Wednesday has never looked so good. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (Universal) opened to a stunning $31.7 million and Ben Affleck’s “Air” (MGM) grossed $3.2 million. Five-day projections for both films rose sharply just before opening to around $125 million and $16 million, respectively; initial figures suggest we’ll see those expectations met for “Air” and significantly exceeded for “Super Mario Bros.”
Pre-Easter Wednesday openings are traditionally reserved for faith-based releases like last year’s “Father Stu” and the 2014 “Heaven Is for Real.” The success of this weekend’s films could mean future release strategies will identify this long weekend as a fresh pre-holiday opportunity. That said, the result for “Super Mario Bros.” would have been sensational even had it opened Friday.
“Super Mario Bros.” and “Air” chose the date for their own reasons. Universal’s expectations of a huge gross for the animated film, combined with many school kids on vacation and a market starved for family films, made it a logical choice. MGM’s hope rested on building word of mouth to match advance critical reaction, spurring momentum into the weekend.
For Universal, the release date might have another incentive that’s tied to its PVOD strategy. The studio’s prior animated titles “Sing 2” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” had midweek debuts; the extra two days allowed the studio to stay within their exhibitor agreements when it added PVOD at the start of the films’ third weekend, rather than after.
A Universal film that opens under $50 million can go to PVOD after 17 days in theaters; those over $50 million, as expected here, it’s after 31 days. The Wednesday opening could allow the home premiere to come on the start of the fifth weekend (day 31), not after as needed with a Friday release date. “Puss in Boots,” despite its early PVOD release, continued to rank as high as #2 in theaters concurrent with home viewing.
Easter weekend is a reliable spot for animated openings. Last year, Paramount debuted “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” on Good Friday, with $72 million that weekend and a $191 million domestic total. The three-day weekend for “Super Mario Bros.” should fall short of the best for 2023 so far (that’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”), but it will easily replace the most recent Marvel title as the biggest film year to date. And Universal’s Illumination Entertainment title likely cost less than half of “Quantumania” — estimates are around $100 million, before marketing.
“Super Mario Bros.” is great news for theaters and for Universal, but signs of success for “Air” are at least as gratifying for two critical reasons. Though its gross is a fraction of “Super Mario Bros.,” on a midweek day it made more than half of what “Argo” did in its Friday opening. That film went on to gross $136 million in the U.S./Canada.
The film features major actors with director/star Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, and Matt Damon, received strong reviews, and contains the sports-marketing element that helped turned “Jerry Maguire” into an Oscar-winning hit in 1996 (at today’s ticket prices, over $400 million domestic). However, it’s also an original title that targets older audiences with a reported budget approaching $100 million. International potential is unclear, since the NBA doesn’t carry the same currency outside the U.S.
It’s also an Amazon production, and it still chose to prioritize theaters with a wide release. As the new owner of MGM, Amazon will carefully examine these results. Amazon also chose to release MGM’s “Creed III” on PVOD after 28 days — even though it was a major theatrical success still high in the top 10. “Air” is expected to have a longer window, but there’s no official commitment to a specific period.
A last note. Any “Air” success must be credited, along with its creative team, to the late Erik Lomis, the head of MGM distribution who died suddenly two weeks ago. Per multiple reports, he fought for a theatrical release, with particular faith that this was the right film to test his thesis that Amazon’s films should delay streaming.
The company will miss guidance on a film like this that needs careful handling throughout its distribution. Unlike most 2023 hits, “Air” has the potential to sustain a long run with smaller weekend drops — and become more valuable to Amazon.