With $13.2 Million, Black Widow Scores Biggest Thursday Night Preview of Pandemic Era

“Black Widow” (Disney), Marvel’s first theatrical film in over two years, began its domestic run Thursday night — showtimes began at 5:00pm — with a gross of $13.2 million.

This is nearly double “F9” (Universal), which took in $7.1 million from similar Thursday shows two weeks ago. It went on to gross $70 million for its initial weekend.

Under normal circumstances, initial evening shows for Marvel films are among the biggest for “previews.” (The grosses are folded into the Friday result for one number, but usually reported as initial estimates.) Nothing compares to “Avengers: Endgame” in April 2019. It took in $60 million, a record, on its way to $357 million for its first weekend.

That’s extreme. Better comparisons are to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” 2018’s mid-summer Marvel release. It did $11.5 million for its previews. “Captain Marvel” grossed $20.7 million on a March initial Thursday. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” had a $75 million weekend total; “Marvel” $153 million.

While under normal conditions Marvel previews are among the most attended (with a fan base intensity greater than most franchises, including the “Fast and Furious” films), don’t assume this guarantees “Black Widow” a weekend over $100 million. But the initial results show that it might not be impossible. By comparison, summer 2019 had three $100 million+ openings, the previous season four.

But it reinforces the sense that this should blow past the “F9” opening, with $90 million now a not unreasonable guess for the full weekend. And anywhere close would be another sign of improved results in theaters, though this could also be the high water mark for the summer.

How does one compare this total to different circumstances? The accepted position is that all grosses are less than they should be, with about 20 percent of theaters still closed, including a significant part of Canada still down. But those theaters that provide most of the grosses are nearly all open. Disney itself has said in the U.S., those that are open represent 95 percent of the potential audience.

And a reasonable argument can be made that “Black Widow” actually has headwinds aiding it, not depressing its gross. Why? As the first film from cinema’s #1 franchise in over two years, the pent-up interest (normally we would have had perhaps five releases since “Spider-Man: Far from Home”) by itself should propel it.

Then add the minimal competition (“F9” will be the only other film with a chance of grossing over $15 million this weekend), all the seats and showtimes at most locations it could want, mostly full capacity potential, and the door is open for a gross at least as good if not better than what it might have done — other than in Canada — before the pandemic.

The unknown X factors: the impact of its same-day via Disney+ Premium VOD availability at $29.99. “Cruella,” with a more likely to watch at home family audience, likely had a sizable impact on its theatrical opening ($22 million), though it has held on to reach $78 million.

Disney clearly craves those viewers. Not only do they need to be signed up to Disney+, but the studio recoups 100 percent of the rental, as opposed to a sizable but less share of the theatrical gross. An email sent to subscribers earlier this week pushed the ability to view previous Marvel films alongside “Black Widow” on the platform, but it led with this:

“Marvel Studios ‘Black Widow’ — Coming Friday with Premium Access (Additional Fee Required).”

Notice what is missing? Any reference to also playing in theaters.

That means that any reaction to this gross, and all that follows, has a big asterisk. How much difference did this make?

And there’s the quandary for theaters. The better “Widow” does in theaters, the greater the argument is that they can coexist with a hybrid release that includes high-priced same-day home rentals.


“Jungle Cruise”

Disney / screencap

Disney is doing this with “Jungle Cruise” later this month. Their next two — “Free Guy” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Two Rings” will be theater-exclusive, initially. The sense is the studio is testing the waters with various models (including their Disney+ at no extra charge exclusive for “Luca”) to see which works best for them. Do not assume that future top titles might not get a similar release to “Black Widow.” They have made no such commitment.

Whatever the ultimate gross (and what happens beyond the first weekend will be as or more important than its opening — “F9” so far is lagging behind the lower-opening “Hobbs and Shaw” on its second week dailies), no one film and its success can alone revive theaters. And even at its maximum potential, it comes with a long-term problem.

It is a franchise film, without an original identity. That makes it similar to most films released at the moment, and with few exceptions like “Nobody” (Universal) — which will do far more on PVOD than in theaters — relying on being familiar and a proven entity to work.

That is not a formula for sustaining the business. Even if franchises continue to rule (they have been crucial for decades, though never to this degree), new ones need to be created. That requires original ideas. And to sustain interest, particularly in older viewers, films that stand alone need to thrive.

A perverse argument might be that “Black Widow” exceeding all expectations and grossing as well or better than it would have in pre-COVID times might be bad for theaters, since what it reinforces is the “stick to the known and hope we don’t beat it to death” formula that reigns.

But theaters are so vulnerable at the moment that any such hope would be absurd. Their only hope — and it could work well enough to ensure most theaters survive — is that films like this keep on appealing as they have.

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