But no one seems to know what will leave audiences stirred.
As ‘No Time to Die’ opens, the era of major movies debuting exclusively in theaters is finally back. But which genres can actually entice consumers is vexing Hollywood.
Daniel Craig spends a lot of time dodging nearly certain demise in the new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” — on towering bridges, under icy water or even just hanging at the bar.
The theater owners bringing his movie to the masses can relate.
The new 007 film opens exclusively in theaters around much of the world this week, a rollout aimed at replicating the shiny results and $2 billion in global ticket sales of its two most recent predecessors.
But more importantly, the movie throws a light on — and is saddled with the expectations of — a much larger theatrical business. “Die” will try to kick-start a onetime $43 billion global industry that, after a year of shutdowns and six months of erratic attendance, has been whipped and pushed to the brink with a ferocity the supervillain Blofeld himself couldn’t imagine. The fourth quarter that begins this weekend will bring a wide range of releases exclusively to theaters: comedies, horror pictures, dramas, thrillers, musicals, tales of comic-book superheroism (including Sony’s Marvel sequel “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” on Friday in the United States).
All of these movies will face the same question: On a planet remade by the coronavirus, where anxieties about public gatherings abide and at-home options are plentiful, can entertainment companies still get people out of the house and into those lucrative theaters?
Executives across the industry are certain some types of films can. They just can’t figure out which ones.
“The audience for tent poles is one thing,” said Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment and a former studio executive, using the industry’s term for big-budget action pictures. “But the movie business has always been — and should be — about a lot more than that. The question now is how much more.”
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The legacy entertainment business needs movies to work in theaters. The revenue is too high to be replaced by streaming, which feeds on a fuzzier math of subscriber totals. (That’s why the so-called windows battle — the fight over whether to give movies an exclusive theatrical period — ended pretty unceremoniously in favor of keeping them.)
If the films don’t work, the implications for both the industry and consumers could be major. Studios could stop making movies in entire genres, leaving them for streamers to produce at lower budgets or simply to not get made at all. Prolonged box office drops could also lead to a reduction in the number of theaters. The business has so far largely staved off such closures — chains have shuttered scattered theaters but left many of their core locations intact — but a depression could change that dramatically.
“No Time to Die” is off to a strong start, grossing a solid opening $6.5 million in the United Kingdom and $1.4 million in South Korea, where it also must contend with mandated closures and reduced hours due to lockdowns. The film is aiming to approach the $123 million of 2015′s “Spectre” overseas and at least match the $70 million pandemic total of “F9.” Some analysts projected a $90 million total through the weekend.
Colligan and others have been combing data from the scattered movies already released this year (many concurrently on digital platforms, muddying meaningful inference) to see which entertainment will have us demanding community and large screens — and which we’ll be happy to wait to see from the couch, thanks very much.
The issue is about more than locational preference. Pandemic shutdowns have laid bare a question that has simmered since the earliest days of home video and come to a full boil in the age of Netflix. What makes something cinematic entertainment?
With few objective criteria, the answer may depend at least partly on us: whatever we insist on seeing in a cinema.
Horror movies have done well in theaters since movies began returning in the spring; three titles, including John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place Part II,” performed above expectations. After years of feeling thwarted by horrors at home, consumers appeared eager to see them vanquished in a theater.
Comedies, on the other hand, have rarely even made the attempt. Though not that many years ago, the form — from the “Hangover” movies to a string of Kevin Hart hits — was a powerhouse, that is rapidly changing. Paramount during the pandemic sold its eagerly awaited sequel “Coming 2 America” to Amazon. It quickly became the most viewed piece of content on streaming. Whether it would have gone over as well if ticket purchases and parking costs were involved is unclear.
Dramas have also mostly stayed out of theaters. Sony sold one of its leading titles, “Fatherhood,” also from Hart, to Netflix, where it attracted 74 million households — again, with little indication of how many of those people watched just because it was there.
The lack of a theatrical track record for dramas throws some doubt on the fate of “Belfast,” a buzzy new Northern Ireland coming-of-age tale from Universal Pictures’ Focus Features with an early edge at this season’s Oscars. Award-decorated dramas regularly break out commercially — the war picture “1917” grossed nearly $400 million just before the pandemic — but those prospects have dimmed.
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Theatrical moviegoing was actually rocking before the pandemic hit. Film releases scooped up $11.4 billion in ticket sales in the United States in 2019, the second-highest ever, and $42.5 billion around the world, a record. But streaming had been breathing down its neck; admissions had actually been flat or dropping by small amounts in recent years. More than a year of pandemic shutdowns, with a glut of streaming titles and few major theatrical ones, has sped all that up.
Superhero movies — for so long the movie industry’s version of IBM stock — have been on an especially strange ride. Experts have been baffled by whether the characters are the right tonic for an embattled world or simply irrelevant to it. And the box office has reflected that ambivalence. Disney’s Marvel picture “Black Widow” underperformed in July. (It may also have been hurt by simultaneous home availability.)
But this month, its “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” a racially groundbreaking title, has been on a dazzling run. The Marvel film helped push the 2021 domestic box office, for so much of the summer hovering at about 50 percent of that of 2019, closer to a more tolerable 75 percent. (After “Venom,” the genre will be tested with more Disney and Marvel: “Eternals” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”)
Musicals, meanwhile, were thought to be ironclad before the pandemic with a string of hits. But “Dear Evan Hansen,” a teen story based on the smash Broadway musical, flopped this past weekend, garnering fewer than $8 million in U.S. sales. “Musicals feel right in a theater and feel right for right now,” said Steven Levenson, who wrote the property’s movie and stage versions. “But ["Hansen"] is a story of a complicated character who does complicated and sometimes downright bad things, and that can be hard for some people,” he said.
The question of what will motivate a trip to the theater may be hard for Hollywood to understand because, as consumers, we’re also still trying to make sense of it. Public life has been gripped by a sense we won’t go back to what we did before, thanks to health hesitancies or simply because we got used to doing things a new way during shutdowns. How much we won’t go back, though, is a mystery we’re still keeping from ourselves.
“Hollywood can’t know what many of us want to see in theaters because we don’t know it yet either,” said producer Sarah Schechter. “It changes month-to-month. Or day-to-day.”
Perhaps the most nobody-knows-anything moment came with Schechter’s film “Free Guy.” A rare original title (not a sequel or adaptation of intellectual property), the Ryan Reynolds story of a bank teller who realizes he’s living in a video game became the hit that made everyone throw out the rules this summer.
The movie was developed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox before the company was acquired by Disney several years ago — and promptly all but forgotten by its juggernaut acquirer. Disney released the film in the doldrums of August almost as an afterthought to “Black Widow.” Yet long after that movie has gone, “Free Guy” has improbably continued to play strongly nearly two months into its release. With $315 million in worldwide sales, it is one of the most successful original films in years.
Schechter said she was trying to understand the mechanism that drove so many to theaters to see it (apart from strong storytelling and quality acting and all the other things producers say). “The film’s message that we all control our own destiny, no one is a background player” resonates in a new world of activism and agency, she offered.
Mooky Greidinger, chief executive of Cineworld/Regal, the world’s second-largest theater chain, said to understand movie theaters’ future it helps to look to the past. Similar threats have long been defeated by the right Hollywood product, he said.
“When the world got DVDs, the next year ‘Titanic’ came out. When black-and-white television became available widely, studios made ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ ” he said. “This is an industry that knows how to come through hard times.”
No franchise has done that more than Bond, which across its 49-year run has seen epic change yet continued to churn out hits. There is a symmetry to the film marking a new post-pandemic chapter — it was the virus’s first major film casualty. (The movie was initially scheduled for April 2020.)
The financial expectations for the film, Craig’s last as 007, are high. “Spectre” grossed $880 million globally, much of it overseas — the second-most in the 25-film series not adjusting for inflation. While it would be far-fetched to assume “No Time to Die” can rival that when it opens in much of Europe and Asia this week and the United States next week, experts see reason for a strong performance.
“I think James Bond offers a thread to the past that could make people flock back to the movies — it’s a chance for reassurance with the world so changed,” said Ian Kinane, a Bond expert based at London’s University of Roehampton and founder of the surprisingly academic International Journal of James Bond Studies. “But I also think it’s a real question whether in this era of new global concerns Bond is the right icon to speak to that.”
Bond spoke to another changed era when “Casino Royale” came out in 2006, reflecting questions the West newly had about its place in the post-9/11 world. But that movie wasn’t released until five years after the attacks. “Die Another Day,” which came out in 2002 but had primarily been created in a pre-9/11 world, performed more modestly.
“It took five years for Bond to solidify in this new world,” Kinane said. “I wonder if it might take that long again.”