After ‘F9’ Delivers at the Box Office, Can Other Summer Blockbusters Keep Pace?

F9: THE FAST SAGA, (aka F9, aka FAST & FURIOUS 9, aka FAST AND FURIOUS 9), from left: Nathalie Emmanuel, Michelle Rodriguez, 2021. ph: Giles Keyte / © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

F9” provided a much-needed jolt to the domestic box office.

The latest entry in Universal’s high-octane “Fast & Furious” saga collected $70 million in its opening weekend, the best start at the U.S. box office since 2019’s holiday release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” The arrival of “F9” is the latest big-screen offering to help usher in a delayed summer blockbuster season and aid in the recovery of the struggling movie theater industry. Yet those in the business of selling film tickets still have a long and winding path to travel before they are able to emerge from the wreckage caused by the pandemic.

“Theaters needed ‘F9’ in the most consequential way; a $70 million opening weekend does wonders for concessions,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. But to justify keeping the lights on, he says, movie theaters will require more than just a hulking Vin Diesel and the cinematic anomaly of cars in space.

“If theaters are going to maintain any sort of profits, a steady diet of sizable debuts will be needed, as well as significant holds week-in and week-out,” he adds. “Box office legs have certainly been the biggest concern in this new era of hybrid release.”

The “new era of hybrid release” that Bock mentions is the reason why film exhibitors aren’t entirely out of the woods yet. Many of the major movies primed to hit theaters in the next few weeks won’t be playing exclusively on the big screen, something that will likely curb overall ticket sales. With that in mind, there’s at least one big question facing Hollywood as the movie business mounts a revival: is there’s enough momentum to sustain multiplexes throughout the summer?

In the coming weeks, most of Hollywood’s biggest features — including Universal’s family film “The Boss Baby 2” on July 2, Marvel’s superhero spinoff “Black Widow” on July 9, the Warner Bros. sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy” on July 16, Disney’s action adventure “Jungle Cruise” on July 30 and “The Suicide Squad,” also from WB, on Aug. 6 — will be available on subscription streaming services at the same time as they debut in theaters. It’s impossible to measure how much that will affect box office revenues, but industry analysts expect it will limit the number of “record opening weekends” on the horizon.

“We can’t expect every movie to earn $70 million during opening weekend. We’re not in that environment right now,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore.

That could be a problem for many multiplexes in North America. Though 80% of U.S. cinemas have reopened as of last weekend, according to Comscore, their finances are in rough shape. Some theater chains are reemerging from bankruptcy, in the case of Alamo Drafthouse or Studio Movie Grill, while others have had to become heavily leveraged to survive the pandemic, like AMC Theatres with its $5.5 billion in long-term debt. That means they can’t really afford a substantial slowdown in revenues. At the same time, movie theaters and other live entertainment venues are struggling to access the Save Our Stages funding that was intended to provide necessary financial support for the hard-hit sector of the industry.  The margin of error is very low, at the moment, and a few sluggish weeks of box office receipts could be the difference between recovery and insolvency.

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