Long Range Box Office Forecast: Q1 2021’s Souring Pace Amid Further Delays — When Might Theatrical Recovery Begin?

Photo Credits: Disney ("Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Black Widow"); Warner Bros. ("Godzilla vs. Kong"); Paramount ("A Quiet Place Part II"); Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ("No Time to Die"); Sony ("Ghostbusters: Afterlife")

As we say goodbye to the first month of a new year and eagerly await the next — if only to get one step closer toward recovery amid the pandemic — there’s good news and bad news.

The good news: Vaccine distribution plans are beginning to take shape after a disorganized head start in 2020, studios like Universal, Warner Bros., Disney, and a number of indie distributors are putting what limited content into theaters they can, and there remains cautious optimism that this — at some point — will be the year moviegoers are able to return en masse.

The bad news: Although we’re one month through what has long been predicted to be a dire winter in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and the movie industry itself, there remains a long road and plenty of work ahead.

For perspective on the number of setbacks encountered by cinemas in recent weeks and months, January 2021’s retail reporting period (the first 29 days of the month) will close out with an estimated $55 – 60 million domestic box office haul. (A previous version of this report included a typo citing $155 – 160 million, which has been corrected above.)

That figure is obviously down from last year’s estimated $760 million January take (achieved in the first 24 days of the month), but more relevantly, represents the lowest earning month of the pandemic since re-openings began late last summer.

By comparison, September and December 2020 have topped the pandemic chart thus far with estimated $120 million and $100 million months, followed by October’s $70 million estimate and November’s $59 million estimate.

Getting Worse Before Getting Better

Unfortunately, the night is indeed darkest before the dawn… which won’t be coming in February. Current market projections indicate the domestic box office could struggle to reach $40 million in the coming month.

The sour outlook is largely due to the repetition of the same news cycle that’s brought the world and the movie business to its knees for the last ten months: release delays, major markets remaining closed, and the raging pandemic yet to come under control.

Looking at February’s calendar, only two major studio releases are on deck: Warner Bros.’ Judas and the Black Messiah (February 12) and Tom & Jerry (February 26). Both will open in theaters the same day as they premiere on HBO Max for free to subscribers, meaning box office expectations are aggressively conservative (as they are for virtually all WB films this year).

Other titles to expect in February include Breaking News in Yuba County from MGM / United Artists Releasing (going day-and-date in theaters and on PVOD), Focus Features’ Land, and STX’s The Mauritanian on February 12 in time for President’s Day weekend. Focus will then launch Nomadland on February 19.

Beyond that, attention turns to March with Disney still promising Raya and the Last Dragon as a theatrical release the same day, March 5, as its Premier Access launch on Disney+. It will be the first domestic release from Disney since the pandemic began, coming exactly one year to the weekend after opening Pixar’s Onward. Family films have been among the few bright spots during cinema’s preliminary restart in recent months, meaning Raya could provide a breath of fresh air… and revenue.

For now, March promises to reverse the box office trend thanks to that animated pic and other films like Lionsgate’s Chaos Walking (March 5), Lionsgate’s The Courier (March 19), and Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs. Kong (March 31). The month was recently stripped of titles like 20th Century Studios’ The King’s Man (moving from March 12 to August 20) and Sony’s Morbius (from March to October and, ultimately, to January 21, 2022).

All told, based on current and very tentative modeling, the first three months of 2021 are pacing to generate an estimated $150 million at the domestic box office. That would be down from Q4 2020’s estimated $230 million and Q3 2020’s estimated $170 million.

Please note: all projections are subject to the reopening of markets like Los Angeles and New York, which in these forecasts are presumed to remain shut down or aggressively limited in operations through March.

Release Delays Impact Early Q2

From there, the picture is again fuzzy. MGM’s No Time to Die and Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2 vacated their planned Easter releases on April 2 for October 8 and June 11 bows, respectively. Paramount was quick to push A Quiet Place Part II again once those titles weren’t around to provide springtime lead-ins, moving from April 23 to September 17.

At the moment, April’s most high profile titles look to be Universal’s Nobody (moved from February 26 to April 2), Sony’s Fatherhood (April 16, starring Kevin Hart — though likely to be delayed itself), and Warner Bros.’ Mortal Kombat remake (April 16).

In other words, any hope for an early spring reboot of the theatrical ecosphere has withered away over the ugly winter. Now, all eyes on are three next steps: how the vaccine distributions and implementations improve over the next couple of months, whether studios see enough promising box office trends through April to keep a summer slate in tact, and whether or not Disney opts to keep Black Widow attached to its current May 7 release.

Marvel’s Importance to 2021’s Eventual Rebound

For now, that Marvel Studios picture remains planned for theatrical exclusivity. Whether that holds, and/or the date remains, will depend on the state of the pandemic. Based on past timelines, it’s likely we’ll know by or before early-to-mid March what Disney will decide.

While most studios continue delaying major films and reaffirming commitment to the theatrical avenue, Marvel and Disney are in a tight spot. The Marvel Cinematic Universe — which will undoubtedly be a major component in cinematic and moviegoer recovery — has four films slated to release by the end of this December. One of those, the third Spider-Man film set for December 17, belongs to Sony.

Given the storytelling domino nature of the franchise, and while Widow might traditionally be delayed yet again, there is now a rough timeline for some normality returning to everyday life. That means, in theory, we should begin to see more releases in the back half of 2021 stick to their guns — pending no dramatic turns for the worse in the fight against the pandemic.

That also means Marvel has the option to keep at least two or three of those theatrical-only releases in tact… but it could mean Widow ends up making a sacrifice as a day-and-date release in early May if the calendar is upended any further. Not only would such a move provide a transitional period to the second half of summer and early fall when vaccines are having even more of an impact on the national (and global) population, the optics of Disney keeping multiple films on the early 2021 slate might encourage other studios to do the same.

Again, this is all speculation and relies on the timelines offered by health experts and government administration to begin curbing the pandemic. Anything could change, but perhaps for the first time in many months, there is some reason to begin expecting a turn of the tide by the middle of the year.

The world, unfortunately, just has to continue enduring a very dark winter and early spring ahead.

Long Range Forecast & 2021’s Wide Release Calendar

Release Date Title 3-Day (FSS) Opening Forecast Range % Chg from Last Week Domestic Total Forecast Range % Chg from Last Week Distributor
2/5/2021 Dara of Jasenovac         101 Studios
2/5/2021 Minimata         MGM
2/12/2021 Breaking News in Yuba County $1,000,000 – $4,000,000 -33% $3,000,000 – $15,000,000 -38% MGM / United Artists Releasing
2/12/2021 French Exit         Sony Pictures Classics
2/12/2021 Judas and the Black Messiah $1,000,000 – $4,000,000 NEW $3,000,000 – $15,000,000 NEW Warner Bros. Pictures
2/12/2021 Land         Focus Features
2/12/2021 The Mauritanian (limited)         STXfilms
2/19/2021 Nomadland (Expansion)         Disney / Searchlight Pictures
2/26/2021 Tom & Jerry         Warner Bros. Pictures
3/5/2021 Boogie         Focus Features
3/5/2021 Chaos Walking $2,000,000 – $7,000,000   $6,000,000 – $25,000,000   Lionsgate
3/5/2021 Raya and the Last Dragon $7,000,000 – $15,000,000 -14% $30,000,000 – $60,000,000 -14% Walt Disney Pictures
3/5/2021 Untitled Universal Event Film (2021)         Universal Pictures
3/19/2021 The Courier $2,000,000 – $7,000,000 NEW $7,000,000 – $25,000,000 NEW Lionsgate
3/19/2021 Last Call         IFC Films
3/19/2021 My Brother’s Keeper         Collide Distribution
3/26/2021 (no releases scheduled)          
3/31/2021 Godzilla vs. Kong $7,000,000 – $12,000,000   $15.000,000 – $40,000,000   Warner Bros. Pictures
4/2/2021 Nobody         Universal Pictures
4/16/2021 Fatherhood         Sony Pictures / Columbia
4/16/2021 Mortal Kombat (2021)         Warner Bros. Pictures
4/16/2021 Untitled Universal Event Film II (2021)         Universal Pictures
4/23/2021 The Asset         Lionsgate
4/30/2021 (no releases scheduled)          
5/7/2021 Black Widow         Disney / Marvel Studios
5/14/2021 Marry Me         Universal Pictures
5/21/2021 Final Account   NEW   NEW Focus Features
5/21/2021 Free Guy         Disney / 20th Century Studios
5/21/2021 Spiral: From the Book of Saw         Lionsgate
5/28/2021 Cruella         Walt Disney Pictures
5/28/2021 F9         Universal Pictures
5/28/2021 Infinite         Paramount Pictures
6/4/2021 The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It         Warner Bros. / New Line
6/4/2021 Samaritan         United Artists Releasing
6/4/2021 Spirit Untamed         Universal Pictures
6/4/2021 Vivo         Sony Pictures / Columbia
6/11/2021 Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway         Sony Pictures / Columbia
6/18/2021 In the Heights         Warner Bros. Pictures
6/18/2021 Luca         Disney / Pixar
6/25/2021 Blue Bayou         Focus Features
6/25/2021 Venom: Let There Be Carnage         Sony Pictures / Columbia
6/30/2021 Zola         A24
7/2/2021 Minions: The Rise of Gru         Universal Pictures
7/2/2021 Top Gun: Maverick         Paramount Pictures
7/9/2021 The Forever Purge         Universal Pictures
7/9/2021 Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings         Disney / Marvel Studios
7/16/2021 Cinderella (2021)         Sony Pictures / Columbia
7/16/2021 The Night House         Disney / Searchlight Pictures
7/16/2021 Space Jam: A New Legacy         Warner Bros. Pictures
7/23/2021 The Tomorrow War         Paramount Pictures
7/23/2021 Old         Universal Pictures
7/30/2021 The Green Knight         A24
7/30/2021 Jungle Cruise         Walt Disney Pictures
8/6/2021 Hotel Transylvania 4         Sony Pictures / Columbia
8/6/2021 The Suicide Squad         Warner Bros. Pictures
8/13/2021 Bios         Universal Pictures
8/13/2021 Deep Water         Disney / 20th Century Studios
8/13/2021 Don’t Breathe Sequel         Sony Pictures / Columbia
8/13/2021 Respect         MGM / United Artists Releasing
8/13/2021 Untitled Russo Brothers Family Film         United Artists Releasing
8/13/2021 Untitled Blumhouse Project II (2021)         Universal Pictures
8/20/2021 The Hitman’s Bodyguard 2         Lionsgate
8/20/2021 The King’s Man         Disney / 20th Century Studios
8/20/2021 Paw Patrol         Paramount Pictures
8/27/2021 The Beatles: Get Back         Walt Disney Pictures
8/27/2021 Candyman         Universal Pictures
9/3/2021 Jackass         Paramount Pictures
9/10/2021 Malignant   NEW   NEW Warner Bros. Pictures
9/17/2021 The Boss Baby: Family Business         Universal Pictures
9/17/2021 Death on the Nile         Disney / 20th Century Studios
9/17/2021 Man from Toronto         Sony Pictures / Columbia
9/17/2021 A Quiet Place Part II         Paramount Pictures
9/24/2021 The Eyes of Tammy Faye         Disney / Searchlight Pictures
9/24/2021 Dear Evan Hansen   NEW   NEW Universal Pictures
9/24/2021 The Many Saints of Newark         Warner Bros. Pictures
10/1/2021 The Addams Family 2         United Artists Releasing
10/1/2021 Dune         Warner Bros. Pictures
10/8/2021 No Time to Die         MGM
10/15/2021 Halloween Kills         Universal Pictures
10/15/2021 The Last Duel         Disney / 20th Century Studios
10/22/2021 Last Night in Soho         Focus Features
10/22/2021 Ron’s Gone Wrong         Disney / 20th Century Studios
10/22/2021 Snake Eyes         Paramount Pictures
10/29/2021 Antlers         Disney / Searchlight Pictures
11/5/2021 Clifford the Big Red Dog         Paramount Pictures
11/5/2021 Eternals         Disney / Marvel Studios
11/11/2021 Ghostbusters: Afterlife         Sony Pictures / Columbia
11/19/2021 King Richard         Warner Bros. Pictures
11/19/2021 Mission: Impossible 7         Paramount Pictures
11/24/2021 Encanto         Walt Disney Pictures
12/3/2021 Nightmare Alley (Limited)         Disney / Searchlight Pictures
12/10/2021 American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story         Lionsgate
12/10/2021 Cyrano         United Artists Releasing
12/10/2021 West Side Story (2020)         Disney / 20th Century Studios
12/17/2021 Marvel Studios – Sony Untitled Spider-Man: Far From Home Sequel         Sony / Columbia / Marvel Studios
12/17/2021 Untitled Disney Live Action         Walt Disney Pictures
12/22/2021 Untitled Matrix Sequel         Warner Bros. Pictures
12/22/2021 Sing 2         Universal Pictures
12/22/2021 The Nightingale         Sony Pictures / Columbia

As always, the news cycle is constantly evolving. Market projections are subject to breaking announcements at any moment.

This column will continue to track the impact of release date changes in the weeks ahead.

For press inquiries, please contact Shawn Robbins

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Photo Credits: Disney ("Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Black Widow"); Warner Bros. ("Godzilla vs. Kong"); Paramount ("A Quiet Place Part II"); Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ("No Time to Die"); Sony ("Ghostbusters: Afterlife")