Movie Theater Comeback Halted by Delta Variant

“Fast and Furious” franchise film “F9” and “Black Widow” by Marvel Studios showed promising box office results earlier this summer. But second-week box office numbers dipped. Some studios still opt to release in theaters and on streaming platforms together, as they did with these movies.

Recently, CinemaCon returned to a scaled-back event in Las Vegas. CinemaCon is the yearly gathering of movie studios and theater owners at Caesar’s Palace. Movie studios get to show trailers of next year’s upcoming film releases. This year no big stars and few studio executives showed up, because of the rising COVID-19 rate. Some called for the event to be canceled altogether.

Theater bosses are concerned. After a brief resurgence, once again they are losing revenue with low tickets sales. Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney for cheating her out of box office bonuses for “Black Widow.” Showing the film in theaters and on Disney+ cut into her profits.

But since the Delta variant drove the COVID-19 numbers back up, the National Research Group says that only 66 percent of Americans trust going to a movie theater right now. That’s down from 80 percent in July. Movie firm Franchise Entertainment Research projects the domestic box office will total $1.534 billion over Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. That’s down more than 50 percent from the same time last year. The year-to-date box office is down 74 percent from two years ago.

Renard Williams loves action movies and used to love going to the movies with his wife. He hasn’t been to a movie theater since before the pandemic. And he has no intention of going anytime soon, either. “I got COVID-19 last year. It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through. And I’m vaccinated now, but I don’t trust being in a theater for two hours with strangers.” He says he’s fine watching movies at home and thinks this is the new norm. “I honestly don’t see things ever getting back to how they were before. I think people like the option. They will expect to be able to see these movies at home from now on.”

He may be right about that. Some studios have agreed to a 45-day box office window before streaming. Others believe the landscape has already changed. The streaming revenue has helped recoup losses from the shutdown.

Warner Brothers has already scheduled to send half its 2022 film slate directly to HBO Max with no theatrical release at all. More studios are expected to follow. On the bright side, “Free Guy” delivered solid second-weekend grosses. And “Paw Patrol” generated more box-office receipts than expected, despite its being streamed on Paramount+.

Walt Disney Company’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will be the next test. It’s Marvel’s first superhero film with a mostly Asian cast. If it does well for two or three weekends in a row, it may suggest the downturn is only temporary. That’s certainly the result theater owners are hoping for.