Forget Pfizer: It turns out that the booster movie theatres needed to stage a pandemic-era comeback was a shot in the arm of radioactive spider blood.
This past weekend, Spider-Man: No Way Home earned a massive US$253-million at the North American box office, for a global total of US$587.2-million. That makes the new Peter Parker adventure the third-biggest worldwide opening weekend ever – not just for pandemic-era releases.
So, this means that movie-going is finally back, right? Not so fast. Before theatre-owners pull a George W. and unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner atop the marquee of the AMC Burbank, here is the good, the bad and the Canadian news from this weekend’s tangled box-office web.
Good News: Movies are back, baby!
Before we get to the caveats, the overall performance of No Way Home is undeniably stellar, and proves that – for a certain demographic, for a certain title, for a certain moment in time – big-screen exhibition retains tremendous drawing power. A startling 20 million North Americans left their homes this weekend despite relentlessly terrifying Omicron headline, and a thousand other entertainment options available at the touch of a button. That can only be heartening news for anyone in the film industry, which has yet to see a release even approaching this size post-March, 2020.
Bad News: Only certain movies are back, baby!
The second-biggest pandemic-era opening weekend, by the way? That’d be the US$90-million earned by Venom: Let There Be Carnage … which is a Spider-Man spinoff. This returns us to the oft-debated question of whether we’re long past the days of anything not superhero-related (or megafranchise-related) making a dent in the theatrical marketplace.
To make a hasty comparison: Guillermo del Toro’s new thriller Nightmare Alley was also released wide this weekend, and made a dismal US$3-million. No one expected the film to do anything close to Spidey-levels of business. But, crucially, the film appealed to older, more discerning moviegoers – an audience still wary of heading to the theatre owing to perceived health risks. The same reasoning could be applied to the disappointing performance of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story the week before. Or any high-pedigree, awards-tipped film this season, from King Richard to House of Gucci to The Last Duel (poor Ridley Scott).
No Way Home’s target audience was younger, and more gender-skewed toward men – moviegoers who may not perceive COVID-19 to be as much of a threat, and were happy to brave multiplexes the same weekend that Broadway shows went dark and Saturday Night Live ditched its in-studio audience. They will come out for Marvel, but will they come out for anything else?
Good News/Bad News: So you like Spider-Man, eh? Well, have all the Spider-Men in the world!
Studios and exhibitors have for the past decade-plus relied upon megabudget blockbusters (of the Marvel, DC and Fast & Furious variety) to prop up the entire theatrical marketplace. With the pandemic accelerating the already shifting consumer habits of the young (who can pirate and TikTok anywhere they please) and the old (who can afford a dozen-plus streaming services), movie theatres increasingly look to be the domain of superheroes, and only superheroes. In David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, the term “disneys” is future-speak for “movies” – as in, “I’m going to the disneys tonight.” In our lifetime, cinema might simply become “marvels.”
Bad News: Next week might be worse
Speaking of Mitchell: He’s one of the screenwriters behind The Matrix Resurrections, which opens Dec. 22 … and, barring a Neo-like miracle, will make a fraction of what No Way Home earned. A few reasons why? The last two entries in the Matrix trilogy left a bad taste in audiences’ mouths. The film will be available for streaming on the U.S.-only HBO Max the same day that it’s released in theatres, which means that a high-quality pirated version will be online within hours. But most importantly: No one is clamouring to see a new Matrix like they were a new Spider-Man.
No Way Home was produced and marketed, more than any other entry in the unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a must-see cultural event. An event that, unless you caught it at the earliest possible opportunity, would be ruined by wave after wave of spoilers and memes. Even casual MCU viewers – the type who don’t watch the Disney+ series, let alone those who obsess over, say, the ramifications of Mahershala Ali’s voice cameo at the end of Eternals’ second post-credits scene (don’t worry, you don’t need to know about it … yet) – felt compelled to visit the multiplex, hell or high variant.
That’s the kind of unique, long-cultivated buzz that cannot hope to prop up an entire year’s worth of business – even if 2022 has five Marvel movies on the release calendar.
Canadian News: We still count, for now
According to early estimates, Canadian audiences contributed about 7 per cent to No Way Home’s total North American box-office take. Not bad, considering that just as Spidey was swinging into theatres, provinces across the country slapped cinemas with myriad restrictions.
Ontario theatre operators were hardest hit: Venues holding more than 1,000 guests could only operate at half-capacity, and concessions – essential revenue-drivers for exhibitors, who typically only get 50 per cent, sometimes less, of the box-office gross – were banned starting Dec. 19.
Noting that it was a publicly traded company, Cineplex, the country’s largest exhibitor, could not comment this weekend as to No Way Home’s attendance or speculate as to how much concessions revenue it stands to lose. But a spokesperson did quash rumours that other films’ showtimes were being cancelled to squeeze in more Spider-Man viewers. Instead, seating was reduced in auditoriums playing other titles. This allowed theatres in Ontario, where capacity restrictions are mandated but physical distancing is not, to remain at 50 per cent capacity per venue, as opposed to 50 per cent capacity per auditorium.
The big question, though, is how long cinemas can afford to operate under such revenue-curbing measures – it is not inconceivable that further Omicron-sparked measures could make the whole enterprise moot. At least until Jan. 28, 2022. That’s the date that Morbius, the next Spider-Man spinoff, opens wide.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.