American movie theaters roared back to life over the Memorial Day weekend as some consumers returned to pre-Covid-19 rituals, raising hopes that cinema chains can stage a comeback after a brutal year.
But while holiday box office receipts brought relief to studio executives and bolstered the country's slow but steady economic recovery, Hollywood still faces a stark question: Do movie theaters have a future, or was the weekend rebound just a blip?
Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures, struck an optimistic note: "I see it as a ramping back up.
"We always knew that coming out of the pandemic would be more of a gradual ramp as opposed to a light switch going," Goldstein added. "There's definitely an interest in finding the new post-pandemic normal, whatever that is."
But he acknowledged that movie theaters have been on a rocky financial road: "You can't close a business down from anywhere from six months to a year and not have any income without it having a lasting effect."
If movie studios want to keep business humming, they will need to find ways to turn the big-picture experience into an irresistible proposition.
The combined North American box office fetched $97 million over the four-day weekend, according to data from the media measurement firm Comscore. "A Quiet Place Part II," John Krasinski's long-delayed horror sequel, grossed $57 million.
Disney's "Cruella," meanwhile, raked in about $26.5 million over the four-day period — a respectable gross, given that viewers could rent the "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" prequel on the Disney+ streaming service the same day it debuted in brick-and-mortar theaters.
In total, the North American box office could climb above $100 million over the holiday weekend, according to Comscore. It's the strongest overall performance since March 2020, when Covid-19 forced the vast majority of theaters to close their doors and viewers retreated inside their homes.
"It does signal the return of robust theatergoing, and it is a major step in the recovery of the $40B+ global box office business," Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Paramount Pictures, the studio that distributed both chapters in the "A Quiet Place" series, said by text message.
The success of the follow-up to "A Quiet Place" follows strong returns for the biggest hit of the year to date: Warner Bros.' "Godzilla vs. Kong," which pulled in just over $30 million during its opening weekend in March and has gone on to gross nearly $100 million domestically.
Seventy-five percent of theaters that were open in 2019 are back in business, Comscore said, and the number could rise as the pandemic eases and more people are vaccinated.
The summer calendar is also stocked with potential blockbusters, such as the musical "In the Heights," the ninth installment in the "Fast & Furious" franchise and Marvel's "Black Widow." ("Fast and Furious" films are distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)
But the film exhibition business still faces significant economic headwinds and a revolution in consumption habits that threaten the survival of the big-screen experience.
The pandemic-era shutdowns put many chains in dire financial straits. The California-based chain Pacific Theatres, for example, has said it will not reopen any of its locations, including the popular ArcLight Cinemas in the heart of Hollywood.
The weekend revenues were also far off from totals over the same period in 2019, when Disney's live-action remake of "Aladdin" led the U.S. box office with more than $116 million in ticket sales, according to the Amazon-owned website Box Office Mojo.
"In a normal marketplace at this time of year, you would have 1,600 more theaters open, so I think capacity and availability remain big challenges," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.
Meanwhile, many consumers have grown even more accustomed to streaming movies from the comfort of their living rooms, conditioned by months of lockdown and enticed by the flexibility of on-demand viewing.
Dergarabedian said that if studios and theaters want to keep business humming, they will need to find ways to turn the big-picture experience into an irresistible proposition long after the novelty of returning to normalcy has worn off.
At least some of the major movie studios have tried to adapt to the shifting landscape, making new releases available to stream at home far sooner than they did in years past. (In the pre-pandemic days, most films needed to play in theaters for an exclusive 90-day window.)
Warner Bros. Pictures decided to release all of its 2021 films, including "In the Heights," simultaneously in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service.
"A Quiet Place II" will land on the Paramount+ platform after just 45 days on the traditional big screen, potentially attracting new subscribers to one of the more recent entries in the fiercely competitive streaming market.