Will Venom and No Time to Die Inject the Box Office With Much-Needed Momentum?

For the past three weekends, Disney’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has dominated the domestic box office with relative ease. The Marvel superhero adventure, which broke ground as the studio’s first comic book adventure to spotlight an Asian star, has been an exciting coda to a mercurial summer, at least, when it comes to movie theater attendance.

Indeed, “Shang-Chi” has done its part to inspire audiences to get off the couch and go see the latest blockbuster at their local theater. Since debuting over Labor Day weekend, the film has generated $176 million — the second-best result of the pandemic — and looks to become the first domestic release to cross $200 million in ticket sales since the onset of COVID-19.

Why has “Shang-Chi” enjoyed virtually free reign over box office charts? That’s because there hasn’t been a new movie that’s had a real shot at taking the baton. In subsequent weeks, newcomers like James Wan’s thriller “Malignant,” the Gerard Butler-led action thriller “Copshop” and Clint Eastwood’s Western drama “Cry Macho” barely posed a threat to the cinematic adventures of star Simu Liu’s soon-to-be Avenger.

That may have executives at Disney, who opted to keep the movie exclusively in theaters rather than putting it simultaneously on Disney Plus, cheering. But “Shang-Chi” alone can’t turn the tide for movie theaters. In a business that thrives on momentum, Hollywood studios and cinema operators rely on a range of offerings to keep the industry afloat. Ideally, a customer goes to see a movie in theaters and watches a trailer that gets said person excited about returning to the big screen. That is more difficult to sustain when there are weeks that pass between buzzy movies. The lull isn’t entirely unprecedented; even in pre-pandemic times, August and September have traditionally been slower months at the box office. In the COVID era, the delta variant has been a significant and unexpected hinderance to the revival of the theater business.

“Before July 4th, the pandemic was on its way to being contained, but Delta and premature openings changed that. Given the stubbornness of the variant and the resistance of large numbers of people to vaccinate, containment is going to take time — again,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “Business should continue to improve despite the adverse conditions, but the pandemic needs to be contained.”

The next test for the movie theater business will be Sony’s comic book sequel “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (on Oct. 1) and MGM’s James Bond installment “No Time to Die” (on Oct 8). Will the back-to-back tentpoles be a potent enough combination to bring people back to theaters and sustain box office stamina through the end of the year? Industry watchers appear to be confident the early October release dates will set the stage for a busy fall season.

“‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ and ‘No Time to Die’ are perfectly positioned to entice the 18-to-30 year-olds who have driven the comeback of the movie theater in the latter part of the summer,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore.

In the months since the industry has attempted to mount a comeback, movies catered to younger, and mostly male audiences, such as Universal’s “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9,” Warner Bros. tentpole “Godzilla vs. Kong” and the Ryan Reynolds sci-fi comedy “Free Guy,” have sold more tickets compared to films that cater to older crowds. That’s especially promising for “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” the sequel that sees Tom Hardy return as the journalist turned alien symbiote. Plus, Marvel’s “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson, stands as the highest-grossing movie of the year (for now) with $182 million, the latest strike against the notion that Marvel superhero fatigue exists.

Though “No Time to Die” appeals to a similarly broad audience, the core demographic for Bond films skews older. That could be problematic because adult audiences have been the most reluctant to return to the movies. Recent releases, including Michael Showalter’s biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Paul Schrader’s drama “The Card Counter” and Hugh Jackman’s sci-fi romance thriller “Reminiscence,” have struggled to connect in theaters, and all of them were pitched at adult crowds. In the case of “No Time to Die,” marketing executives have the added challenge of making the Bond adventure feel new again. The aptly-titled spy thriller was originally scheduled to open in 2020 and was the first major blockbuster-hopeful to delay its release in the wake of coronavirus. At this point, it’s been almost a year since Billie Eilish took home a Grammy for singing the movie’s title track. Even so, “No Time to Die” marks Daniel Craig’s fifth and final outing as the suave British spy, meaning anticipation among 007 enthusiasts has been sky-high.

Another potential obstacle: “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “No Time to Die” both hail from franchises that are heavily reliant on the international box office in order to turn a profit. Overseas, the moviegoing landscape has been unsteady. Many international countries still have capacity restrictions in place and in some areas, such as France, Italy and Germany, patrons have to show proof of vaccination to enter cinemas. Meanwhile, major territories like Korea, Japan, Australia and most of Southeast Asia have reinstated stricter lockdown measures, resulting in some movie theaters having to close again and others having to operate under reduced hours.

Outside of the U.S., markets like China, Japan and the United Kingdom are especially critical for big-budget tentpoles. The first “Venom” generated a massive $650 million overseas in 2018 and the latest Bond movie, 2015’s “Spectre,” made $880 million internationally. So far, most movies haven’t come close to reaching those box office levels in COVID times. Only one Hollywood film, “F9,” has surpassed $500 million in ticket sales at the international box office — and that was in late June before the new strains of COVID-19 became a serious threat. On a positive note, “No Time to Die” has secured a release date in China (and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is expected to as well) at a time when most Hollywood movies haven’t been granted access to play in the world’s biggest movie market. “Venom” in 2018 made more money in China ($269 million) than any other market, including North America ($203 million). China is also an important overseas market for the Bond franchise and was the highest-grossing international territory outside of the U.K. for “Spectre.”

Though the fall and winter season will be lighter than usual, there are several major titles on the schedule that look to fill seats in multiplexes and could help close 2021 out on a high: Disney and Marvel’s “Eternals” (Nov. 5), Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (Nov. 19), Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake (Dec. 10), Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Dec. 17), Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix: Resurrections” (Dec. 22) and Universal’s family friendly “Sing 2” (Dec. 22).

If they’re going to spark and sustain a box office revival, they can’t attract crowds in a vacuum. One hit must lead into another. In the movie business, the most powerful force is momentum.

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