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Summer films were 'absolutely necessary.' What to know about moviegoing heading into an unstable fall

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

The summer movie season is usually a billion-dollar affair, and after last year’s pandemic-plundered effort, it could only go up from there, right? Right?

Well, let's dig into the good news first: Actual box-office hits were a thing again – led by “Black Widow” with a haul of $175.3 million and counting – and studios put big movies back into cinemas, which finally reopened after COVID-19 threatened the entire industry.

However, Hollywood’s feeling the growing pains of forced evolution: Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney for a breach of contract hints there’s a lot of legal wrangling that needs to happen between A-list stars and studios embracing streaming. And then there’s the matter of the highly contagious delta variant, which isn’t great for bolstering consumer confidence at the cinema and could jeopardize fall blockbusters.

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Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) gets her own solo Marvel movie with "Black Widow."

“We'd be hard-pressed to say we're in a 'normal' or stable box-office environment, but at least it's generating some numbers and people are excited about going to the movies,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.

With a stacked autumn on the way, kicking off with Marvel’s“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” over Labor Day Weekend, here’s what we’ve learned about pandemic moviegoing this summer:

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) deals with the return of his forsaken little brother and a plot that threatens the world in "F9."

Yes, the summer movie season was worth it

For theater chains, having major studio films to show the past few months was “absolutely necessary,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “I think a lot of chains would have shuttered and they would not have come back.” In addition to “Black Widow,” “F9” ($171.4 million) and “A Quiet Place Part II” ($159.5 million) scored as theater-only releases. Compared to pre-COVID-19 times, those numbers “would almost be a failure,” Bock adds. In a pandemic, though? “It’s a solid B. There's lots of room for improvement, but I think the industry will take it.”

These successes are also a reminder to studios of “how important theatrical distribution has always been for the greater ecosystem of the business,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Boxofficepro.com. There will still be “ebbs and flows” in the near future, “but the positives have outweighed the negatives.”

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Daniel Craig is James Bond in "No Time To Die," which has already been delayed multiple times due to COVID-19 and might be on the movie again thanks to the delta variant.

Be prepared for a very unpredictable fall

In the near future, movie fans are in for what amounts to a second summer season: There are two high-profile superhero films – “Shang-Chi” and the sequel “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (Oct. 15) – as well as the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” (Oct. 8), anticipated horror film “Halloween Kills” (Oct. 15) and sci-fi epic “Dune” (Oct. 22). Exactly how much of it stays on the calendar is “the wild card question,” Robbins says. “Variant concerns make everything a moving target in the short term.” 

Just this week, Tom Hardy's "Venom 2" was pushed a month due to the delta surge, and more changes could be on the horizon. Heading into the holidays is “a scary prospect because there’s so much uncertainty,” Bock adds. Films like “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (Nov. 11) and “Top Gun: Maverick” (Nov. 19) that bolted out of 2020 might be delayed again. Would Tom Cruise ever approve a “Top Gun” move to Paramount+? Studios will soon have to make a decision on using their streaming services, “depending on how these variants go and how deep they go into the holiday season.”

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But your favorite theaters should be OK for a while

The upcoming slate might be pretty cool but what if folks are worried about their favorite theaters surviving another round of closures or film delay? Big chains near you like AMC, Regal and Cinemark and theaters like Alamo Drafthouse have regained some financial stability, and if your favorite local cinema has reopened, chances are it'll stay that way at least for now: According to Comscore, 4,968 theaters are currently open – the largest number since the pandemic started.

Although theaters are "at the mercy of the ups and downs of the pandemic," Dergarabedian adds, "there is no question that people still have the desire to see appealing movies on the canvas of the big screen."

Kids under 12 who are not able to receive vaccinations yet "remains a hurdle for strictly family-driven movies in some major markets," Robbins says. He "cautiously" expects most cinema owners "to continue weathering the late stages of the pandemic so long as studios keep supplying a steady stream of new content and comfort levels among nationwide audiences remain significantly higher than they were last year."

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, far left), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) take the fight to a formidable enemy in "The Suicide Squad."

Hybrid streaming models are successful (to a point)

While having movies hit theaters first, especially big-budget blockbusters and buzzy indie movies, is still the “best strategy,” having a streaming option is “absolutely essential in today's world for any piece of content,” Dergarabedian says. Disney+ has found success with its Premier Access movies (theatrical releases available same-day at home for an extra $29.99 fee) with “Black Widow” scoring an extra $60 million opening weekend via streaming globally. “Jungle Cruise,” too, racked up an extra $30 million streaming its opening weekend (though saw less excitement at the box office with a $35 million domestic debut).

Warner Bros. releasing its movies simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max (with no extra fee for subscribers) saw less of a return but made at least some box office off high-profile films like “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and “The Suicide Squad.” They've also seemingly found a ceiling: None has an opening over $35 million.

Bock thinks Disney’s Premier Access template could continue past the summer, especially if the pandemic holds on, though Robbins argues that the hybrid strategy is “a temporary step" during the industry's recovery.

After facing tragedy in the first film, Evelyn (Emily Blunt) braves the unknown and tries to keep her kids safe in a landscape filled with monsters in the horror sequel "A Quiet Place Part II.”

You won't have to wait three months to watch big movies at home anymore 

In the Before Times, a 90-day window was the standard period between when a movie was released in theaters and when it came home via video-on-demand platforms and/or Blu-ray. During COVID-19 and in the future, “I don't know that we're going to ever see that again,” Dergarabedian says.

The pandemic era has forced a winnowing of those windows: For most big films that release in theaters, you'll have to wait a month and a half at most to watch them on your TV or favorite smart device. Starting in January, expect to see new movies at home from Paramount, Disney and Warner Bros. 45 days after they debut in theaters, while Universal films with a $50 million-plus opening will live in cinemas for at least 31 days.