To quote Lennon and McCartney, it’s been a long and winding road. As of this weekend, though, major theater chains across the United States will finally be back up and running with the domestic market’s first wide release since March.
Following months of speculation and delayed reopening plans, Solstice Studios’ Unhinged is the film setting the stage for more to come in the weeks and months ahead. It’s a watershed moment oft-planned by the startup distributor throughout the summer as spikes of the COVID-19 pandemic across the country resulted in multiple studio and exhibitor delays, but one that will finally come to pass — and one with significant meaning for exhibitor support.
Solstice is releasing the film in 44 states, representing 70 percent of physical theaters. The total theater count is estimated at 2,000, with the expectation of adding between 200 and 300 locations on August 28 when another wave of theaters from major theaters plan to resume operations.
Overseas markets have seen steadily encouraging results from limited product this summer as they’ve reopened with a catalog of re-releases and occasional new releases in local territories. The domestic market has similarly shown strong demand at drive-ins thanks to archival titles and indie releases, climbing from a $130K market weekend sum in mid-May to $2 million last weekend. The latter marked the third straight frame of increased performance following natural ebbs and flows resulting from lack of product in late July.
Consumer desire and sentiment seem to be trending upward, according to a recent Atom Tickets survey, even as the world at-large recognizes the fight against the virus is far from over. Still, many businesses have shown how to successfully re-open with proper health and safety guidelines during this challenging time. Now, it’s the film industry’s turn.
Unhinged itself has already accumulated more than $600,000 domestically since opening in 299 Canadian locations last weekend. Given that market typically represents between 7 and 10 percent of domestic box office hauls, we could have a base line for what the film may be able to do as it speeds into an estimated 2,000 locations across all of North America this weekend.
The added challenges — and there are many of them — when it comes to forecasting during this theatrical restart is that monitoring market shares and operational status are integral in ways like never before. As such, this weekend and those ahead in the near future will be learning experiences for everyone in the industry — forcing models to be continually adaptive and accepting of a wide range of scenarios.
The one expectation that is reasonably safe to have at this point is that opening weekends will be far less of a barometer for success than we’re used to treating them as during normal times. Die-hard movie fans are likely to return more quickly than other patrons, but some may opt to wait at least a few more weeks. It’s also conceivable that pent-up demand from less-frequent moviegoers (ones who are often more challenging to track in the pre-release window) could result in over-indexed demand.
In the case of Unhinged, which has already released under staggered circumstances across the world, it also serves as a possible early example of the unpredictability of the box office ahead. Despite a mixed reception from critics, during the time of COVID-19, films may be far less susceptible to the typical impact we might expect from word of mouth or perceived quality. The need for escapism is high among people from all walks of life, and as we’ve seen during and after past domestic and global crises throughout the last century, that commonality often transcends most other considerations.
Unhinged has already opened in first place at the box office in 13 international markets, remaining in that top spot for the past three weekends in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany. While competition is obviously not a factor right now, across the board, week-to-week drops have been slow and steady — something that should be expected in North America. The film has generated almost $8 million from 24 territories thus far.
At this time, based on preliminary models attempting to account for variable market shares, seating capacity restrictions, initial pre-sales, demographic appeal, and a number of rotating-door metrics, Unhinged could be a candidate to collect $2 to 4 million or more from North America this weekend. Other models are more bullish, but now is the time to err on the side of caution.
Also “opening” in the States this weekend is the 10th anniversary re-release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Warner Bros. has yet to confirm how many locations the film will reach domestically (or even how much the film earned from its Canadian start last weekend), but early ticket sales have generated seemingly healthy trends in localized samples.
Like Unhinged, the Inception re-release was delayed a few times over the summer but remained part of the studio’s plan to help drum up buzz for Nolan’s Tenet — releasing overseas August 28 and domestically with sneaks starting on August 31 leading into the September 3 nationwide rollout. The re-release of the Leonardo DiCaprio-led modern classic will include a sneak peak at Tenet itself.
IMAX sales have been notable for Inception‘s return to cinemas, which could provide a boost for the film’s chances to compete with Unhinged as the first go-to choice for moviegoers this weekend. That being said, the domestic theatrical footprint of Nolan’s opus isn’t estimated to be higher than 1,000 locations at this time, and the filmmaker’s fan base may easily represent a major share of that initial demand. Conversely, Unhinged will have a much longer tail when it comes to sales due to being an original property with no built-in audience, and probably a fair number of screens allocated for weeks to come.
Globally, Inception‘s re-release has been among the stronger performers by archival titles in recent weeks.
Regardless, it appears likely that those will be the top two films of the coming weekend in the U.S. and Canada, but a dark horse candidate could be Roadside Attractions’ Words on Bathroom Walls. Although the film has a much smaller marketing footprint than the aforementioned headline releases, Roadside will open the indie title in 925 locations this weekend, and it will not be available on any virtual or streaming platforms.
The Boxoffice Company (Boxoffice PRO’s parent) reports that showtimes for Words currently represent 10 percent of all bookings, according to the Showtimes Dashboard platform. By comparison, Inception‘s bookings account for 9 percent, while Unhinged easily leads the sampled market with 29 percent as of Thursday evening.
Also opening this weekend in limited release is Well Go USA’s Cut Throat City. An estimated location count was not available at the time of this report’s writing, but it accounts for an estimated 4 percent of showtimes booked. The remainder of films in the top ten, accounting for between 2 to 4 percent of shows, include 2020 releases Sonic the Hedgehog and Tulsa in addition to archival titles The Goonies, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Jaws, and Black Panther.
All things are fluid right now, but we hope to transition this Weekend Forecast column closer to its traditional format with targeted predictions as the weeks progress, more titles become available to theaters, studios begin ramping up reporting again, and movie-going patterns develop during this unique time for the industry.
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