“F9” opened in China May 21 for a first-day total of $59 million, one of the five places where the latest in the “Fast and Furious” franchise began its global launch. With about $70 million among the territories, the biggest series outside the comic-book universe is doing exactly the sort of business the studio and the broader industry hoped for.
Meanwhile, we’re approaching a holiday weekend in the U.S. where two significant titles — “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Cruella” — open May 28. So why not F9? No one release will restore pre-pandemic conditions, but far more than “Tenet,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” or even “Black Widow,” “F9” is viewed as the ideal multi-quadrant draw to relaunch North American theaters. So why wait until June 25?
In deciding to hold off the domestic release of “F9,” Universal appears to have has balanced multiple complicated factors and found the route that can best maximize its impact. Here’s why.
“F9” is opening in China, Hong Kong, Russia, South Korea, and the Middle East — territories that have been open without restrictions for some time and have generated strong grosses. Initial results will be widely reported; early strength will add to the momentum ahead. In the U.S., most viable theaters will be open by May 28 but many will not be at full speed. While seating limitations haven’t had much impact on the post-pandemic market, they might for a franchise whose most recent releases opened to around $100 million-$150 million. Canada still struggles; so far, only a small percentage of theaters are open.
By the time “F9” opens in North America, it will have the benefit of next weekend’s openers as well as “In the Heights” on June 11 and “Peter Rabbit: The Runaway” on June 18. That could help set up “F9” for increased response.
That may sound opportunistic, but an “F9” gross that’s close to its potential would be a tremendous boon to theaters and the industry as well as the studio. The psychological benefit would be profound.
The later date also lets “F9” avoid a potentially significant distribution issue that didn’t exist pre-pandemic. Universal has a set terms with U.S. theaters that allows them to offer their films on Premium VOD after 17 days if a film opens to under $50 million, 31 days if more. Based on grosses so far, there is a real chance that “F9” would not meet that three-day number with a May opening.
If that happened, the domestic PVOD could have come in mid-June, before the release date in most European countries and increasing the chance of piracy. (Presuming June 25 allows for $50 million, the PVOD date will be in late July.) Of course, Universal has the right to keep films in theaters beyond the term limits, presuming theaters are willing — but Universal has done well by sticking to the agreement and may not be eager to break precedent.
Releasing a top film these days is a game of three-dimensional chess. COVID, restrictions, an upended calendar, alternative platforms, and studio upheavals make setting dates and release plans suggest a dystopian nightmare: Not only is the fate of individual top films in question, but their performance could also determine the future of theatrical exhibition.