Long Range Box Office Forecast: What NYC’s March Re-Opening and Paramount’s Shorter Windows Mean for the Industry

Photo Credits: Disney ("Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Black Widow"); Warner Bros. ("Godzilla vs. Kong"); Paramount ("A Quiet Place Part II"); Paramount / Christopher McQuarrie / Fraser Taggart ("Mission: Impossible 7")

It’s been another rollercoaster week for the film industry. Two major announcements with a wide range of implications are still being absorbed by anyone and everyone with an interest in this sector of the entertainment ecosphere.

On Monday, the long-awaited greenlight for New York City’s movie theaters to reopen was finally given by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Effective March 5, the city’s cinemas will be allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity seating, with no more than 50 people per auditorium. It’s one of the two biggest moviegoing markets in the country, one that will finally show signs of life after eleven months in shutdown mode.

The second development came Wednesday during an Investor Day presentation. Focusing largely on parent company Viacom’s rebranding and revitalization of CBS All Access into the Paramount+ streaming platform, another piece in the puzzle of theatrical windows was addressed: The studio will commit its releases to exhibition exclusively for 30 to 45 days before making them available on their streamer.

In between all of this, there are still valid questions about the concreteness of any plan that involves a return to a full-scale exhibition presence. Still, we continue to see relatively little movement on the part of studios when it comes to big release delays as they play the long game and wait out the end of this devastating winter.

Simultaneously, moviegoers are growing more confident about the potential of going back to theaters as vaccines become accessible throughout this year. According to a recent NRG survey, consumers have never been as optimistic about such a return during the pandemic as they are right now.

For more indication of the light at the end of the tunnel, Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios this week ignited the marketing engine for the recently titled Spider-Man: No Way Home — a film still dated for release this Christmas (after three other MCU movies), and one which has more-than-considerable potential to become the year’s biggest box office hit.

With that summary in mind, let’s break things down a little bit more.

New York City’s Cinemas to Reopen: What Does That Mean?

This is a significant step forward in the long process toward economic recovery for both theaters and studios. Despite the number of low-to-mid profile films that have skipped theaters for streaming releases during the pandemic so far, studios have by-and-large delayed, delayed, and delayed some more when it comes to their biggest potential moneymakers, tentpoles, and franchises.

Regal Cinemas itself cited the need for New York City and Los Angeles to come back online — with steady product — before they can deem their theaters to be in a position of operating at an acceptable level. That’s why, after a brief re-opening period early last fall, Regal turned their lights back off temporarily until such developments occurred.

It remains to be seen when Regal resumes operations even in a limited capacity following New York City’s announcement, particularly with Los Angeles still in a general state of flux as questions continue swirling as to when its own cinemas will be allowed to reopen. Regal made it clear that they’ll wait for the City of Angels with an official statement on February 25.

When it comes to the city itself, California Governor Gavin Newson hasn’t laid out a clear timeline or target date for L.A.’s movie houses to reopen, but Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi prognosticated on February 26 that it could happen within the next two to four weeks. Still, nothing is confirmed right now.

Between the pair of them, New York City and Los Angeles account for up to 15 percent of the domestic grossing market from a box office standpoint, on average. Some films (such as arthouse and indie titles) skew higher. Others, such as four-quadrant blockbusters and family films, see their earnings more widely dispersed throughout North America’s urban and rural areas alike.

For half of that crucial equation to come back on the playing field, vaccine injections from Moderna and Pfizer’s available doses need to continue improving while Johnson & Johnson also progresses toward its own shipments. Temporary setbacks with distribution and production are being addressed as the United States has topped 68 million shots through February 25, a development that provides encouragement for the hearts of exhibition to start beating with a little more hope as 2021’s second quarter peaks around the corner.

Still, revitalization will not occur overnight just because New York City theaters will be open one week from now. Various films and theaters able to operate have shown in recent months that moviegoers are still seeking out the cinematic experience. However, there are still many people, especially in the largest urban areas, who are likely to play it safe a few more weeks (if not months) until the country approaches a higher degree of inoculation and, eventually, herd immunity against COVID-19… and until the big movies return.

We may see an uptick in box office earnings for many films when NYC turns the lights back on, but it’s wise to expect upward trends over a longer period of time rather than in an instant.

With two major studio releases, Raya and the Last Dragon (also debuting on Disney+ the same day) and Chaos Walking bowing nationwide on the same day as NYC’s restart, though, it’s clear that the next phase of the recovery is about to begin. They’ll be followed by titles like The Courier (March 19), Nobody (March 26), and Godzilla vs. Kong (March 31) before Easter — providing the most steady dose of high-profile content to hit movie theaters since before the pandemic. Mortal Kombat, not to be forgotten, will also open day-and-date on April 16.

This essentially allows a two-month period for not just the residents of The City That Never Sleeps to grow comfortable with moviegoing (among other outside-the-home activities) again, but for the corporate marketing engines of the industry to start booting back up if they like the results they see throughout winter’s end and spring’s beginning. Tangentially, the early weeks of NYC’s restart may also allow other crucial markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco to find their own timelines for re-opening before the middle of spring and early summer.

Speaking of early summer, that’s when the release schedule is currently positioned to pick up even more significantly with the likes of Black Widow (May 7 — which Disney is still committing to theaters), Free Guy (May 21), Spiral (May 21), Cruella (May 28), Fast 9 (May 28) and Infinite (May 28).

For now, at least.

If the past year has taught the industry anything, it’s that it’ll happen when it happens. More delays and potential hybrid releases can’t be ruled out, but the industry is expressing more cautious optimism than it has in many months. Even if that slate doesn’t hold and some (or all) are pushed back another couple of months, early-to-mid summer increasingly looks like a transition period that could help guide the way into a more robust second half of the year.

To repeat for the umpteenth time, whether or not those films meet their current release dates depends on the continued upward trends of vaccinations and declining virus cases — all while keeping an eye on its growing number of variants. But if China’s record-breaking Lunar New Year box office hauls taught us anything earlier this month, it’s that moviegoers will likely be ready when the appropriate time comes.

Paramount’s 30-to-45-Day Theatrical Windows: What Do They Mean?

Barely 48 hours after the widely heralded news about New York City, it was revealed that Paramount will commit their films to exhibition exclusively for anywhere between four and six weekends. After that, such highly anticipated releases like A Quiet Place Part II and Mission: Impossible 7 will be available to stream on Paramount+.

Realistically, this is much closer to a presumed common ground of shortened windows that should be expected in the long run.

Universal’s 17-day and 31-day (for $50 million-plus opening weekenders) agreements with AMC and Cinemark may or may not be open to some molding once the pandemic begins to subside, as may Warner Bros.’ 2021 experiment of day-and-date releases to HBO Max. Paramount, on the other hand, may have just moved much closer to the sweet spot for some of Hollywood’s most important box office players.

Granted, not all studios (Sony and Lionsgate, notably) have in-house streaming platforms available to them, and there will certainly be trends to watch for when it comes to premium-priced PVOD rentals versus full-on availability of a movie at no extra cost to existing subscribers of a given service.

For a slightly deeper dive into how the math of Paramount’s decision works more in favor of exhibitors than against, the original A Quiet Place earned 94 percent of its $188 million domestic total by the 45th day of its release three years ago (and 84 percent by day 30, for argument’s sake).

Even as an original film that broke out beyond expectations and enjoyed strong legs, it was ranking in the bottom tier of the top ten on a daily and weekend basis by that point in its run — leaving the top ten by day 57 and losing 76 percent of its theatrical footprint by day 64.

From the franchise perspective, the ratios drift even higher. Mission: Impossible – Fallout earned 96 percent of its final $220.2 million domestic box office by the 45th day of play (87 percent by day 30).

That franchise is notably leggier than most due to its older target audience, and it was still approaching the metaphorical end credits of its run. The sequel was out of the top 10 and absent from 80 percent of its maximum location count by day 57.

Yes, cinema owners defer a lower share of box office earnings as most films age in theaters, but these two examples point out why the concession may not be as detrimental as some perceive.

From a more theoretical standpoint, Paramount’s flexibility to hit streaming around that point can reduce marketing expenses for downstream at-home releases — in turn saving the studio money. That’s money which can be funneled into producing more content for theaters (and, yes, streaming as well).

While there is still no one-size-fits-all plan across all studios or theater owners, Paramount could ultimately end up providing a blueprint that allows for the most give-and-take between both parties.

Theaters may lose out on that higher profit share of a leggy, word-of-mouth-driven film after four, five, or six weekends, but we’re talking about small potatoes at that point compared to the bulk of earnings made in the first weeks. Plus, cinema owners would presumably still have the option of screening it (for those who simply would rather watch a cinematic movie in a real cinema, rather than at home).

In turn, even some portion of that 4-to-16 percent range in the post-30- or post-45-day windows in the above examples may still be in play. After all, there’s no guarantee every single prospective moviegoer will forfeit the big screen option due to streaming access.

Even more importantly, and again theoretically, screens may open up for movies or other special content that could be in a position to attract more customers than the seventh weekend of a movie that has already earned the lion’s share of its potential. This is a development many will be watching in the post-pandemic era, especially when it comes to opening the doors for streamers’ film content to play in theaters for limited engagements.

Content production is only going to increase by large margins as the world comes out of this pandemic, especially with so many avenues for distribution at the feet of studios now thanks to the coexistent event potential of cinemas and the episodic appeal of streaming. It’s ultimately up to the studios to put this strategy into effect, but with foresight-driven leadership and strategizing, the long-term benefits could outweigh the short-term sacrifices.

Domestic Market Update

Last month, we reported January’s retail reporting period would close out between $55 million and $60 million domestically, ultimately finishing with an estimated at $57 million. While forecasting February to cap out near $40 million, the month now looks to end with roughly $50 million.

The slight upside over initial February forecasts can mostly be attributed to the sustained legs of films like The Croods: A New Age and The Marksman, sporadic re-openings in areas like Chicago and Seattle, softer-than-typical declines on Super Bowl weekend, and The Little Things‘ ability to haul the best R-rated opening weekend of the pandemic thus far.

Looking ahead, March should see significant improvement with the aforementioned release slate bulking up noticeably. Between Saturday, February 27 and Friday, April 2, the reporting period is currently tracking for a haul between $85 million and $95 million. If it lands on the high end of that range, the first quarter of 2021 would sneak over the $200 million threshold and finish off just 14 percent from Q4 2020 despite the holiday virus surge, lingering market closures throughout January, and a scant calendar of high profile movies.

Should Raya or another of the mainstream-appealing films in March beat expectations by even a small margin, there would be upside for a monthly total close to $100 million for only the third time during the pandemic. It could be challenging to reach the estimated $104 million 35-day reporting period of December 2020, but ever-evolving market conditions (New York City’s reemergence especially) certainly leave that scenario on the table.

While it may be unlikely to reach Q4 2020’s $233.4 million haul, the industry is at least now entering a phase where Q1 2021 is in a position to provide momentum heading into Q2 — when, for now, a lot more Hollywood product tentatively awaits.

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
3/5/2021 Boogie         Focus Features
3/5/2021 Chaos Walking $2,000,000 – $7,000,000 10% $6,000,000 – $25,000,000 14% Lionsgate
3/5/2021 Raya and the Last Dragon $7,000,000 – $15,000,000   $30,000,000 – $60,000,000   Walt Disney Pictures
3/12/2021 (no releases scheduled)          
3/19/2021 The Courier $2,000,000 – $7,000,000 17% $7,000,000 – $25,000,000 15% Lionsgate
3/19/2021 Last Call         IFC Films
3/19/2021 My Brother’s Keeper         Collide Distribution
3/26/2021 Nobody $5,000,000 – $10,000,000   $10.000,000 – $30,000,000   Universal Pictures
3/31/2021 Godzilla vs. Kong $8,000,000 – $13,000,000 10% $15.000,000 – $40,000,000 10% Warner Bros. Pictures
4/2/2021 (no releases scheduled)          
4/9/2021 Voyagers $2,000,000 – $7,000,000   $5.000,000 – $20,000,000   Lionsgate
4/16/2021 Fatherhood         Sony Pictures / Columbia
4/16/2021 Mortal Kombat (2021) $4,000,000 – $9,000,000 39% $10,000,000 – $25,000,000 35% Warner Bros. Pictures
4/16/2021 Untitled Universal Event Film II (2021)         Universal Pictures
4/23/2021 (no releases scheduled)          
4/30/2021 (no releases scheduled)          
5/7/2021 Black Widow         Disney / Marvel Studios
5/14/2021 Those Who Wish Me Dead         Warner Bros. Pictures
5/21/2021 Final Account         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
9/3/2021 Reminiscence         Warner Bros. Pictures
9/3/2021 Untitled Resident Evil         Sony Pictures / Columbia
9/10/2021 Malignant         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         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 Spider-Man: No Way Home         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
12/31/2021 (no releases scheduled)          

As always, the news cycle is constantly evolving as the pandemic dictates. Projections are subject to breaking announcements at any moment.

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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"); Paramount / Christopher McQuarrie / Fraser Taggart ("Mission: Impossible 7")