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From the left, Meng'er Zhang, Simu Liu and Awkwafina in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.Marvel Studios/The Associated Press

On what’s traditionally one of the sleepiest weekends at the movies, the Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings smashed the record for Labour Day openings with an estimated US$71.4-million in ticket sales, giving a box office reeling from the recent coronavirus surge a huge lift heading into the fall season.

The Friday-to-Sunday gross for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first film led by an Asian superhero, ranks as one of the best debuts of the pandemic, trailing only the previous Marvel film, Black Widow (US$80.3-million in July). Overseas, it pulled in US$56.2-million for a global three-day haul of US$127.6-million. Disney anticipates Shang Chi made for about US$150-million, will add US$12.1-million domestically on Monday.

The Walt Disney Co. opted to release Shang-Chi only in theatres where it will have an exclusive 45-day run. Some of the studio’s releases this year, including Black Widow, have premiered day-and-date in theatres and on Disney+ for US$30.

The strong opening of Shang-Chi – forecasts had been closer to US$50-million – was a major relief for Hollywood, which had seen jittery releases the past few weeks during rising COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant. Several coming films have recently postponed out of the fall, including Paramount Pictures’ Top Gun: Maverick, Jackass Forever and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Disney’s weekend, though, should lend confidence to coming big-budget releases such as the James Bond film No Time to Die from MGM and United Artists Releasing, and Sony Pictures’ Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

Shang-Chi is the ultimate confidence-builder for the theatrical movie industry,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. “This was a very important film. This was the first Marvel movie that’s opened exclusively theatrically since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July, 2019. Shang-Chi is a real testament of the power of a theatrical-first strategy to drive huge numbers of moviegoers to the multiplex.”

What’s the best part of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? Hint: It’s not Shang-Chi

Perhaps nobody was celebrating Sunday more than theatre owners. Exhibitors have argued day-and-date releases significantly cannibalize ticket sales. Warner Bros., which is putting all of its 2021 releases simultaneously on HBO Max, has vowed to end the practice next year.

Adding to that argument is the continuing strong performance of Free Guy, from Disney’s 20th Century Studios. Free Guy, contractually obligated to be released only in theatres, has grossed US$239.2-million globally. Without an in-home option, the Ryan Reynolds film has held especially strongly; it added US$8.7-million in North America over the weekend, good for third place. In China, Free Guy has made US$57-million in less than two weeks. (Shang-Chi doesn’t yet have a China release date.)

Last week’s top film, the Universal horror remake Candyman, slid to second place with US$10.5-million. After the holiday weekend, Universal pegs its two-week total at US$41.9-million.

Still, you could also read a case for streaming in Disney’s figures Sunday. Shang-Chi, the studio noted, premiered roughly similarly to Black Widow, which debuted with about US$160-million globally, but took in an additional US$60-million on Disney+ Premier Access. Black Widow, a much more well-known property, launched before the Delta variant was widespread in North America. Its release prompted a lawsuit from star Scarlett Johansson, who argued the day-and-date approach breached her contract and deprived her of potential earnings. Disney has said the release complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and called the suit without merit.

Disney has so far declined to telegraph its future theatrical intentions, including for its next Marvel movie, Eternals (due out Nov. 5). Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, earlier called the theatrical release of Shang-Chi “an interesting experiment” – a label that Canadian actor Simu Liu, who plays Shang-Chi took exception with. “We are not an experiment,” Mr. Liu wrote on Twitter. “We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year.”

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