha and Yelena bickering like the sisters they are while trying to get away from a bad guy.

A “special look” came out in early June telling fans the wait is over, though technically there was still another month or so to wait.

Weisz talked about the movie when she appeared on “Kimmel” in June, as did Pugh when she appeared a week or so later.

Tickets going on sale in early June unlocked a host of content, almost like a tide that’s been held back for a year and was suddenly unleashed. That included:

Around that same time, Shortland was interviewed about what movies and other stories she drew inspiration from.

Harbour talked more about the movie when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” in June of last year

In a much-shared interview, Johansson talked about how her character has evolved since being introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2 where, she said, Natasha was overly-sexualized and objectified, underestimated because of that by almost all the other characters at some point or another.

Harbour had some fun speculating on his character’s backstory and what potential there might be in that unexplored territory while the rest of the cast talked about working with Shortland.

In a video released on Father’s Day Harbour read some corny “dad jokes” much to the embarrassment of his costars.

Johansson appeared on “The Tonight Show” to hype the movie, convince people to see it in theaters and tease some revelations.

A ton of commercials and other promo spots started running in early June, each taking a slightly different take on the story but all selling the movie as a fast-paced action romp with the Romanov family.

Weisz answered a handful of questions about the production like the person most likely to pull a prank on set in a video from mid-June. Later on Johansson, Harbour and Pugh answered their own sets of fan questions.

A joint interview with Johansson and Pugh had the two of them sharing anecdotes over how they bonded on set, particularly over the ridiculousness of some of the fighting poses they were expected to perform and more.

A fan screening event was held in Los Angeles recently with some of the cast in attendance and some appearing virtually. Similar events, each with some subset of the cast and crew, were held in major cities around the world.

Another interview with Shortland had her talking about the multiple times she declined taking on the project, only to eventually be worn down/won over by the persistence of her agent and Marvel.

Regal Cinemas shared an exclusive video interview with the cast.

More background on Taskmaster was shared by Marvel in a featurette released just a week or so ago. There was also a recap of Widow’s character journey through the 10+ years since her introduction to the MCU.

The last wave of commercials like this explicitly called out this being Marvel’s return to theater screens after a two year absence.

Natasha and Yelena are breaking Alexei out of prison in the last official clip released before the movie was made available.

One last featurette had the cast talking about the makeshift family the characters have formed.

Additional interviews with Shortland like this had her talking about the opportunity that exists for more female directors to be brought into the MCU. Meanwhile Feige talked about how this story takes place during the third phase of the MCU arc but sets the stage for things that will happen moving forward.

Disney+ released a movie-themed episode of the “Legends” series, offering more background on the character and her history.

Promotional partners for the movie included:

  • Geico, which has the company’s spokesgecko imagining what it would be like to ride along with Natasha and Yelena.
  • BMW, which released exclusive interviews with the cast in support of a campaign that shows the company’s cars executing some of the movie’s big driving stunts.
  • Synchrony Bank, which launched a campaign encouraging people to learn about its savings tools.

Overall

This is probably the biggest campaign in terms of sheer volume of elements in quite a while, even bigger than F9 and other recent releases. As such it’s hard to judge on an objective level. But what’s impressive is how Marvel Studios has maintained a sense of brand consistency despite the unexpectedly long period of time the marketing has been forced to stretch over. Add to that a very professionally enthusiastic push from Johansson and a focus on Pugh that sets her up as the future of this part of the franchise’s future and you have a solid campaign that hopes audiences are ready for more of the series after a prolonged break.

Now we just see if it can stick the landing.

Scarlett Johansson GIF by Marvel Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Is The Box-Office Actually Warming Up?

Maybe, but let’s see if it lasts.

A significant – and significantly delayed – milestone was marked last week when Tenet, initially released last September, finally opened in New York City theaters. Unlike when it played in a handful of theaters elsewhere in the country several months ago, this time the opening was not marked by director Christopher Nolan openly decrying Warner Bros. executives, but the larger narrative in the movie industry couldn’t have made him very pleased given his dislike of anything less than 100% theatrical distribution.

See over the last week or so several studio heads and others have weighed in with their own prognostications on the future of movie release patterns given we’re now a year past when most theaters shut down for most of the rest of 2020.

Jim Gianopulos, Paramount Pictures

Exclaimed Gianopulos at Viacom’s Paramount+ Day today, “We believe in the power of theatrical releases and we have faith that after things get back to normal, audiences will enthusiastically return to theaters. At the same time, consumers have increasingly embraced streaming as another way to enjoy films,” said Gianopulos, “our strategy accounts for both.”

Bob Chapek, Walt Disney Company

“I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” said Chapek. “Particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back, but we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”

Jason Kilar, WarnerMedia

“It sure feels like it’s not going to go back to 2015,” Kilar said, adding, “I can only speak for ourselves.”

Bob Bakish, ViacomCBS

“If you look at the curve, the degradations on most film titles, they do very little business on post-Day 30 and certainly post-Day 45,” Bakish, who was the morning’s keynote speaker at the (virtual) 2021 Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, continued. “So moving to an in-house streaming window at that part we think works, certainly for us, but also for constituents, including consumers.”

Tenet finally coming to New York theaters happened at about the same time San Francisco announced bars, theaters and other public spaces could reopen, though still at reduced capacity. That’s also good news for the movie industry as it is another major market that, with vaccination rates rising due to increased supply and Covid-19 cases dropping, is allowing businesses to get back to business.

If things continue to improve, it should mean that Disney’s decision to keep Black Widow’s May release date makes sense. And we might even see titles like No Time To Die and others this year. Indeed studios are feeling positive, with Paramount recently announcing a Memorial Day release date for The Quiet Place Part II.

[record scratch]

Of course there are still potential monsters lurking around a number of corners.

The CDC reported last week that areas where mask mandates and in-person dining restrictions were lifted wholesale have seen fresh increases in Covid-19 infections.

Over 745,000 Americans signed up for unemployment assistance last week and there are 10 million fewer jobs than there were a year ago. 10% of Americans are estimated to have given up on the job market completely, much more than the official 6.4% unemployment rate.

So not only are there still public health concerns that will impact people’s decisions whether or not to head to a movie theater (assuming one near them is open yet), but there is still the very real situation of tens of millions of people not working and therefore not having disposable income to spend on something as inessential as a movie ticket.

What Should We Watch Elizabeth Olsen GIF by Disney+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

All that is on top of the year of being solidly in the habit of watching new releases via streaming or PVOD.

That’s why it’s likely most, if not all, the studios will adopt some form of hybrid or mix-and-match release strategy for their lineups.

It may not be as ad-hoc as Disney’s approach, where some films are held back entirely while others get full-on Disney+ releases while others are “Premier Access” titles requiring additional payments. Or as one-size-fits-all as WarnerMedia’s day-and-date theatrical/HBO Max releases.

Something fundamental has shifted, though, and it may not be possible to shift it back. While Kilar and others still see a place for theatrical releases, Paramount announcing major title will come to the newly-rebranded Paramount+ just 45 days after they hit theaters shows theaters are no longer the powerhouses they were just a few years ago. Even at the height of DVD sales in the 2000s, studios would never have dared anything less than at least a 90 day window, with 120+ being the tightest it ever really got.

Some theater chains are still trying to exercise some power, though, with Cinemark’s decision to not play Raya and the Last Dragon because of it’s Disney+ availability playing a large role in that movie’s lackluster box-office.

How the theatrical box-office continues to improve after losing essentially an entire 12 month period remains to be seen given how many states are still enacting stricter guidelines and we’re nowhere near “herd immunity” vaccination levels. Adding to the uncertainty is how studios have taken to just not reporting box-office results, afraid those numbers will be taken out of the context of a global pandemic.

That means it could be even longer before we see dollar amounts reflecting wide release patterns. And when those numbers are available, they may not look like what we would expect to see a few years ago because, quite frankly, the results don’t include the number of people who opted to stream it at home now or 45 days in the future.

Marvel Phase Four: Sure, Let’s Do That?

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the movie news and trailers that came out of San Diego Comic-Con were lackluster at best. Sure, a few surprises were dropped like the Walking Dead movie announcement, but in general there weren’t too many jaw-dropping headlines generated. That’s not surprising given Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney (with a notable exception) all sat out the convention.

An exception to that rule was Saturday night’s Marvel Studios panel in Hall H. It was there that the studio finally provided a number of insights into what they have in store now that Avengers: Endgame has put a cap on the first 11 years of stories that have spanned two dozen films. In addition to a number of series for the Disney+ streaming service, those plans include the following films:

  • Black Widow (2020)
  • The Eternals (2020)
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
  • Thor: Love and Thunder (2021)
  • Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021)
  • Blade

marvel studios comic con 2019 thor doctor strange black widow shang chi eternals blade

Unlike announcements from other comics publishers/movie studios, this lineup will likely turn out to be entirely legit and be close to what actually hits theaters. Something may slip by a week or two here or there, but with full casts and creative teams largely locked in it would be a safe bet that all five of these movies come out in the next 30 months.

Of course there are a few notable things about that lineup that need to be considered.

It’s So Weird

Like really weird.

Doctor Strange dealing in some manner with the Multiverse isn’t actually the weirdest of the bunch. That honor goes to The Eternals, a mysterious ancient race created by Jack Kirby after he returned to Marvel following his sting at DC, where he created The New Gods (also being developed for an upcoming film). Some recent stories have tried to retcon aspects of the characters through memory issues and other tricks, but the premise of them being hundreds of thousands or millions of years old and having incredible powers seems to remain largely intact.

Even the titles seem more playful and eccentric than what we’ve seen in the past. Not how Doctor Strange and Shang-Chi don’t actually have subtitles but instead have long, crazy titles that serve as plot summaries. They both sound like the kinds of titles given to film serials in the 40s. And Thor’s subtitle along with the supporting title treatment look like either a PC video game from 1986 or a hard rock album from the same year.

It’s Diverse

It’s great that Natalie Portman is finally getting her own Black Widow movie 10 years after Natasha was introduced in Iron Man 2. That’s a win.

Also good is that Marvel cast an inclusive group of actors for The Eternals. And Shang-Chi features an ethnically appropriate cast, perhaps in part because of the blowback the studio encountered when it cast Vague White Guy #4,382 in the lead role on “Iron Fist” for Netflix and didn’t want to replicate that mistake.

Of course what got the most headlines was that Tessa Thompson hinted – and Kevin Feige later confirmed – that her Valkyrie character was actually LGBTQ and would be more explicitly so in the upcoming Thor movie.

It’s all a far cry from the “Oh look, another white dude named ‘Chris’” approach taken in the casting for the first decade of films.

It’s Got Natalie Portman

Portman hasn’t been seen in the MCU since the second Thor movie, at least in part because she reportedly wasn’t thrilled with how little her character Jane Foster was being given to do. Her not being in Ragnarok was explained away by Feige when he pointed out the movie’s cosmic setting wouldn’t allow Foster to be part of the story but Portman has made other comments about being done.

You have to think, though, that she watched Ragnarok and, like the rest of us, thought that looked like a lot more fun than the previous Thor movies. The prospect of working with director Taika Waititi combined with the story seemingly being inspired by Jason Aaron’s recent comics run that had Foster taking up the mantle of Thor and it’s easy to see why she would make a much heralded return.

It’s Got An Easy Out

What jumps out from the lineup of films here is the lack of connective tissue. There’s no Avengers-like central point that everything seems naturally inclined to come back to and connect with. While there are two sequels and one character spinoff, the rest are essentially one-offs that, to my knowledge, haven’t been setup in previous stories.

That means that if any of these experiments with the absurd don’t pan out, it’s easy for Marvel Studios to say “Well that didn’t work out. We’re going back to the drawing board.” before Phase 5 – which could include the not-announced Fantastic Four, “Mutants” or other sequels for Captain Marvel and Black Panther – kicks off.