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By Rebecca Rubin
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Would audiences pay to see a new movie on the big screen if they could watch the same title at home from the comfort of their couch? Prior to the pandemic, the response from theater operators and cinema purists would have been a resounding "no."
Yet Hollywood is finding that, at least while a plague of Biblical proportion rages, the answer is: sorta.
"The Little Things," a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek, topped domestic box office charts, debuting to $4.8 million from 2,171 venues in North America. At the same time, it was available to HBO Max subscribers for a monthly fee that's less than a single movie ticket in some parts of the country. "The Little Things" is one of 17 films from Warner Bros. that will premiere simultaneously in cinemas and on the HBO Max streaming service.
In normal times, those box office receipts would spell disaster. But today, it actually ranks as one of the stronger COVID-era opening weekends. HBO Max didn't report how many viewers opted to stream "The Little Things." However, Warner Bros. and its parent company WarnerMedia said the film "immediately shot up to No. 1" on HBO Max. It's unclear what that benchmark means.
"We are absolutely thrilled by how Warner Bros.' 'The Little Things' is performing on HBO Max -- it immediately shot up to number one, where it currently remains," said HBO Max executive VP and general manager Andy Forssell. "Following the breakthrough success of 'Wonder Woman 1984,' 'The Little Things' shows the insatiable appetite our audience has for high quality, feature films."
John Lee Hancock directed "The Little Things," which centers on two police officers trying to catch a serial killer. Overseas, where HBO Max is not yet available, "The Little Things" kicked off with $2.8 million from 18 countries. The R-rated action film had the strongest showing in Russia with $1.1 million in sales, followed by Saudi Arabia with $871,000.
Still, these are bleak times for movie theater operators. Any film exhibitors hoping that ticket sales could return to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 were stymied by another round of release date delays. Earlier in January, MGM postponed the James Bond sequel "No Time to Die" from April to October. That prompted rival studios to once again push their films scheduled for early 2021, such as "Morbius," "Ghostbusters Afterlife," "Cinderella," and "A Quiet Place Part II." It's also widely expected that Universal will delay "Fast & Furious" installment "F9" (set for May 28) and Disney may bump the Marvel adventure "Black Widow" (set for May 7), which would clear the film calendar until at least June. Should that come to pass, it would be devastating to those in the business of showing movies on the big screen. By summer, it'll have been over a year since theaters have operated at normal levels. Most U.S. venues have already gone 10 months without much -- if any -- revenue.
In some ways, the theatrical market is equally as impaired as it was last March when theaters were entirely closed. As of late January, around 65% of theaters remain shuttered and those that reopened have been running at limited capacity. It seems that conversations about reopening theaters in major markets like New York City and Los Angeles have been all but abandoned. A botched COVID-19 vaccine rollout, combined with new strains of the virus, have only further complicated plans to get people back to the movies.
Box office analysts predict the theatrical business will get back to normal in 2022. David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, says that timeline is based on "healthy demand for quality, reasonably priced, out-of-home entertainment."
"The vaccination process will pick up through the spring as the supply bottlenecks open up," Gross said. "The government will spend whatever it takes to make the vaccination campaign successful, including overcoming the new COVID variants."
Elsewhere at the domestic box office, Universal and DreamWorks Animation's "The Croods: A New Age" collected $1.84 million in its 10th week of release, enough for second place. Those ticket sales represent a 2% increase from last weekend, which is impressive because the animated family film has been available to rent on home entertainment for almost two months. It has made $43.9 million in North America. Overseas, "The Croods" sequel made $1.3 million, bringing it past the $100 million mark for a global total of $144.38 million.
"Wonder Woman 1984" came in third place with $1.3 million from 1,864 locations. The Warner Bros. superhero adaptation, which premiered concurrently on HBO Max, has brought in $39.2 million after six weeks in North American theaters. To illustrate how depreciated the box office is, the original "Wonder Woman" grossed $38 million in its first day in theaters in 2017. Internationally, "Wonder Woman 1984" added another $1.1 million, bringing box office receipts to $112.8 million overseas and $152 million globally.
Liam Neeson's action thriller "The Marksman" plunged to the No. 4 spot after leading the box office the last two weekends. It made $1.25 million in its third outing for a domestic tally of $7.8 million. The movie is currently playing in 2,018 theaters.
Rounding out the top five was Sony's "Monster Hunter" with $740,000 in its seventh week of release. The film, an adaptation of a popular video game, has generated $11.1 million to date.
At the indie box office, Bleecker Street's drama "Supernova" opened with $98,670 from 330 screens for a bleak $299 per-screen-average. Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth star in the emotional film about a longtime couple who find a way to cope after one is diagnosed with early onset dementia. It's gotten strong reviews (Variety's critic Guy Lodge called it "delicately heart-crushing"), yet the film's target audience of older adults is one that's been especially reluctant to return to the movies. In today's theatrical landscape, it's that much harder for movies from specialty studios to find their footing.
But, notes Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore, "with great reviews and an excellent cast, 'Supernova' should find favor over the long haul." And it'll help that indie films won't have notable competition in the coming weeks.