When Sony Pictures Chairman Tom Rothman opened CinemaCon 2021, he became its mascot when he credited the strong box-office performance of “Free Guy” to the fact that “you can’t watch it at home. Go fucking figure!”
We took Rothman at his word and figured. Specifically, we ran the numbers for Universal, the first major studio to announce a consistent policy on theatrical windows and home availability. We looked at its 2021 releases, along with the studio’s 10 top-performing wide releases in 2019, both through their sixth weekends. Here’s what we learned: The results suggest that early PVOD had little impact on Universal’s theatrical grosses.
The studio premiered seven wide releases to date this year: “Nobody,” “The Forever Purge,” and “Spirit Untamed” went PVOD after three weeks’ play. “F9,” which opened to $70 million, was available on PVOD after 31 days. “The Boss Baby: Family Business” opened day-and-date for Peacock Channel subscribers. “Old,” which opened 42 days ago, is still unavailable on PVOD. (“Candyman,” which is completing its first week, wasn’t included in these calculations.)
For all films, we calculated the percentage of the total gross that the films earned in their first six weeks. Then, we looked at the films’ first three weeks: On average, how much did the 2019 and 2021 titles capture in their initial three-week periods?
Here’s what we found: In 2019, when all films had at least 10 weeks in theaters before PVOD release, they earned an average 84 percent of their gross in the first three of six weeks.
In 2021, when all Universal films had much shorter theatrical windows of varying lengths, they also earned an average 84 percent of their theatrical gross in the first three of six weeks.
As with all matters of the modern box office, there’s caveats. Here, it’s a variation on the observation effect: The public now knows that most films will soon be available at home, which may impact grosses. That’s in addition to the Covid concerns, the draw of streaming entertainment, and the smaller number of films in release.
In 2021, five of the six films took in 86 or 87 percent in the first three weeks. They include three that went PVOD after three weeks, one after 31 days, and one that played on Peacock from the start. It made no difference.
The one that sank the average was “Nobody,” which only earned 71 percent of its 38-day gross in the first three weeks. The other 29 percent came after people could also see it at home. It opened in March, a period that saw a steady uptick in theaters reopening and patrons returning.
Other factors that impacted “Nobody”: It opened to under $7 million and dropped 56 percent in its second week. Then, it rose like a Phoenix: It was #3 in its third week, and #2 in its fourth week. The rebound led to $28 million total, more than four times the opening gross. Theatrical word of mouth is one factor; also likely is the tertiary benefit of additional marketing to promote the PVOD release. “Nobody” ranked high on the PVOD charts for weeks; did that create a kind of virtuous cycle that helped sustain its theatrical run?
Also of note: The absence of PVOD competition did not elevate later weeks for “Old.” The two additional PVOD-free weekends didn’t mean a bigger share for “F9.” Ditto the simultaneous streaming of the “Boss Baby” sequel.
The 10 top titles of 2019 showed more variance at the three-week mark. “Little” and “Us” both did more than 90 percent of their business in their first three weeks, while “Yesterday” appealed to an older audience and saw a stronger sustained run with 23 percent of its gross coming after three weeks.
All of this is only one aspect of a larger and more complex strategy, but it suggests that the three-week window — the default Universal policy for most of its films — works. Smart exhibitors will encourage other studios to do the same.
As for “Candyman,” it grossed $22 million its first weekend to become the fifth Universal film to reach #1 this year. Most Universal titles are PVOD ($19.99) after three weeks in theaters, 31 days for those that open to over $50 million. “Candyman” will likely be available on PVOD by September 17, where it likely will thrive with a lucrative initial 80 percent return of revenue to the studio.