It’s difficult, if not impossible, to do an apples-to-apples comparison of a pandemic release to its pre-pandemic comparable titles—especially in the case of Warner Bros., whose move to a day-and-date strategy for their 2021 slate makes estimating what something would have grossed with theatrical exclusivity a difficult proposition. Covid-related asterisks aside, it’s fair to say that Godzilla vs Kong has breathed life (or, shall we say, atomic breath) back into a faltering franchise.
Godzilla vs. Kong’s opening weekend exceeded all expectations, its $31.6 million three-day ($48.1 million five-day) gross easily giving it the crown for highest domestic opening during the pandemic. With no substantial competition for audience dollars this weekend—Lionsgate’s Voyagers, the only new wide release, is expected to bow with only a fraction of Godzilla vs. Kong’s screen count—the film is a lock for the top spot, with our own Chief Analyst Shawn Robbins estimating a 51 percent drop for a three-day gross between $13 and $18 million.
Though the Godzilla franchise has been active since 1954—with the original Godzilla, retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! released in heavily altered form in America in 1956—Hollywood first truly embraced the iconic character with Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, released by Sony in 1998. Released over Memorial Day weekend, it opened to a three-day weekend gross of $44 million and a six-day opening of $74.3 million before eventually topping out domestically at $136.3 million—a figure within a few million of the film’s reported budget. Luckily for Sony, the critically reviled film proved more popular overseas, where it earned approximately two-thirds of its eventual $379 million worldwide gross—not enough to warrant a sequel.
The American version of the Godzilla franchise would languish until 2010, when Legendary Pictures inked a deal with Godzilla creator Toho to co-produce and co-finance—with Warner Bros.—a new American Godzilla movie. That film, also called Godzilla, was released in 2014 on the weekend before Memorial Day. Though its $93.2 million opening was the fifth highest of the year, a second weekend drop of 66.8 percent was a harbinger of things to come.
2014’s summer movie season was packed full of big-budget blockbusters, including X-Men: Days of Future Past—which easily unseated Godzilla from the top spot at the box office after one week—The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers: Age of Extinction. Godzilla struggled to set itself apart from the pack, ultimately earning $200.6 million domestically and failing to crack the year’s top ten. It did, however, contribute to Warner Bros. having its best year ever to that point as the studio’s third-largest worldwide grosser. Approximately 60 percent of Godzilla‘s global total ($524.9 million) came from international markets, led by China with $77.6 million.
The critically acclaimed Shin Godzilla, a Japanese production, would get a limited domestic release by FUNimation Entertainment in 2016, earning $1.9 million over four weekends with a peak screen count of 490 on opening day and the vast majority of its run thereafter only screening in less than 50 theaters. The second film in Warner Bros.’ so-called “Monsterverse” would be 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. Unlike its predecessor, Kong was released in March, in theory giving it an open runway to box office success due to having less competition. Though Kong’s $61.0 million opening was higher than expected, the film still failed to live up to Godzilla’s box office on the domestic front, earning $168 million. (March 2017’s big winner turned out to be Beauty and the Beast, which went on to be the second highest grosser of the year.) Internationally, however, King Kong earned his crown. Kong: Skull Island was able to out-earn Godzilla worldwide, propelled by a Chinese haul of $168.1 million—just inching past the film’s domestic total.
The stage was not quite set for Godzilla and King Kong to meet. Before that could happen, Godzilla would need to get past a few of its fellow Titans in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Warner Bros. returned to an early summer release for this third installment in the franchise, which saw the introduction of a new slate of human characters alongside Godzilla and his monster foes. The switch back to May didn’t help. Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a case of diminishing returns all around, with an opening weekend gross of $47.7 million, a domestic gross of $110.5 million, a Chinese gross of $135.4 million (globally, its best market), and a worldwide gross of $386.6 million. The bright spot, if it can be called that, is that at least King of the Monsters wasn’t alone: summer 2019 saw a whole raft of sequels stumble at the box office, including X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Men in Black International, and Shaft.
With the pandemic still affecting movie theater attendance—particularly in Europe, where cinemas in many countries remain shuttered—it’s difficult to predict Godzilla vs. Kong‘s ultimate worldwide gross, or even whether it will be able to surpass King of the Monsters. Still, considering the monster-sized hurdles the industry has been up against over the last year, getting moviegoers out to the cinema is no small achievement.