As COVID-19 has turned Hollywood upside down, leading to new levels of disruption-seeking, what constitutes “radical” thinking seems to have no ceiling. Most notably, WarnerMedia decided to throw its entire 2021 slate onto HBO Max (alongside their theatrical release), a move that precipitated the $43 billion spin-off of WarnerMedia with Discovery last week. Other studios may be less audacious, but every studio in town is treating movie releases like advanced calculus, hauling in the analysts and Harvard MBAs to try to divine the best strategy to launch their precious, $200 million pieces of intellectual property out into the COVID-tattered world. Generally, the answer lies in a tepid solution—a hybrid of streaming and theatrical—that attempts to cut losses but, at least this far along in the pandemic, tends to give some kind of a boost to new streaming services.
Given this environment, Universal’s decision to release F9 in theaters only last weekend—with no streaming option—is perhaps the most radical move of all. Yes, that’s right: putting a movie in a theater where people can sit in a socially distanced way to eat their popcorn and enjoy the show is suddenly the new vanguard.
Even bolder: The “wild” experiment worked. Last weekend, the latest in the Vin Diesel-fueled action franchise racked up $162 million in foreign markets including China, Korea, and Hong Kong, a number that is not that far off from “normal” box-office figures in those areas for a Fast and Furious film. This makes it not only a COVID-19 anomaly, but the first and biggest sign yet that studios can start nudging the MBAs toward the door and start to re-embrace the good ol’ fashioned but still proven box-office model. (It’s also a signal that movie theaters need not throw in the towel just yet.)
F9 doesn’t arrive in U.S. theaters until June 25, and there are many more territories to go, including pandemic hot spots such as India and Brazil, before a total victory can be proclaimed. But the movie’s strong start has everyone in Hollywood paying attention. “It shows you can restart the engine,” said one studio marketer. “If you do it right and have the right content, people will come back.”
Therein lies the asterisk: “doing it right.” Sure, F9 has a 20-year legacy of fandom, and yes, the pandemic is finally cooling off in certain parts of the world, such as China, making moviegoing a more feasible proposition. But a certain tip of the hat must be given to Universal for playing a steady game as opposed to trying to break things for the sake of breaking things, and for being in lockstep with its creatives from the very beginning. (The aftermath of creators’ wrath lives on months after WarnerMedia’s decision to debut 2021 films on HBO Max along with a theatrical release.) As director Justin Lin told Deadline: “Last March when we shut down, we didn’t know what was going to happen. But personally, I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re going to share this on streaming first.’ You know, when we started making these films, part of the fun is for people to go to theaters with their friends, and laugh and cheer together. But I have to say, [in] all the conversations I had with Vin and with Universal, we were all in line.
“It was just very gratifying to know that, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it. If we have to wait, we’re going to wait. But we’re going to do it safe and we’re going to do it at the right time.'” (F9 was pushed three times from its original release date of May 22, 2020.)
F9 also has clear running and isn’t competing with any other big films in theaters—Godzilla vs. Kong ultimately split grosses with Mortal Kombat.
[Photo: Universal Pictures]
Universal hasn’t shied away from experimenting with streaming. In fact, it was early to that game, putting films like Trolls World Tour directly on premium video-on-demand platforms early on in the pandemic. But it has kept its crown jewels out of the hybrid game—Minions 2 is being pushed another full year to next summer in order to give it maximum box-office potential—and stayed true to its North Star, resisting the trend to launch major franchises on its sibling streaming service, Peacock, in the name of what Wall Street and digital futurists believe is the one and only Future. Indeed, even without much help from Universal’s movie arm, Peacock has racked up 44 million subscribers compared to HBO Max’s 42 million, despite the fact that the latter is home to every single Warner Bros. film release this year.
The COVID-survival game is hardly over in Hollywood, but this week at least, Universal has pulled ahead.