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Why ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Box Office Won’t Tell the Future of Theaters, Even If It’s a Hit

How do we define "a hit"? The newest MonsterVerse entry should have a strong opening north of $20 million, but in 2021 everything is about context.

What will Godzilla vs. Kong say about the future of movie theaters?

“Godzilla vs. Kong”

Legendary/Warner Bros.

After “Tenet” in August 2020 ($58 million domestic total) and “Wonder Woman 1984” at Christmas ($46 million domestic), the battle royale of “Godzilla vs. Kong” represents the third attempt at a theater jumpstart by a Warner Bros. title. If it grosses $50 million over the five-day Easter period, that would be extraordinary; much more likely is a gross in the range of $20 million-$30 million.

If that’s the case, Legendary Entertainment’s latest outing in the MonsterVerse will almost certainly be hailed as a return to form. Any gross above the $16.7 million earned in the opening weekend for “Wonder Woman 1984” — the best three-day total for any film in the last year — will do the trick.

Beyond the headlines, the reality is a little different.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” opens March 31, a Wednesday, to take advantage of the Easter weekend. If the studio continues its current practice, Warners will only report one total gross, on Sunday. Five days is more than three, so it can’t be compared to Warners’ opening results for “Wonder Woman,” which had a true three-day weekend, or “Tenet,” which stretched over 11 days before and after the weekend. The five-day total, in context, is the most important figure.

As to what creates that context, there’s a lot of competition.

HBO Max availability will cut into the theatrical gross, but that streaming platform has far fewer subscribers than Netflix or Disney+. As a theatrical release, “Godzilla vs. Kong” literally offers theater audiences a bigger bang for their buck; not only are there IMAX presentations, but AMC’s Dolby theaters come equipped with teeth-rattling “seat transducers,” the 21st-century version of William Castle’s “Percepto” gimmick.

“Godzilla” will have over 3,000 theaters, almost 50 percent more than “Wonder Woman 1984.” “Tenet” had 2,810 screens, but that included much of Canada; today, Canada remains around 75 percent closed. Unlike either “Wonder Woman” or “Tenet,” almost everyone in the U.S. will have a nearby theater that plays “Godzilla.”

Normally, “Godzilla vs. Kong” would start with previews Tuesday evening and major theaters would run shows for up to 16 hours a day. This release had no previews, and even top theaters have reduced hours. These factors, combined with seating restrictions (particularly cumbersome for IMAX), will reduce results.

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Under these conditions, historical performance benchmarks aren’t relevant. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” had the best three-day Easter weekend ($166 million); the best five-day Easter weekend is  “The Fate of the Furious” ($163 million). The best “Godzilla” or “King Kong” film is the 2014 “Godzilla” ($93 million). Even with virtually no competition, “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t expected to perform at the same level.

At the same time, top pandemic performers don’t offer a fair comparison. “Tom & Jerry” ($37 million domestic, also HBO Max) “Tenet” ($58 million domestic), and “The Croods: A New Age” ($56 million domestic). Each film faced a unique set of challenges in theater openings, obeying COVID-19 guidelines, and public sentiment. “Godzilla vs. Kong” also is the first major film to benefit from wider vaccine distribution.

Now that most theaters are open, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the first of many blockbuster films to come this year. It’s not a litmus test for the future of exhibition, even for its own studio. Warners made that clear last week, when it announced that its 2022-2023 movies will have a 45-day theatrical window before they go to HBO Max.

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