After pandemic, film industry’s Hollywood ending may have to wait

By Brooks Barnes

What awaits Hollywood on the other side of the pandemic?

As vaccines have rolled out around the world, many film executives and theater operators have been predicting — hoping, praying — that a huge surge of ticket buying awaits. They hope the masses, desperate to get out of their homes (and tired of watching television), will begin to pour into cinemas as soon as they feel safe from the coronavirus and big movies begin to repopulate the marquees.

It could happen.

But early box office results indicate a messier recovery, with moviegoer tastes potentially shifting — particularly in China, now the No. 1 cinema market in the world — and behind-the-scenes spats between studios and theaters crimping film availability. Some traditional studios have started to prioritize streaming, to pushback from multiplex operators. “It’s going to take some time for things to settle out,” said David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a movie consultancy.

Over the weekend, for instance, the Walt Disney Co. released “Raya and the Last Dragon,” a rapturously reviewed animated adventure that cost an estimated $150 million to make.

Featuring the vocal talents of Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina, “Raya and the Last Dragon” played in 2,045 theaters in North America, including some in New York City, where state officials allowed chains like AMC to resume operations (at 25% capacity) for the first time in a year.

Would strong reviews and pent-up demand drive audiences to theaters?

Not really: Ticket sales for “Raya and the Last Dragon” in the United States and Canada only totaled $8.6 million, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. Gross characterized that result as “soft,” even by pandemic standards. “Tom & Jerry: The Movie,” a poorly reviewed offering from Warner Bros. that cost roughly $80 million to make, arrived in theaters on Feb. 26 and collected $14 million over its first three days. Gross assessed the “Tom & Jerry” turnout as “very good” and “a positive sign for the business.”

“Raya and the Last Dragon” was most likely held back for two reasons. Disney simultaneously offered the film to Disney+ subscribers — for a $30 “premium access” upcharge — and Cinemark, the No. 3 theater chain in the United States (behind AMC and Regal), refused to book it. Cinemark and Disney sparred over licensing terms, with Cinemark, citing the simultaneous streaming debut, insisting on a discount, and Disney giving little. “We are making near-term booking decisions on a discrete, film-by-film basis, focusing on the long-term benefit of exhibitors, studios and moviegoers,” Cinemark said in a statement.

Cinemark and other theater chains struck a deal with Warner to play “Tom & Jerry,” even though it was simultaneously available — with no upcharge — to HBO Max subscribers.

Disney declined to comment.

Muddying the situation further, it is possible that “Raya and the Last Dragon” did blockbuster business on Disney+. Only Disney knows. The company does not disclose financial figures for its premium access releases.

Jonathan Cohen, director of content and communications for ListenFirst, a social media analytics company, said there was “a high level of interest” in the PG film, which generated 84,897 posts on Twitter on Friday and Saturday. (But not as high as the PG-13 “Coming 2 America,” which became available to anyone with an Amazon Prime subscription on Friday and generated 243,769 tweets.)

Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, has said that even after the pandemic, Disney will release movies in new ways, with some offered to theaters on an exclusive basis, some made available like “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and others debuting exclusively (and for no additional fee) on Disney+, which now has nearly 100 million subscribers worldwide. “I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” Chapek said at a Morgan Stanley conference last week. “They’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home, pretty much when they want them. And so I’m not sure there’s going back.”

Hollywood was also paying keen attention to the performance of “Raya and the Last Dragon” in China. Because Disney+ does not operate there, the film arrived exclusively in theaters — the first major Disney release in the crucially important market in six months. In China, where the coronavirus is largely under control, cinemas have been setting box office records, even with capacity limits, an encouraging sign for a strong global rebound.

But “Raya” collected just $8.4 million in China over its first three days, or roughly half of what non-franchise Disney films like “Zootopia” and “Moana” managed before the pandemic. Even “Tom & Jerry” took in $12.2 million last month.

What happened? It was unclear to box office analysts on Sunday, with some guessing that the film’s subject matter could have been a hindrance (dragons can be surprisingly tricky) and others pointing to a possible hangover from “Mulan,” which bombed in China in September after a filming location created problems. For others, the chilly reception added to fears that the Chinese market has shifted radically, with moviegoers now preferring local films like “Detective Chinatown 3” and “Hi, Mom” over American imports. “Wonder Woman 1984” (Warner Bros.) has taken in $25.5 million in China since its release on Dec. 18, about 70% less than its series predecessor collected in summer 2017.

Disney’s standard Sunday box office statement noted that “Raya and the Last Dragon” performed better in China than two recent Pixar films: “Onward” arrived to about $2.8 million in ticket sales in August, and “Soul” collected $5.5 million in December.

Over the past year, as the pandemic has dragged on, Hollywood has pushed back the releases of dozens of films and rerouted others to streaming services. Studios have cited one primary reason: The No. 1 box office market in North America — New York City and its immediate suburbs — has remained closed. The gradual reopening of cinemas in the area, which began on Friday, immediately emboldened studios, with Sony speeding up the release of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” and Paramount giving “A Quiet Place Part II” similar treatment.

“We’re back!” the marquee at the IFC Center, a Manhattan art film complex, read on Saturday. Focus Features said that “Promising Young Woman,” a revenge drama starring Carey Mulligan, performed particularly well in New York, selling out available seats at multiple theaters. “Boogie,” another specialty release from Focus, found 20% of its audience in the area, with the AMC Empire in Times Square as its top location.

Cinemas in San Francisco also reopened on Friday, leaving the Los Angeles area as the only major U.S. market where theaters remain closed. About 80% of the theaters in North America are now able to operate.

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