- “F9” debuted with $70 million domestically over the weekend, a pandemic-best opening.
- But it will likely be available to rent on premium video-on-demand services in about a month.
- It’s a clear sign that the typical theatrical window may be permanently shattered.
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“F9,” the ninth installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, hit North American theaters over the weekend after a year-long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The delay paid off.
“F9” earned $70 million in its debut weekend, a new pandemic-best opening. It’s so far made more than $400 million worldwide, including $217 million from the key market China, with more international markets to come.
Universal, the studio behind the “Fast Saga,” was the first studio to push back a major tentpole release last year. Others quickly followed, either delaying movies until this year, or pushing them to digital-rental or streaming platforms (or both).
“‘F9’ is being rewarded for its commitment to a ‘theatrical-first’ release that provides the benefits of ‘prestige and exclusivity’ that only a big screen-centric strategy can create,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the Comscore senior media analyst.
Universal’s decision to delay “F9” and give it an exclusive theatrical release was a show of commitment to movie theaters. The “Fast and Furious” franchise has grown into a global box-office behemoth; the previous two entries in the main saga, “Furious 7” and “The Fate of the Furious,” both grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
But “F9,” despite its early success, is also the biggest sign yet that the pandemic has permanently altered the US theatrical industry and Hollywood’s distribution practices.
Universal has reached agreements with the world’s three largest cinema chains — AMC Theatres, Cineworld (which owns Regal), and Cinemark — to drastically shorten the exclusive theatrical window, which was between 75 and 90 days before the pandemic.
Now under the agreements, Universal can choose to release a movie to premium video-on-demand (PVOD) platforms — such as iTunes or Amazon Prime Video — 31 days after the movie debuts in theaters if it opens to $50 million or more domestically, and after 17 days if it opens below $50 million (this also applies to AMC, according to a person familiar with the deal, which had previously been announced as only a 17-day window).
The person estimated that “F9” would hit PVOD after at least 35 days, giving it six weekends exclusively in theaters. New movies have typically been available to rent for $20 during the pandemic.
It will be Universal’s first major test of how a new global blockbuster will play on digital-rental services.
“An exclusive theatrical release creates an even higher level of interest — and thus revenue-generating horsepower — for these blockbusters once they hit the small screen,” Dergarabedian said.
But Jeff Bock, the Exhibitor Relations media analyst, argued that a movie “may lose momentum and pop culture relevance” between when it debuts in theaters and when it arrives on PVOD.
But no matter what happens, the long theatrical window seems to be a thing of the past.
Some studios have taken more drastic steps than Universal during the pandemic. Warner Bros. is releasing all of its movies this year simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service
. Disney has either released movies exclusively to Disney+ (Pixar’s “Luca”) or simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ for an additional $30 fee (the upcoming Marvel movie “Black Widow”).
But in the future, distribution strategies for theatrical releases are likely to look more like those of Universal or Paramount, which is releasing some of its biggest movies (such as “A Quiet Place Part II”) to its streamer Paramount+ 45 days after they hit theaters. Warner Bros. has struck a deal with Cineworld for a 45-day window beginning in 2022 (though it will still make some movies exclusively for HBO Max).
“Most films make the bulk of their money in the first 10 days of release,” Bock said.