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No Hollywood ending in sight for nation's cinemas

by DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE PRESS SERVICES | March 12, 2021 at 1:52 a.m.
Last weekend’s biggest money-maker was Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which made about $8.6 million in the United States and Canada.

LOS ANGELES -- What awaits Hollywood on the other side of the pandemic?

As vaccines have rolled out around the world, many film executives and theater operators have been predicting -- hoping, praying -- that a huge surge of ticket buying awaits. They hope the masses, desperate to get out of their homes (and tired of watching television), will begin to pour into cinemas as soon as they feel safe from the coronavirus and big movies begin to repopulate the marquees.

It could happen.

But early box office results indicate a messier recovery, with moviegoer tastes potentially shifting -- particularly in China, now the No. 1 cinema market in the world -- and behind-the-scenes spats between studios and theaters crimping film availability. Some traditional studios have started to prioritize streaming, to push back from multiplex operators. "It's going to take some time for things to settle out," said David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a movie consultancy.

Over the past weekend, for instance, the Walt Disney Co. released "Raya and the Last Dragon," a rapturously reviewed animated adventure that cost an estimated $150 million to make. Featuring the vocal talents of Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina, "Raya and the Last Dragon" played in 2,045 theaters in North America, including some in New York, where state officials allowed chains including AMC to resume operations (at 25% capacity) for the first time in a year.

Disney is hoping to keep "Raya" in theaters throughout the spring. There are scant major family films on the schedule until early summer and the company is hoping for increased play during spring breaks and as more territories reopen.

Internationally, "Raya and the Last Dragon" earned an estimated $17.6 million from 32 territories -- the highest grossing of which was China with $8.4 million.

Would strong reviews and pent-up demand drive audiences to theaters?

Not really: Ticket sales for "Raya and the Last Dragon" in the United States and Canada only totaled $8.6 million, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. Gross characterized that result as "soft," even by pandemic standards. "Tom & Jerry: The Movie," a poorly reviewed offering from Warner Bros. that cost roughly $80 million to make, arrived in theaters Feb. 26 and collected $14 million over its first three days. Gross assessed the "Tom & Jerry" turnout as "very good" and "a positive sign for the business." The film brought in $6.6 million from 2,563 North American theaters in its second available weekend.

During the past year, as the pandemic has dragged on, Hollywood has pushed back the releases of dozens of films and rerouted others to streaming services. Studios have cited one primary reason: The No. 1 box office market in North America -- New York and its immediate suburbs -- has remained closed. The gradual reopening of cinemas in the area, which began last Friday, immediately emboldened studios, with Columbia speeding up the release of "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" and Paramount giving "A Quiet Place Part II" similar treatment.

"We're back!" the marquee at the IFC Center, a Manhattan art film complex, read on Saturday. Focus Features said that "Promising Young Woman," a revenge drama starring Carey Mulligan, performed particularly well in New York, selling out available seats at multiple theaters. "Boogie," another specialty release from Focus, found 20% of its audience in the area, with the AMC Empire in Times Square as its top location.

Cinemas in San Francisco also reopened last Friday, leaving the Los Angeles area as the only major U.S. market where theaters remain closed. About 80% of the theaters in North America are now able to operate.

Lionsgate's Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley action flick "Chaos Walking" debuted with $3.8 million. The future set film from "Edge of Tomorrow" director Doug Liman cost around $100 million to make.

Approximately 80% of the domestic market is currently allowed to operate with limited capacity. Many areas in North America are not yet fully open, including Los Angeles, and most California counties, Washington and much of Canada.

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