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4 Things We Learned From NYC's Movie Theater Reopenings

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4 Things We Learned From NYC’s Movie Theater Reopenings This Weekend

The box office is one step closer to normal, but theatrical window chaos still hangs over the film industry

The reopening of movie theaters in New York City and San Francisco this weekend, combined with the release of Disney’s animated film “Raya the Last Dragon,” has pushed the box office one step closer to normalcy.

According to Box Office Mojo, overall domestic grosses for the weekend reached $24.1 million. In the year since theaters entered the pandemic shutdown, there have only been two weekends where overall totals reached or exceeded that amount: Labor Day weekend, where the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” pushed grosses to a pandemic-high $27 million; and Christmas weekend, when “Wonder Woman 1984” led the box office to $24.2 million.

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Here are some of the big takeaways for studios and cinemas from this weekend ticket sales:

1. Variety is returning to the box office charts

Unlike “Tenet” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” which completely dominated the box office when they opened in a reduced number of theaters, “Raya and the Last Dragon” did not account for more than half of the weekend’s total gross.

That’s partly because “Raya” opened to a disappointing $8.6 million — but three other films all crossed the $1 million mark: Warner Bros.’ “Tom and Jerry,” which grossed $6.6 million in its second weekend; Lionsgate’s “Chaos Walking,” which debuted to $3.8 million on 1,980 screens; and Focus Features’ “Boogie,” which bowed to $1.2 million from 1,252 locations.

While the “Raya” opening is well under expectations, even considering that the film was available as a premium on-demand offering for Disney+ subscribers, Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said that having several films post solid numbers is an encouraging sign of long-term recovery for the box office.

“Four films grossed over $1 million this weekend instead of one film doing all the work,” he said. “To see several films open and find a foothold in the market, even on a reduced level with thousands of theaters still closed, shows that there’s more stability in the box office than there was over the past several months.”

“Raya and the Last Dragon” (Walt Disney Studios)

2. The Big Apple is Back

According to data from studio insiders, the number of theaters open in the New York market increased from 60 to 86 thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s green light for NYC cinemas to open doors again. Because of that, grosses in the region exploded by 600% from $178,000 to just over $1 million, accounting for 6.6% of the weekend’s total domestic gross.

With theaters in the five boroughs limited to 25% audience capacity and dozens of theaters still needing more time to come back online, there’s a lot of room for the nation’s biggest moviegoing market to grow over the coming months. While neighboring states like Connecticut and New Jersey have had theaters opened for longer, this weekend proves how crucial the city is to the region’s success.

Barring a major infection surge, New York is expected to see continued increases in market share and overall grosses as more theaters reopen, with the significant majority of theaters expected to be resume screening by early April.

3. Reopenings are happening faster, and they’re expected to stay open

Theaters have been steadily reopening over the past two months — just as the nation has stepped up vaccination and consumer confidence has grown for returning to some semblance of normalcy.

According to Comscore, 2,277 of the estimated 6,037 theaters in the U.S. and Canada were open on New Year’s Day. Since then, that number has risen to 2,709, with 174 theaters reopening this weekend. With studios shifting summer blockbusters within the season instead of delaying them to fall or beyond, Hollywood is expecting a steady return to normal — and not a repeat of last fall when over 3,200 North American theaters reopened for “Tenet,” only to see 1,000 close again as infections surge and studios delayed new releases again.

Studios and exhibitors are now waiting for word on Los Angeles and other major markets to come back online, even at limited capacity. Among the major West Coast cities with less than 10% of their theaters reopened are L.A., Vancouver, San Diego, and Sacramento. Even San Francisco, which just reopened, only has 22% of its theaters back online.

4. Theatrical window chaos still hangs over the box office

For all the encouraging signs, the release of “Raya and the Last Dragon” was marred by the decision of Cinemark and some regional chains not to screen the film because of its simultaneous release as a premium Disney+ title. (That at-home availability may also have eaten into ticket sales.)

Either way, thedemise of the traditional 90-day theatrical window is going to create some bumps in the road to box office recovery.

Box office analysts and insiders at rival studios estimate that the loss of screens at Cinemark, Cineplex and Harkins Theaters cost “Raya” between $1.5 million and $2 million this weekend. Disney almost surely made up that loss and then some through PVOD sales (at a $30 surcharge). But the tension between Disney and those chains might be a preview of what’s to come.

Disney was unwilling to renegotiate gate percentages for “Raya,” insiders said, insisting on the same cut of ticket sales from theaters as for past theater-only blockbusters. By comparison, Warner Bros., which rankled theater owners by putting all of its 2021 films in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time, has offered theaters a much more generous cut of ticket sales. That has been a boon for cash-starved theaters, as “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Tom and Jerry” have become popular choices for private screenings.

Disney has remained tight-lipped about whether it will repeat it’s day-and-date theatrical/PVOD strategy for other big films, which include Marvel’s “Black Widow” on May 7 and Pixar’s “Luca” on June 18. But the wide-ranging approaches studios are taking on the theatrical window — from Universal’s deals with AMC and Cinemark to Paramount’s 45-day window on its tentpoles — shows what a wild ride the film industry is in even after the pandemic ends.

“It’s quite possible that we might not only see the theatrical window shift from studio to studio, but possibly film to film,” Dergarabedian said. “We could see a much more tailor-made strategy from studios on each film, and day-and-date or straight-to-PVOD or streaming might become a more popular option. It really is the Wild West out here right now.”

Jeremy Fuster