“Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “The Bourne Legacy” all opened in August to become late-season hits that outperformed expectations and took their word of mouth into the fall. This year, the contenders are three theater-exclusive wide releases: “Free Guy” (Disney), “Respect” (United Artists), and “Don’t Breathe 2” (Sony). The last time three films opened in more than 3,000 theaters in the same week was November 2019.
Ryan Reynolds comedy “Free Guy” will do best, possibly doubling the gross of its competition. The story of a non-player character inside a video game, “Free Guy” is a delayed holdover from Disney’s Fox acquisition. It’s also the first Disney live-action release in three years that’s not a sequel or tied to a franchise; it’s not even a horror film or an action movie. That makes its theatrical performance even more important: Beyond the revenue, it could have a long-term impact on the kinds of films studios make.
“Respect” stars Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin, and it joins “Compton,” “The Butler,” “The Help,” and “BlackKklansman” as a black character-centered standalone film that opened around this date. That’s one reason that the film, with a central performance that is an early mention for Oscar consideration, is opening now rather than later in the year. “Compton” opened the best among these ($60 million), but all performed up to or better than expectations.
“Don’t Breathe 2” is a sequel to the sleeper horror success that opened to more than $26 million in August 2016. It grossed $160 million worldwide on a $10 million budget. “Free Guy” projections are up to $20 million; for “Respect” and “Breathe,” they’re in the $8 million-$10 million range.
Two titles are originals. These have been an endangered species for years, but in the current circumstances it’s even more unusual to see them in exclusive wide release rather than go day-and-date on home platforms. If their studios could have predicted the Delta outbreak, or if their contracts allowed it, they might have gone that route.
On August 12, Sony moved “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” from September 24 to October 15, with reports that “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” currently set for October 1, might even skip theaters. That same day, Disney reported strong second-quarter results and confirmed that, beyond “Free Guy” and “Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings” (September 3), they’ll consider all options for future films.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek said on the earnings call that the company would keep its commitment to a theater-only release for “Shang-Chi,” but was clear that Disney didn’t expect to face the kind of conditions that led Sony to delay “Venom.” Although he alluded to a contractual inability to consider a “Free Guy” streaming debut, he made only the most oblique mention of the Scarlett Johannson lawsuit. He said the studio made hundreds of talent arrangements while making platform shifts “by and large smoothly.”
United Artists has the fall’s most-anticipated title with Bond installment “No Time to Die” October 8 (international opens earlier). It also has “The Addams Family 2” scheduled for October 1.
All of this comes less than two weeks before exhibitors’ convention CinemaCon in Las Vegas. When theater operators and studios last convened in April 2019, theaters were adamant in maintaining a 90-day window and 2018 set a box-office record (unadjusted for inflation).
Two years ago, speakers from both sides could say, and even believe, that theaters and studios were two halves of a united whole. That was then; now, studios set the terms and every weekend suggests new data points that influence a fluid future.