After four days of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Sony), December domestic grosses have unexpectedly done only 4 percent less than the same first 20 days in 2019. And to put the huge increase in comparison, before this weekend the total gross stood at less than half. Of course, the good news is a result of the just-under-$300-million total for the latest Marvel sequel. The early result of “No Way Home” alone is 63 percent of the month’s take so far.
All of a sudden, this Christmas looks like it could be closer to normal than anyone expected. Our December preview suggested that a $900 million total — a bit over 75 percent of 2019 — was a high-end target. This included what seemed like an optimistic guess for the first 15 days of “Spider-Man” at $300 million. But after just four days, the film is already hitting that threshold.
That good news arrives just as Omicron concerns are causing significant reductions of much public activity, including some live theater and sporting events. So far, at least for one film, COVID appears to be making little difference. (However, how much it could spread the virus despite theaters’ considerable efforts is another factor.)
Looking back at previous mid-December franchise launches, it would appear that “Spider-Man” could add another $300–$400 million to its incredible total by December 31. Split the difference, and the base — all December business so far plus “Spider-Man” — brings a projected gross of $820 million before adding any other upcoming business.
That will come from five new wide releases (“The Matrix Resurrections”/Warner Bros., “Sing 2″/Universal, “The King’s Man”/Disney, “American Underdog”/Lionsgate, “A Journal for Jordan”/Sony), plus the expansion of “Licorice Pizza” (United Artists) and the additional totals for holdovers and specialized films.
Surprisingly, it now seems like reaching the $1.15 billion total for December 2019 is, if not likely, at least possible. To do so would require two of the new releases to achieve high-end results, with a combined total of around $200 million, along with $700 million for “Spider-Man” by month’s end.
The “Matrix” and “Sing” sequels both open December 22, with Lana Wachowski’s film also debuting on HBO Max. Industry tracking pegs them respectively at up to $60 million and $55 million through next Monday (the extended holiday weekend). If they come close to that, each might add another $40 million over the remaining four days based on historic trends.
That is likely too tall an order, with the impact of streaming on “Matrix” a factor and audience reaction uncertain. “Sing,” on the other hand, has a better chance of surging post-Christmas. But along with expected sustained huge numbers for “Spider-Man,” these three films hold the key to 2019 parity.
The rest of the new titles, along with those holdovers that manage to stay on the screen, will play a much smaller role. Best among them should be “The King’s Man,” Disney’s latest release of a film acquired in their 20th Century Fox takeover. The comedy prequel to the “Kingsman” films might manage $30–$35 million by New Year’s Eve. The film opens Wednesday. December 25 sees the releases of “American Underdog” (Lionsgate), a biopic of the NFL’s Kurt Warner, and Denzel Washington’s “A Journal for Jordan” (Sony), a relationship story based on a diary of an Iraq-deployed soldier (Michael B. Jordan). Along with “Licorice Pizza,” these combined likely contribute less than $30 million in their initial seven days.
The holdovers are challenged. They won’t find much response, although how much if at all “West Side Story” (Disney) rebounds remains a question. It appears in many cases that, by Saturday, Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed musical remake will be splitting single screens with “Encanto” (Disney), the latter also streaming starting Friday. Truncated showtimes, of course, hurt these films even more. Whatever play “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight) gets is unlikely to show much improvement. Exhibitors report the company has fought hard for their second week. Their combined totals, along with other films in play, might reach $30 million.
Even with high-end results, the results still fall a little under 2019 totals. And even if that year is exceeded, December 2021 would fall short of the $1.3 billion+ totals for 2015 and 2017 (both of which had lower ticket prices — this year has seen across-the-board price increases, particularly for premium formats).
In 2019, “Rise of Skywalker,” the top-grossing film during December, accounted for a third of the month’s total. In 2015, the much bigger “Force Awakens” provided half. If this month gets to $1.15, it likely would be with “Spider-Man” doing 60 percent of the total by itself. And whatever the total, chances are it will similarly dominate.
As long as studios can supply product like “Spider-Man,” theaters will survive. But there is no reason to believe one unexpectedly strong month changes dominant trends. Christmas is usually the best time of the year for older audience moviegoing. Expect the combination of Omicron and a dearth of titles aimed at them (particularly noticeable with the lack of surging awards contenders) to continue a decline that shows signs of permanence.
Still, we’ve been wrong before, and as always on all sides, anyone prognosticating on the future of theaters needs to recognize the future remains uncertain.