Box Office: Can ‘F9’ Kick-Start a True Summer Tentpole Season?

BY PAMELA MCCLINTOCK | HollywoodReporter.Com

Troy Warren for CNT

The latest ‘Fast & Furious’ installment is the first all-audience blockbuster to unfurl in U.S. theaters since pandemic-era restrictions were largely lifted.

Reservations are normally hard to come by at the summer box office, yet on Friday Sony decided at the 11th hour to rebook its fourth Hotel Transylvania family pic for an October 2021 release, versus a month from now in late July.

The decision underscores the challenges that continue to face the box office recovery, even as pandemic-era restrictions have been largely lifted. Certain international markets are still feeling the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Canada, which, together with the United States, makes up the North American marketplace.

The most crucial test case yet for a Hollywood tentpole in the recovery era is Universal’s all-audience tentpole Fast & Furious installment F9, which debuts domestically on June 25. That’s followed by Disney and Marvel Studio’s superhero offering Black Widow, set to hit the big screen on July 9.

So far, the righting of the box office has been topsy-turvy. So far it’s been fueled by adults between ages 18 and 34. The trick now is to get all age groups. The recovery has been complicated by the decision of some studios to debut their movies simultaneously in cinemas and at home (Black Widow, for example, will be made available immediately to Disney+ Premier Access for $30).

F9 bucks this dual-release trend and is getting an exclusive theatrical release before hitting premium VOD after 45 days or so. If tracking proves correct, the pic is expected to clear $60 million-$70 million in its opening, the biggest domestic of the pandemic era.

Even if F9‘s debut falls short of the bows by the last several titles in the main franchise, an opening in the expected range would still be a victory for the film industry as the theatrical experience battles to prove its worth in the golden age of streaming.

Paramount’s horror-thriller A Quiet Place Part II — which likewise is only playing in theaters for an exclusive period — presently holds the record for a post-pandemic debut after opening to $57.1 million over the long Memorial Day weekend, including $47.5 million for the three-day weekend. The film is an unqualified hit, with a current global gross north of $225 million.

Quiet Place II, though, is a modestly budgeted genre pic, not a broad-audience, big-budget offering.

“All the talk of a return to ‘normal’ at the box office will be road tested this weekend with the North American debut of F9. This is arguably the first full-fledged summer blockbuster of 2021, so the stakes are incredibly high for this ninth installment of Universal’s $6 billion global juggernaut,” says ComScore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “If the international numbers are any indication, F9 is poised for a solid debut.”

F9, which has already opened in Asia and other select markets, has grossed nearly $300 million overseas so far. By Sunday, that number should rev to $400 million or more on its way to ultimately grossing — fingers crossed — a solid $600 million or more. (It will continue to rollout in Europe and Latin America throughout the summer).

“F9 should become another benchmark moment for the recovery process, but it also is a sequel that had elements like franchise fatigue working against it domestically even before the pandemic was a consideration. Maybe it benefits from pent-up big-screen action demand to counter that, but it could just as easily perform close to conservative pre-pandemic expectations,” says Shawn Robbins, another box office pundit.

Robbins and other analysts note that there’s still consumer confusion regarding whether theaters have reopened fully, and what the restrictions are, or aren’t as the case might be. And those analysts — along with studio distribution executives — have been saying for weeks that the box recovery will be a relatively slow throughout the summer.

“I suspect many people are catching up on outdoor gatherings and activities they’ve missed out on for over a year. With few true event films releasing until the second half of the year, getting back into theaters while the weather is nice maybe less of an immediate priority among casual moviegoers,” says Robbins.

Indeed, the fall calendar could look more like a summer release schedule. 2021 summer event pics, such as F9 and Black Widow, like A Quiet Place Part II, delayed their release dates numerous times before deciding to stick with summer 2021. Others, like Hotel Transylvania 4: Transformania have opted for the crowded fall.

Insiders say Sony is concerned about the overseas box office, considering that some countries are suffering a third or fourth wave of the virus, delaying a resumption of normal moviegoing habits. Also, Sony perhaps made the decision in light of the muted performance of the animated franchise installment after Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway that opened behind expectations in North America earlier this month.

“On the one hand, risk mitigation is the name of the game for major studios as there are still cautious audiences keeping in mind that kids under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccines,” says Robbins.

In North America, Memorial Day weekend’s A Quiet Place Part II was the first title in the pandemic age to earn north of $100 million — followed now by Godzilla vs. Kong — in addition to pulling off a surprise upset shooting back to No. 1 in its third weekend and beating Warner Bros.’ In the Heights.

A Quiet Place II was unique in getting an exclusive theatrical release before going to Paramount+ after 45 days.

Like all 2021 Warner releases, In the Heights, director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, debuted day and date on HBO Max.

The movie had been expected to open in the mid-teens but instead came in at $11.5 million. The challenge: adults over 35, the most important audience for a musical, are warier about returning than those between ages and 18 and 34.

Over the June 18-20 frame, the critically acclaimed musical fell a steep 63 percent. Nor did new entry The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard‘s five-day domestic debut of $17 million over the June 16-18  weekend necessarily impress, considering its $70 million production budget. (In the Heights cost $50 million to $55 million to make before marketing.)

“I think expectations should be moderated throughout summer as the build-up continues to a more steady diet of tentpole releases in the fall, particularly those that will be exclusive to theaters,” says Robbins. The crop of fall titles includes James Bond pic No Time to Die and Top Gun.

“If theater owners can take solace in one thing about Hotel Transylvania’s move, it’s that it was just that: a release date change and not a shift to streaming distribution,” adds Robbins.

Presently, 42 percent to 44 percent of the usual number of summer moviegoers are going to the cinema, according to box office experts, suggesting the recovery has still some way to go.

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By Troy Warren

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