MCN Commentary & Analysis

Movie Content Scoreboard: The Experimental Window Closes

Like the movie business itself, the media wants answers about what will happen as the option of seeing movies in a movie theater becomes normal again. But as we saw this past weekend (March 5, 2021), landmarks like reopening New York theaters are not anything close to turning the key and getting back to March 6, 2020, which was the last $100 million domestic box office weekend.

What most every writer has gotten wrong all year is seeing every major release as a standalone event. Almost none of them have been that. They are all experiments. And while some are repeating (Universal and WarnerMedia), a total of zero have truly been successful.

Just under 200 new movies were released domestically after the shutdown last March. Twelve grossed as much as $10 million. (Onward opened on March 6 and got a good weekend in, topping the list with $62 million. Tenet at $57 million. Croods: A New Age is at $54 million and is still in release.) About 150 of the releases grossed under $500,000. Sixteen movies opened on more than 1,000 screens but still couldn’t get to $10 million.

But these details are not much discussed. Let’s go back to my baseline, set last July, of what I called The Untouchables. Eighteen movies that, as of July, were likely to be delayeduntil worldwide theatrical was agan a legitimate option. Of those 18, two have had a theatrical-first release (Tenet and The Croods: A New Age) and 12 are still waiting for release (A Quiet Place II, Black Widow, The Conjuring 3, Connected (now The Mitchells vs. The Machines), Dune, The Eternals, Free Guy, The King’s Man, The Last Duel, No Time To Die, Top Gun: Maverick, West Side Story)

The 12 still waiting are a source of endless speculation. Each one has been headed to a streamer according to guesses in media. At this point, the two WB movies, Dune and The Conjuring 3, are projected to stream, though it’s unclear if Dune will end up doing so. And The Mitchells vs The Machine has been sold to Netflix.

Also moving around, films that had already been moved by last July or which were scheduled for earlier in 2021 and are still scheduled for theatrical release include Peter Rabbit 2, Cruella, Vivo, Luca, In the Heights (which I felt was “touchable” last July), Venom 2, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Forever Purge, Cinderella, The Tomorrow War, Jungle Cruise, and Respect.

So yes, almost a quarter of the bigger “untouchable” movies that have been bounced around in the pandemic year have been “touched.”

Only one of the “untouchables” has gone to streaming primarily via WarnerMedia’s “we’ve thrown it all on HBO Max” strategy (Wonder Woman 1984). Another is scheduled to do so in June (The Conjuring 3). This follows WB’s attempt at a traditional worldwide release for Tenet last September.

Two features (Mulan and Soul), as well as a 2021 title, Raya and the Last Dragon, have been released to streaming, primarily, by Disney, each with a different strategy.

And Coming 2 America was sold by Paramount to Amazon Prime (just as they sold off The Trial of the Chicago 7 to Netflix last summer).

There are other distractions, primarily the WarnerMedia edict to kill theatrical for the year. We’ll see how that holds. And Universal made a deal for a shorter theatrical window, which can expand as well, but which has not been seriously tested by the market at this point because of the pandemic. Please note also, the Universal deals are specifically windowed… the films are not going from theatrical to Peacock. It is not a direct match to WarnerMedia or Disney.

Realistically, to this date, every effort to push the streaming priority over the theatrical has been different, experimental, and for the most part, a failure.

Universal was the first to experiment, with Trolls: World Tour and then The King of Staten Island. T2 did $45 million overseas. All we know about the PVOD effort is what was whispered into the ear of a WSJ reporter without attribution and never confirmed. We do know that Universal hasn’t tried that again. King did under $3 million internationally, though that was not likely a surprise for the studio. Again, no idea what the film did in PVOD. But again, Universal hasn’t tried that again.

Nor did anyone else last summer.

In the second half of August and early September, there was a moment of hope, especially for international. WB set a date for Tenet worldwide. Disney set a domestic PVOD plan for Mulan with international theatrical. Paramount went for a worldwide theatrical for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. Disney decided to take a theatrical shot with the troubled Fox title, The New Mutants. A new distributor tried to make media believe Russell Crowe on a bender was going to relive Taken with Unhinged.

Tenet did best, with $305 million international and $58 million here. But this was seen not only as a disappointment based on normal Nolan numbers, which it was, but as a game-stopper for most of the industry.

Mulan did $67 million worldwide, with the bulk from China ($41 million), but that China number was seen as a miss and the rest of the world was just ugly. Game-stopper.

Unhinged did $24 million and The New Mutants did $47 million worldwide, not a big win for either movie, but established that you could make decent money in a primarily drive-in market with junk. The only problem being that winter was on the way.

Spongebob did $5 million worldwide… so little that Paramount+ is now able to suggest to new subs that it is a new movie… kinda.

The industry focused on Thanksgiving. Bond was still scheduled for November. But only four wide releases came out in November. Focus released Let Him Go to the tune of $10 million worldwide. Universal got Freaky… $15 million worldwide. Gravitas pushed out Vanguard and couldn’t get to $1 million. And the hit of the month (and what will be the second biggest film of The Pandemic Year – after Tenet – and the most financially successful) was Universal’s The Croods: A New Age, which only did $20 million domestic in four weekends before going to PVOD… but which stayed in theaters and added $35 million in the last three months, as well as just over $100 million internationally.

December was a big month in the history of experimentation in The Pandemic Year. Disney had figured out a strategy for Disney+ that was working quite nicely. One big event moment at least every other month. “The Mandalorian” had done a good job kicking off the streamer in November 2019. But nothing was nearly as sticky through the spring. Then Disney pushed Hamilton, intended for a theatrical release a full year later, into July and got great results. Two quite good Muppet shows didn’t take off in August/September. Mulan turned out to be a complicated thing and we still don’t know how many people paid $30 to watch it on the app. But “Mandalorian” Season 2 was coming again on October 30. Still a big hit. And Mulan landed for free. But Disney+ needed more than two or three events a year. So… Soul moved to Christmas as a “gift” to subs, but also an event right on the heels of wrapping Season 2 of “Mandalorian.” Which begat “WandaVision”… which begat the Raya experiment… which begat “Falcon & The Winter Soldier”… which begat “Loki”… and onward. Expect Peter Pan & Wendy and/or Pinocchio on Disney+ in the fall, before and after Season 3 of “The Mandalorian.”

But back to Raya & The Last Dragon. It pushed into this PVOD-theatrical/-slot at the Disney Event in December. Unlike Mulan, there is a domestic theatrical release for the film along with the PVOD on Disney+. And like Mulan, Disney went in hoping China would save its bacon. Domestic theatrical, underwhelming. China, underwhelming. PVOD we will never know, but I would assume it’s well off of what Mulan did, as the marketing started very late and there was no built-up goodwill.

The mistake the media is making today, however, is the thought that this is a canary in the industry’s coal mine. But it is a one-off. Just like Mulan was. Just like Soul. Disney has a very ambitious plan for Disney+ and no one show or film is going to make a huge difference in the future of the business model. (Same as Netflix.) Will Disney lose $100 million off of projected revenues for different models for Raya? Absolutely. Maybe more. But they will also be measuring how the film fits into the lives of existing customers. And eventually, they will take that leap at China again, even after failing the last few times

The other huge event for The Pandemic Year in December was WarnerMedia’s announcement that they would throw the entire 2021 slate down Alice’s rabbit hole, onto HBO Max. The idea, not unlike the failed Tenet experiment, is that the films will play theatrically both domestically and overseas and bolster HBO Max subs at the same time.

Wonder Woman, $822m worldwide before VOD, DVD, and streaming revenues.
Wonder Woman 1984, $163 million worldwide with a free month of streaming devaluing post-theatrical revenues.

Judas & The Black Messiah, $4.6 million worldwide after three weeks streaming.

The Little Things, Denzel Washington’s littlest opening in over 20 years.

Tom & Jerry, $23 million domestic and $34 million international after two weekends. Smallfoot (2018), $42 million domestic in the first two weekends (which it would double) and a total $130 million international.

Why isn’t every other studio chasing the Warner dragon? Because they like money.

And that is it. All the experimentation during a year in which movie theaters were all but shuttered in America and through much of the world.

SEVEN movies. 7. Se7en.

And if you read the media, you would think that on the basis of seven titles – two of which can be considered non-failures – the entire industry is required to follow them all down the crapper. “It’s the future!!!”

“You know, for kids! … Its fun, it’s healthy, it’s good exercise; kids‘ll just love it, and we put a little sand inside to make the experience more pleasant.”

Wham-O (maker of the Hula Hoop) was sold for $80 million after being in business for 60 years. $80 million is a lot of money. But Mattel’s market cap is over $7 billion. Which business would you want?

But the conversation about the future of theatrical cinema aside. This too is an area about which people write as though exhibition has been mounted in amber for 100 years, which could not be more untrue. I laughed too hard as I read some writers claiming that Disney trying to hold up Cinemark on Raya terms like Jesse James was Cinemark’s fault for not giving into the relentless greed of the behemoth, aka trying to stay in business… aka the “spread your legs, close your eyes, and think of the queen… even if she is a racist” theory of business.

But let’s put that aside.

Seven film experiments by studios, seeking a better answer during a very, very trying period. None of this is normal. None of this is a new normal. WarnerMedia and Disney thought they saw a window of international box office in September… and did not. Universal has been trying to shove their short window down exhibition’s throat for more than a decade… and it’s a mixed bag and will not be proved better or worse until we have a fully operation theatrical window again. Paramount has seemed scared to death, selling things off for barely over breakeven, never able to find out whether the evaluation was accurate.

And now, we are nearing the end of a brutal year and there will be some more messes and serious people with serious interests will try to do what is best for their businesses. Some will be more hysterical and some will be too conservative. There will be some titles that were assumed to be sure bets and are not and some titles that seemed kinda iffy that will be massive hits no one saw coming.

Just like normal.

10 Responses to “Movie Content Scoreboard: The Experimental Window Closes”

  1. Jay Fred says:

    War with Grandpa – the little engine that could.

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    With studios not sharing PVOD or VOD numbers, how is it conclusive that every experiment was a failure? And how is it certain that last year was a blip that actually changed nothing about the business? I never thought 2020 marked the end of theaters and I don’t think that was ever a widespread belief, as you have claimed. Theaters will be back (and some already are). But look at the new MPA report. $30 billion in digital home entertainment sales in 2020, a 21% year-to-year increase. Isn’t that number likely to turn a few heads? Isn’t it possible that PVOD doesn’t disappear? Couldn’t there be permanent changes to how studios and distributors view the theatrical window? Variety just ran a story about the overall state of the business and nearly everyone they talked to thinks the movie business is permanently changed by 2020. You often write about all this in black-and-white terms. “Experiments were tried and they all totally failed. 2020 was an anomaly. Back to normal theatrical business soon.” Is it really that simple? I mean it’s only March. Many theaters are still closed. A wide-release blockbuster has yet to be released. How can we be so certain about these things?

  3. pmn says:

    Looks like Australia is doing a lot of the hard work here for cinema revenue.
    Look at movies like The Dry or Penguin Bloom, great money for small Aussie movies, making as much as movies Freaky or Unhinged and just in one country. Not huge crowds at the movies here but it is safe and once good movies show up there will be the crowds. Sydney hit 54 days without a case of covid before one just the other day.

  4. cadavra says:

    I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but am I the only one who’s noticed that the four “big” pictures Disney sent to streaming–HAMILTON, MULAN, SOUL and RAYA–all have one thing in common?

    Non-white casts.

  5. Pete B. says:

    Is that why Disney has sat on Black Widow this long?

  6. Stella's Boy says:

    Delayed so they can release it theatrically and not send it to streaming right? Doesn’t that support what cadavra is saying?

  7. cadavra says:

    Well, it’s more the appearance that Disney feels movies with minority casts are somehow more “expendable” than ones with white casts. I mean, it could be a giant coincidence, but I wouldn’t put a nickel on that.

  8. Stella's Boy says:

    Any amendments to this column with the announcement that Black Widow and Cruella are hitting Disney+ Premier Access and theaters simultaneously?

  9. Amblinman says:

    Looks like we can add another definitely-not-going-to-steaming title, Black Widow, to definitely-going-to-streaming.

    Dave: you are starting to look like a reverse-lock jinx. Lemme know who you like for the next big sports thing. Thx.

  10. cadavra says:

    Well, that just blows my theory all to hell!

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