Sunday, March 19, 2023

Disney’s ‘Free Guy’ Is Playing Only in Theaters. Can That Help Ticket Sales?

Free Guy,” a sci-fi action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, is expected to finish first at the domestic box office.

The PG-13 film is on track to debut to $15 million and $18 million from 4,100 North American theaters, with some projections showing ticket sales could reach $20 million. A debut below $20 million would be disappointing, since the Disney and 20th Century Studio’s movie cost more than $100 million to produce. Internationally, “Free Guy” is premiering this weekend in most major overseas markets, excluding China, where it doesn’t have a release date yet.

The release of “Free Guy” is significant because it’s the first Disney film in about a year to have a traditional theatrical rollout. “Free Guy” will be available only in theaters for 45 days, halving the 90-day frame of big-screen exclusivity that was commonplace prior to COVID-19. These days, movie theater owners, who have been struggling during the pandemic, would take any period of exclusivity. Recent Disney movies, such as “Jungle Cruise,” “Cruella” and “Black Widow,” were offered on Disney Plus for a premium $30 fee on the same day as their respective theatrical debuts. Other Disney releases, like “Mulan” and Pixar’s “Luca,” skipped theaters entirely and landed directly on Disney Plus at no extra cost to subscribers.

Box office results for “Free Guy,” as well as the studio’s Marvel tentpole “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in early September, could carry considerable weight and dictate the way Disney releases its movies — at least for the foreseeable future. Back in May, Disney was intentional in saying only “Free Guy” and “Shang-Chi” would play in theaters for 45 days before transitioning to home viewing on VOD and streaming. The studio has been vague about whether upcoming high-profile movies — namely Marvel’s “Eternals” (Nov. 5), “West Side Story” (Dec. 10) and “The King’s Man” (Dec. 22) — will screen only in cinemas or day-and-date on Disney Plus.

“Flexibility is a key component of our distribution strategy,” Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek said at the time.

That’s a reality that movie theater owners will have to accept as the box office mounts a rocky revival. So far, films with some sort of exclusive theatrical window, such as “A Quiet Place Part II” ($159 million) and “F9” ($171 million), have seen stronger box office revenues compared to hybrid releases, like “Cruella” ($85 million) and “Space Jam: A New Legacy” ($62 million). Yet the highest-grossing movie of the year in North America is Disney’s “Black Widow” ($175 million), which premiered simultaneously on Disney Plus under its premium access banner.

Studios also have to keep in mind there’s still an ongoing public health crisis. As the country’s COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket due to the delta variant, studies have revealed a notable decline in consumer confidence in returning to the movies. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Research Group, 67% of moviegoers say they’re “very or somewhat comfortable” visiting their local multiplex — which is a dip of 3% compared to last week, and down 14% from one month ago. The international box office has been struggling as well, which could be bad news for big-budgeted films that rely on overseas grosses to turn a profit.

In “Free Guy,” Reynolds portrays a non-player character who works in the background of a popular video game as a bank teller. Through programmers Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery), Guy discovers he lives inside a fictional world and finds himself in a race against time to save the game before the developers shut it down. Critics have been fond of “Free Guy” (it has an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes), with Variety’s Peter Debruge calling it “a surprisingly original crowd-pleaser.” Shawn Levy, whose credits include “Stranger Things,” “Night at the Museum” and “Cheaper By the Dozen,” directed the film, which co-stars Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Taika Waititi.

Though it’s expected to easily top box office charts, “Free Guy” won’t be the only new addition to movie theater marquees. MGM is opening its Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” and Sony has horro thriller “Don’t Breathe 2.” Those films will compete against last weekend’s champ “The Suicide Squad,” which launched to $26 million and is tracking to earn another $10 million to $12 million in its sophomore outing.

“Dreamgirls” star Jennifer Hudson portrays the Queen of Soul in “Respect,” which is expected to collect around $10 million from 3,207 locations. That would be a softer start, given the film’s reported $55 million production budget. Recent musical biopics, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Judy” and “Rocketman,” have been commercial draws, yet older audiences have been more reluctant to visit their local multiplexes during the pandemic.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, “Respect” follows Aretha Franklin as a young girl in her father’s church choir on the road to becoming an international music superstar. In-between popularizing hits like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” Franklin had to endure an abusive marriage, the civil rights movement and constraints of the patriarchy. The cast includes Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald and Marc Maron.

“Respect” has gotten mixed feedback, with Variety calling it “flattering yet flat.” Hudson “looks and sounds great in the role, but this overly respectful biopic steers clear of revealing the traumas that shaped the soul legend,” Debruge wrote in his review.

“Don’t Breathe 2” is projected to earn $8 million to $12 million from 3,000 North American locations over the weekend. The film serves as a sequel to 2016’s “Don’t Breathe,” which opened to $26.4 million in pre-plague times. That film ended its box office run with $89 million in North America and $157 million worldwide on a $10 million budget.

Rodo Sayagues directed the R-rated “Don’t Breathe 2” and co-wrote the screenplay with Fede Alvarez. Starring Stephen Lang, the sequel takes place after  a deadly home invasion and sees Norman Nordstrom, a blind Army veteran, living in quiet solitude until his past sins catch up to him.

In limited release, Apple is unveiling “CODA,” a heartwarming drama about a teenager who is the only hearing member of her family. The movie, directed by Sian Heder and starring Marlee Matlin and Emilia Jones, premiered at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and sold to Apple for a record-setting $25 million. In addition to playing in select U.S. cinemas, “CODA” will debut simultaneously on Apple TV Plus.


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