Summer blockbusters expected to revive box office revenue as theatres reopen

From F9 to Black Widow, movie lovers are gearing up for a major summer of blockbuster releases, both on the big screen and on streaming services.

Between May 2019 and May 2020, box office revenue in the U.S. and Canada for in-month releases dropped by a whopping 99.8 per cent, according to Box Office Mojo, a U.S.-based tracking organization. 

In May 2021, box office revenue increased exponentially compared to last year, signalling that moviegoers are eager to get back to the big screen.

But a full recovery will be a gradual process, said Karie Bible, a media and box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, an entertainment research company in Los Angeles.

The ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise is set to draw audiences back to theatres as pandemic restrictions ease. (Universal Pictures)

“I just don’t think we’re going to make this huge comeback overnight,” Bible told CBC News. “I wish we could, but I just don’t think it’s that simple.”

With a return to pre-pandemic box office revenues still far away, and streaming subscriptions on the rise, future movie releases may offer a combination of at-home and theatrical experiences.

“Streaming has definitely become an increasingly powerful force in how we consume media and the pandemic just floored the gas pedal,” she said.

Big blockbusters during the pandemic

A number of high-profile blockbusters are scheduled for release this summer and one success story so far is A Quiet Place Part II, which has grossed $129 million US in Canada and the U.S. since beginning a theatrical run in May.

Compare that to last September’s Tenet directed by Christopher Nolan. It was a high-profile release from a major director that grossed $58.4 million US — but only after 42 weeks in theatres.

Disney, on the other hand, has elected to release its films using a hybrid approach. Luca was released on the company’s streaming platform Disney+ and in select theatres simultaneously on June 18, and it’s the same case for Black Widow, which hits theatres on July 9. 

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a major pandemic-era released, but it grossed only 58.4 million US after 42 weeks in North American theatres. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment via Associated Press)

In Black Widow’s case, subscribers must pay an additional $30 fee on top of their regular subscription to stream the film at home. 

But not all big releases during the summer had box office success. In The Heights has made $16.8 million US since its June 10 opening and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard has made $20.2 million US since it was released on June 16.

F9, the ninth instalment in the popular Fast and Furious franchise, opened on June 24 with a theatrical release in Canada and the United States. 

According to Reuters, it is the first big-budget action film to be released exclusively in theatres this year — and cinema owners hope that it will give a much-needed jolt at the box office.

Ontario, Manitoba left out as theatres reopen 

Even with a summer of blockbusters in the works and some theatres open with limited capacity, not all Canadians can return to theatres.

Ellis Jacob, the CEO of Cineplex, told CBC News that Ontario’s three-step reopening plan was a positive development, but he was rooting for an earlier open. 

“It would have been nice to be in stage two and opened in a limited capacity so our guests could come out and enjoy [the ninth Fast and Furious] movie,” Jacob said. 

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Stage two of Ontario’s plan allows outdoor theatres to reopen at limited capacity on June 30, but indoor theatres cannot open until stage three. 

Manitoba is also in movie theatre limbo; its restrictions will continue past June 26.

Other provinces have reopened their movie theatres to varying degrees. In Quebec, theatres have been open since Feb. 26, but not all cinema owners were pleased with the initial operating limits enforced by the provincial government, which included prohibiting food and drink sales. 

Saskatchewan opened on May 30, Alberta welcomed moviegoers on June 10 and British Columbia followed suit on June 15.

Excitement for ‘collective experience’ of moviegoing

Shawn Levy, the Montreal-born director of Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds, which is currently having its theatrical release, said the whole point of his film is “audience delight.” The movie will have a 45-day exclusive theatrical run before it is available for streaming on Disney+.

“[The] cinematic experience is still valued. It is returning with not only a healthy number, but almost with a ferocious yearning for collective experience again,” said Levy, who is also a director-producer of Netflix’s Stranger Things and the Night at the Museum movies.

Ethan Tobman, the Free Guy production designer, echoed his fellow Montrealer. “There’s nothing that I think we deserve more than to see something large and personal, community-based, with people we don’t know, where we’re combined to have a shared emotional experience.”

“I never worried that we wouldn’t eventually come back to that because it’s a phenomenal human instinct to enjoy art together. It always has been.”

Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob said he was hoping that Ontario theatres would reopen earlier, allowing audiences to see F9. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Anne Cohen, a New York-based entertainment writer for pop culture website Refinery29 and a movie critic, said watching a film from home is convenient, but people who love movies will still want to see them on the big screen.

“I think both can exist. And I think that ultimately … What that means is that more people are enjoying movies than they have in the past,” she told CBC News. 

Streaming services get a boost during pandemic

Streaming subscriptions experienced a surge during the COVID-19 pandemic, though some of that growth has slowed now that theatres are reopening.

Launched in 2019, Disney+ announced in January it had 94.9 million paid subscribers.

The streaming giant has had a number of high-profile releases since March 2020, with a filmed version of stage musical Hamilton, a live-action Mulan, the Pixar animated movie Soul (the company’s first to be labelled a Disney+ original), and most recently, Luca.

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By contrast, Netflix’s growth slowed in the first few months of this year, The Washington Post reported in April. It registered only 4 million new subscribers between January and March. In a letter to investors, the company attributed the drop in customers to fewer shows being produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Netflix had previously gained a stunning 15.8 million paid subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 as most of the world went into lockdown.

Last summer, it released Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a movie that drew 27 million households within a month and a half of its June 12, 2020 release. Earlier this year, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 racked up six Academy Award nominations.

In April, it was announced that Amazon Prime had surpassed 200 million paid subscribers, though it bears mentioning that the Prime service is not limited to video streaming. Its original slate this year included Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a hit sequel to the controversial 2006 movie.

Bible, the box office analyst, said that streaming is a “permanent part of the landscape.” But that doesn’t mean that moviegoing is dead.

“I think it is the new normal, whether we like it or not. And I think theatrical moviegoing is going to coexist with it. It’s just a matter of how that’s going to look.”

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