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Box Office Reporting Is Back — but a Normal Top Ten? Maybe Not Til Next Year

"Unhinged" and "Words on Bathroom Walls" are testing the waters for "Tenet." These films are opening wide but that means far fewer theaters.

“Unhinged”

Skip Bolden

For those of us who track movie box office, Sunday is a day of work. For those on the West Coast, it means hitting the laptop by 6:30 a.m. (no complaints). It’s been over five months — since March 15 to be exact — since the last time we all experienced box-office business as usual. But with several new movies, we are back to normal this Sunday. Or at least, the new normal.

Don’t expect anything like business as usual — in any sense of the word. The coverage will be different, and the business reported will be in similarly uncharted territory.

Five films (including one reissue) are opening in the U.S. this weekend with wide national runs. They are all going into this blind, with both unique risks and opportunities. Those releasing movies are working with no normal rules at a time when recreating what worked in the past is impossible. And of course they are trying to make money as best they can.

That said, some ground rules from this end:

No issue is as important as whether theaters should open.

Let’s acknowledge this up front. And relay that it appears from talking to most distributors that more than just immediate financial considerations have been part of discussions. It’s a central question. But it won’t be part of this specific analysis.

It will take at least a few weeks to begin to get a sense of what is “working.”

Sure, if “Unhinged” (Solstice) with Russell Crowe, the widest opener (with last minute bookings still being confirmed, possibly approaching 2,000 theaters, including holdovers from Canada where it is already playing) does $10-15 million this weekend we can say that would be great. It won’t happen, but any likely individual gross will need to be looked at by its own challenged circumstances as well as part of a larger picture. And one that won’t be clear the first weekend.

Opportunities exist — but don’t call it opportunism.

These circumstances — most indoor theaters closed for five months, unprecedented in film history — challenge all norms in a carefully calibrated release schedule, with most dates selected in view of competition, both same week openings and holdovers. The alchemy of what is available is always relevant.

Now, in an industry where past practice rules, and change happens incrementally, a game of chicken looks to have been played among top films. For a while it looked like “Tenet” (Warner Bros.) and “Mulan” (Disney) were sparring over who would go first. Turns out Disney conceded to Warners with its domestic streaming decision.

That left two titles going wide this week, both of which positioned themselves to go just ahead of “Tenet.” Since the shutdown started, “Unhinged” switched from its initially announced pre-COVID date — August 28, with no idea of what would happen before. They then reset several times, beginning with July. Late August was a normal date for a start up distributor since studios usually shun it. That was normal opportunism. “Words on Bathroom Walls” was only acquired in June by Roadside, but its first date of August 7 came after expected earlier bigger films’ release. But then they landed on an initial reopening position. Again, it’s positioning, but of an original and unproven kind.

"Tenet"

“Tenet”

Warner Bros.

“Unhinged” and “Words on Bathroom Walls” are for theaters like previews or spring training.

The season begins in earnest with “Tenet.” That’s not a slight on the films that are opening. They get access with less competition and elevated attention than they normally would ever get. Will it work to their favor? Again, who knows?

But the physical edifices and staff are out of practice. A leading theater executive warned me months ago that the transition from closed to operating was fraught with difficulties. A tweet today from Old Dominion professor Myles McNutt suggests as much.

And reluctant moviegoers likely want to see others try things first with assurances that proposed elevated safety standards are enforced, that crowds are separated, that people are behaving themselves.

That means it’s a given that things will start slowly. And that could extend for weeks including the start of “Tenet.” All that will be included in our judgment on what happens.

Unlike most openings, these initial ones are much different theater totals.

A standard wide release is over 3,000 theaters, with top titles often over 4,000. But usually the range among most of the Top Ten is narrow.

This week will see “Unhinged,” including its second week in Canada, about double the 932 slated for “Words.” The former is more drive in oriented and is an action film. “Words” is a young-adult drama, though it will have some drive ins not as natural a spot. And in this case U.S. only which costs it 200 or more dates.

And different theater totals means forget the horse race ranking “win” that takes up too much of box office analysis.

Other films are getting more than the usual runs.

“Peninsula” (Well Go USA) is opening in about 100 U.S. theaters. The Korean-language sequel to “Train to Busan” — which of course isn’t even opening in Los Angeles, the location of the largest Korean-American population, might be argued to be a beneficiary of the success “Parasite” had. But a subtitled zombie film doesn’t open in typical multiplexes ever usually, and never the first week.

The original opened in 27 theaters in 2016, with a decent per theater average over $10,000. It got to over $2 million without ever playing more than 36 theaters any given weekend. This is an opportunity seize — and even with some drive-ins (never a subtitled location normally, unless for Spanish-language hits in appropriate locations).

“Cut Throat City,” a crime film set in New Orleans post-Katrina, also Well Go USA, has something more than 300 runs. This includes dates in some of the whitest places in the country (Idaho, Vermont, South Dakota) despite its mostly Black cast. It’s a real film, it has normal windows (as do the other releases) so it gets attention more than it normally would. Getting some strong reviews helps as well.

Warner Bros. has not yet given a number of runs for their 10th anniversary reissue of “Inception” (which includes IMAX and 70mm dates).

This is not close to the full set of theaters to be open for “Tenet.”

AMC, the largest chain, has about 115 of over 600 open. Regal and Cinemark will have more. All of course have none in California and New York, as well as North Carolina and elsewhere. But some theaters even where they can open are delaying. Independents — with more flexibility and in many cases desperate need — will for most titles comprise half or more of the dates. The top three circuits usually provide about half.

What Top Ten?

There will be a Top Ten out there, since lots of library titles as well as IFC and other recent drive-in films are still playing. But we might not even get grosses on all of these. And whatever turns up, it will be the strangest weekend round-up ever.

The foreign market will be the most important ever. 

With “Tenet” opening in many markets next Wednesday, that will be far more important than initial results for these films. So this will get much more play than before.

Mulan"

Mulan”

Disney

And the future is this — “Tenet” vs “Mulan” over Labor Day.

Yes, “Mulan” will be streaming and not in theaters. But will Disney release initial results? And if so, how do they compare to “Tenet”? It will be Disney’s call, but they might be tempted to announce as did Universal after two weekends of “Trolls World Tour.” And if they do, they will be accurate — publicly traded companies can’t lie about revenues.

And if so that will be the biggest story of all. Take that, Top Ten.

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