“Nobody knows anything,” screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote about studio production in the opening line of his 1983 memoir. That sentiment is apparent more than ever as distributors and theaters grapple with the challenges of releasing movies right now.
Four new wide releases opened this weekend, an unusually high number. “PAW Patrol” (Paramount), transferring the popular kids TV animated show to the big screen, is also streaming on Paramount+, free for subscribers. With a gross of $13 million, it will gross $5 million more than what the other three new films — two of them theater exclusives — will do.
But #1 this time around, and in its second weekend, is “Free Guy” (Disney) at $18.8 million. It’s in theaters only, and expected to continue as such for the duration of its theater play. It held up well with only a 34 percent drop. Why the strong holdover? Most likely because of the ongoing positive public response to the Ryan Reynolds-starring video game world-set comedy. But you have to figure that increased awareness it can only be seen in theaters also factors in.
Despite some nuances with the total that deserve attention, the end result for the weekend was more of the same. Total business in U.S./Canada theaters, with more than 5,000 open for the first time since March 2020, was $62 million. That’s down $14 million from last weekend. That’s 57 percent of what the same late summer weekend grossed cumulatively in 2019.
Our ongoing four week trend compared to two years ago improved slightly to 55 percent. That is midway in the narrow range of other recent weeks, suggesting a steadiness in attendance decline that as of now is not returning to the minimum 75-80 percent needed for theaters to return to a sounder financial footing.
“Free Guy” had the best second weekend hold since a similar size drop for “Frozen II” in November 2019. And in that case, it overlapped the huge post-Thanksgiving Friday to Sunday. It is an exceptional performance for any period.
That that’s happening now for “Free Guy” suggests word of mouth still works. But also it could be attracting some reluctant moviegoers (or ones who have lost the habit). How much it’s due to theater exclusivity is less clear.
That’s because “PAW Patrol” did better than expected at $13 million, even though it was still available at home. But its platform, Paramount+, is one with fewer subscribers than top tier streamers. Also, it was aided by the instinct, despite concerns about Covid spreading among unvaccinated children, to have family outings to theaters.
Meantime, the best holdover in the Top Ten was “Jungle Cruise” (Disney), down 32 percent, while continuing to be available on PVOD. The second weekends of “Respect” (United Artists) and “Don’t Breathe 2” (Sony) fell a more normal 57 and 53 percent respectively, though the former is a big disappointment as the hoped-for positive reaction isn’t evident. Both are initially theater exclusive.
The performances of the other new releases, when combined, could only muster $7 million. They could only manage seventh to ninth place showings, even in a week where other than “Free Guy” and “PAW Patrol” the competition was less than intense.
“The Protege” (Lionsgate) did best, but with just under $3 million for the action/thriller with the intriguing ensemble of Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Maggie Q. “The Night House” (Searchlight), which received acclaim at Sundance as a potential breakout horror film (it was acquired for $12 million), did a little less. Worst of all was “Reminiscence” (Warner Bros.), reportedly made for $68 million. It managed only $2 million in 3,265 theaters.
The performances of all three were weak. But “Reminiscence” warrants special attention. All three of these films are non-franchise, non-sequel efforts, with only “The Protege” having potential to eventually deliver more than one entry. “Reminiscence” has a plot which contains mystery, detective, sci-fi, and romantic elements, much more ambitious than many new releases.
It also had Hugh Jackman (a proven major draw), and paired him with Rebecca Ferguson. So strong casting. Add director Lisa Joy, co-creator and co-showrunner of “Westworld,” already established as a major talent.
It is also like all Warner Bros. films this year, by playing on HBO Max for its initial 31 days in theaters (which will well outlast its occupancy in theaters). So it had an alternative. But figure films like it — films for adults, far from the franchise template — to be even less likely in the future as, along with the other openers, the unproven and unknown proved to be unpopular.
As William Goldman said, nobody knows anything. “Free Guy,” completely original (though a sequel is now likely) broke through. The guideposts for theatrical success have never been cloudier, with any case being made likely to be supported by some data, though usually refuted in equal measure by other indicators.
Sean Penn’s “Flag Day” (United Artists) opened as an unusually high profile platform release. The Cannes-premiered drama, with the director co-starring with daughter Dylan in a story about a father committing crimes so he can support his child, managed only $39,740 in 24 theaters in top markets.
Is that a sign of trouble for awards season ahead? You have to figure the mixed reviews weren’t sufficient to nudge reluctant specialized audiences back into theaters. But it still suggests significant questions that won’t be resolved until more acclaimed films become available after upcoming festivals.
The Top Ten
1. Free Guy (Disney) Week 2; Last weekend #1
$18,790,000 (-34%) in 4,165 theaters (no change); PTA (per theater average): $4,511; Cumulative: $58,813,000
2. PAW Patrol (Paramount) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic: 50; Est. budget: $(unknown); also on Paramount Plus
$13,000,000 in 3,184 theaters; PTA: $4,083; Cumulative: $13,000,000
3. Jungle Cruise (Disney) Week 4; Last weekend #3; also on Premium VOD at Disney+
$6,230,000 (-32%) in 3,575 theaters (-325); PTA: $1,743; Cumulative: $92,544,000
4. Don’t Breathe 2 (Sony) Week 2; Last weekend #2
$5,050,000 (-53%) in 3,005 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,681; Cumulative: $19,672,000
5. Respect (United Artists) Week 2; Last weekend #4
$3,811,000 (-57%) in 3,207 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,188; Cumulative: $15,779,000
6. The Suicide Squad (Warner Bros.) Week 3; Last weekend #5; also on HBO Max
$3,410,000 (-54%) in 2,926 theaters (-1,093); PTA: $1,165; Cumulative: $49,272,000
7. The Protege (Lionsgate) NEW – Cinemascore: B; Metacritic: 45; Est. budget: $ (unknown)
$2,935,000 in 2,577 theaters; PTA: $1,139; Cumulative: $2,935,000
8. The Night House (Searchlight) NEW – Cinemascore: C-; Metacritic: 67; Acquisition price: $12 million
$2,869,000 in 2,240 theaters; PTA: $1,281; Cumulative: $2,869,000
9. Reminiscence (Warner Bros.) NEW – Cinemascore: C+; Metacritic: 47; Est. budget: $68 million
$2,000,000 in 3,265 theaters; PTA: $613; Cumulative: $2,000,000
10. Old (Universal) Week 5; Last weekend #6
$1,100,000 (-54%) in 1,547 theaters (-1,084); PTA: $711; Cumulative: $35,200,000
Additional specialized/limited/independent releases
Flag Day (United Artists) NEW – Metacritic: 52; Festivals include: Cannes 2021
$39,740 in 24 theaters; PTA: $1,656
Ma Belle, My Beauty (Good Deed) NEW – Metacritic: 69; Festivals include: Sundance, South by Southwest 2021
$8,000 in 2 theaters; PTA: $4,000
On Broadway (Kino Lorber) NEW – Festivals include: Hamptons 2019
$7,854 in 1 theater; PTA: $7,854
The Lost Leonardo (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 2
$19,629 in 11 (+8) theaters; Cumulative: $39,166
Stillwater (Focus) Week 4; also on PVOD
$450,000 in 1,026 (-1,151) theaters; Cumulative: $13,575,000
Nine Days (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 4 391
$30,573 in 64 (-327) theaters; Cumulative: $601,816
Roadrunner (Focus) Week 6; also on PVOD
$40,000 in 87 (-39) theaters; Cumulative: $5,221,000
12 Mighty Orphans (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 11
$11,760 in 25 (-5) theaters; Cumulative: $3,553,000