Weekend Box Office Forecast: The Suicide Squad Targets Best ‘R’ Debut of Pandemic, But Faces Escalating Challenges

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures ("The Suicide Squad")

Friday Update: Warner Bros. reports this morning that The Suicide Squad posted $4.1 million from Thursday night’s domestic previews. Those showings began at 7pm. Earnings represent the best preview gross for an R-rated film during the pandemic, topping Demon Slayer: The Movie‘s $3.8 million back in April.

While direct comparisons to pre-pandemic numbers are obviously not going to yield apples-to-apples measures of success, especially for hybrid releases such as this one, they can give us an early idea of what to expect from the weekend ahead. For example, 2016’s Suicide Squad earned $20.5 million from Thursday night previews and ultimately posted a $133.7 million weekend. The same multiplier for James Gunn’s 2021 iteration would yield approximately $26.7 million by the end of this Sunday.

For a mid-vaccine era comparison, if The Suicide Squad were to follow Black Widow‘s post-Thursday pace, the DC pic would land $25 million for the weekend.

Fellow DC and Harley Quinn-starring entry Birds of Prey earned a similar $4.0 million Thursday night start back in February 2020, but the out-of-season comparison doesn’t fit well since fewer fans were likely to rush out on a school night versus a summer evening for this Squad start. Prey ultimately opened to a $33 million weekend.

We’ll have more updates throughout the weekend as they’re confirmed by the studio.

Thursday Report: It’s been another challenging news cycle during the pandemic, but August’s first full weekend arrives this Friday. With it comes James Gunn’s anticipated take on The Suicide Squad, but how are expectations for the anti-hero sequel evolving in the current market?

The film marks the latest addition to the DC Extended Universe and the brand’s second pandemic release following last December’s Wonder Woman 1984. Fans have been anticipating the applied stylings of writer and director Gunn to the DC property following his enormous success with the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films on the other side of the fence with Disney and Marvel, and early reception from critics suggests the filmmaker has another crowd-pleaser on his hands. As of Thursday morning, the film stands at 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

While die hard followers of the graphic novel and comic book realm are eager to see Gunn’s semi-reboot, this entry enters a challenged marketplace at virtually no fault of its own.

Five years ago, Warner Bros and DC released David Ayers’ first Suicide Squad film to a record August debut of $133.7 million. That came on the back of a tremendously effective marketing campaign, Will Smith in his first non-Hancock leading comic book role, Jared Leto’s much anticipated take on the Joker character, and Margot Robbie’s wildly buzzed-about, first live-action appearance as anti-villainess mainstay Harley Quinn.

That 2016 film was a financial blockbuster with $325 million domestically and nearly $747 million worldwide by the end of its run, but many audiences and fans didn’t warm to it. Box office legs were cut short by lukewarm reception (it stands at 26 percent from critics and 59 percent from audiences), ultimately forcing the studio to reconsider the vision of the sub-franchise if it were to continue. Bringing in Gunn was certainly an inspired move, but the question now remains how many casual audiences are interested in a soft-reboot of a five-year-old movie — one without Will Smith and the Joker, no less.

Gunn has assembled a massive ensemble cast here, but the lack of similar star power and the under-performance of Harley’s own 2020 spin-off film call into question what kind of demand the film has outside the DC crowd. Even pre-pandemic, Birds of Prey opened under expectations with $33 million on opening weekend. Healthier word of mouth did help it achieve a stronger multiple than 2016’s Squad, but Prey still managed a modest $84.2 million in North America and a hair over $200 million globally. That’s not terrible for a film budgeted under $90 million, but it’s not the runaway hit that was expected.

The 2021 version of Suicide is a different beast, though– and a beast that reportedly cost $185 million to produce and is being released in a fractured global market. Warner’s hybrid release in theaters and on HBO Max the same day will likely cut into box office earnings on a significant level — especially after Thursday night’s opening shows and Friday’s full first day when fans make up a giant portion of grosses. That’s not a great foot to jump off when international grosses are already going to be depressed due to varying speeds of vaccine implementation, something that will be exacerbated by piracy due to the film’s immediate availability at home.

Long range forecasts had optimistically modeled out to an opening weekend anywhere between $35 million and $60 million as recently as two weeks ago. That’s no longer the case, even with strong reviews since and a consistent marketing campaign put into effect by the studio. Pre-sale activity has slowed down dramatically since the first wave of fans grabbed tickets went they became available in mid-July, while online discussion and interaction across major platforms are a far cry from the heights of the 2016 film ahead of its release. Through August 4, The Suicide Squad is trending more than 75 percent lower than its predecessor in combined pre-sale and social footprint.

Those may have been inevitable trends even under normal circumstances, but concerns surrounding the Delta variant of COVID-19 may also be having some impact. It’s too soon to tell by exactly what extent that is, but industry research firm NRG recently reported consumer sentiment across moviegoers dipped to 70 percent as of August 1 from a previous pandemic high of 81 percent on July 11. Women over and under 25 remain the most cautious, but the demographics of concern to this film — men over and under 25 — also have shown slight declines in comfort level. Those are down 10 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

NRG’s polls are still far more encouraging than they were earlier in the year, and generally comparable to the comfort levels of moviegoers back when A Quiet Place II and Cruella drove encouraging Memorial Day weekend business in theaters.

Still, it’s clear that the current surge of hospitalizations from virus cases spurred by the Delta variant among unvaccinated individuals are having an effect on near-term moviegoer comfort and box office recovery trends. That’s important to keep in mind for an R-rated sequel with less star power than its divisive predecessor, which also happens to be available for free to at-home streaming subscribers.

At the very least, the film should be able to exceed The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It‘s $24.1 million weekend as the best R-rated debut since prior to March 2020 lockdowns, and possibly Space Jam: A New Legend ($13.1 million) for Warner’s best opening day gross during the same period.

The Suicide Squad‘s strong reviews will hopefully translate into some kind of staying power after an unavoidably front-loaded weekend, but otherwise, it will need abnormal levels of walk-up business after Thursday night to counter final forecast models that have significantly softened in recent days.

On the holdover front, the aforementioned Delta concerns apply across the board, so holding patterns could be a bit wonky. The Suicide Squad represents the only wide release of the frame ahead, and its R rating will prevent ticket sales from teen audiences (who have played a significant role in driving the pandemic recovery so far). That means very little in the way of direct competition for films not targeting the same core audience, but conversely, the market isn’t exactly replete with all-audience, theatrically exclusive films right now.

Disney’s hybrid release Jungle Cruise should enjoy a stronger hold than Black Widow thanks to positive word of mouth and target family audience, although it will lose most of its premium screen footprint to Squad. All eyes will be on the second weekend drop, of course, after Widow‘s 68 percent decline with the same Disney+ Premier Access streaming strategy in play.

Cruise‘s drop in average ticket prices from the loss of IMAX and PLFs is the main threat to its second frame, but otherwise, Cruella‘s leggy run this summer (including a 49 percent drop off its holiday-inflated first weekend) suggests Cruise could stabilize relatively quickly (pending Delta developments) after an expected sharp decline this Friday (again, due to the PLF loss).

Last weekend’s respectable start from The Green Knight ended up more front-loaded to Friday than expected, so it will likely post a noticeable decline this weekend. Again, though, positive reception among the core A24 crowd remains a positive factor going forward before the film’s PVOD availability around August 19.

Meanwhile, Stillwater should post the strongest hold among the three films in their sophomore frame. With a strong audience turnout in middle and rural America, the film is likely less impacted by Delta variant concerns. It also posted a 4 percent from Friday to Saturday last weekend, an uncommon feat for wide releases with Thursday sneaks so far this summer.

Opener Forecast Ranges

The Suicide Squad
Opening Weekend Range: $25 – 35 million
Domestic Total Range: $60 – $90 million

Weekend Forecast

Boxoffice projects this weekend’s top ten films will decrease between 7 and 17 percent from last weekend’s $74.95 million top ten aggregate.

Film Distributor 3-Day Weekend Forecast Projected Domestic Total through Sunday, August 8 Location Count % Change from Last Wknd
The Suicide Squad Warner Bros. Pictures $28,000,000 $28,000,000 ~4,000 NEW
Jungle Cruise Walt Disney Studios $14,900,000 $64,300,000 4,310 -57%
Black Widow Disney / Marvel Studios $3,900,000 $174,400,000 3,100 -40%
Old Universal Pictures $3,800,000 $38,200,000 3,130 -45%
Space Jam: A New Legacy Warner Bros. Pictures $2,600,000 $66,100,000 ~3,000 -40%
The Green Knight A24 $2,500,000 $12,000,000 ~2,800 -63%
Stillwater Focus Features $2,400,000 $9,600,000 2,611 -54%
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins Paramount Pictures $1,800,000 $26,300,000 2,080 -56%
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions Sony Pictures / Columbia $1,300,000 $23,200,000 1,303 -42%
F9: The Fast Saga Universal Pictures $1,200,000 $171,100,000 1,709 -55%

All forecasts subject to revision before the first confirmation of Thursday previews or Friday estimates from studios or alternative sources.

Theater counts are updated as confirmed by studios.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures ("The Suicide Squad")