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With King Kong, a little swagger returns to the box office

                                A scene from “Godzilla vs. Kong.”
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A scene from “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

NEW YORK >> Once again, mayhem and mass destruction is back at the box office. It’s almost like old times.

“Godzilla vs. Kong,” one of the few tentpoles to dare release during COVID times, is poised this weekend to set a new high in ticket sales during the pandemic. It won’t be the kind of blockbuster business such a big-budget release would typically manage, but experts forecast a launch of at least $25 million.

Opening-day ticket sales on Wednesday for “Godzilla vs. Kong” totaled $9.6 million, Warner Bros. said today — a single-day pandemic record and more than most 2020-2021 opening weekend hauls. Last weekend, the monster mash pulled in an impressive $123.1 million internationally. In China, where moviegoing is close to pre-pandemic levels, the movie made about $70 million, double the debut of 2014’s “Godzilla.”

For the first time in a long time, there’s the faint hint of a hit at the box office.

“It’s a good omen that the tastes of the consumer have not shifted so much that there’s no possibility of restarting the movie business,” says Joshua Grode, chief executive of Legendary Entertainment, which produced “Godzilla vs. Kong.” “This tells everybody: the moviegoing business is here, and, yes, it may be different post-pandemic. But there is a viable industry there.”

Huge challenges remain to the revival of moviegoing. With so many cinemas shuttered for nearly an entire year, many moviegoers are out of the habit. Some are unlikely to return to sitting indoors with strangers until they’re vaccinated or the pandemic has ebbed. And even those who have been convinced of the safety of moviegoing by theaters’ health protocols, they now have only more in-home options. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is streaming simultaneously on HBO Max in North America.

But few scream big screen as much as King Kong and Godzilla. To help kickstart moviegoing and bring back a little chest-thumping swagger to theaters, the industry is counting on two of the movies’ most iconic, long-running leviathans. Laying another metropolis to waste might help movie theaters build themselves back up.

“The issue is less convincing consumers to go to the movies than it is convincing studios to open their movies,” says Rich Gelfond, IMAX’S chief executive. “There’s been a hesitancy on the part of Hollywood studios to release movies because they haven’t been convinced the demand is there. What I really hope this weekend shows is that there is a lot of demand there and it convinces them to open a lot of movies that have been sitting on the shelf.”

Since the launch of “Tenet” fizzled last August, and virus cases soared, most studios have been postponing or rerouting their biggest releases to streaming services. But as vaccinations have ramped up and restrictions have eased, more theaters have opened. About 60% of theaters will be open this weekend, according to data firm Comscore. On Monday, Los Angeles County will expand cinema capacity from 25% to 50%. For the first time since last winter, wide release will mean playing in more than 3,000 theaters. That’s still about 1,200 shy of typical for a title like “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

Recently, ticket sales, while still far below their usual levels, are ticking upward. The best debut of 2021 was “Tom & Jerry,” with $13.7 million in late February. The pandemic-high belongs to “Wonder Woman 1984,” which launched with $16.7 million in December. Each were Warner Bros. releases that landed simultaneously on HBO Max — a once controversial release plan that has helped theaters stay afloat and proved an interesting test case for how viewers prefer to see, and pay for, a movie.

Nevertheless, the Walt Disney Co. recently delayed the planned summer-kickoff of “Black Widow” to July, while pushing a number of titles to its streaming platform, Disney+. Part of what’s holding blockbusters back is the need for a global release to make back their sizable production budgets and marketing spend. (“Godzilla vs. Kong” cost about $160 million to make.) While moviegoing in much of Asia is rejuvenated, rising cases in Europe and in countries like Brazil have, for now, made a full worldwide rollout impossible.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, believes “Godzilla vs. Kong” will be “another building block in our education in where the industry is heading.”

“The theatrical experience will prove to be viable and resilient as it always has,” says Dergarabedian. “But it’s going to be a different world, no question. I think it’s going to be a leaner, meaner business going forward.”

Some of the old standard practices that have governed blockbusters aren’t coming back. Studios like Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures have made deals to shorten exclusive theatrical windows. Warner Bros. next year will hold movies in theaters for a minimum of 45 days, or half of the traditional window, before moving releases to at-home platforms. Such new models mean a recalibrating of what movies get greenlit and how much they’re worth.

“The value of those streaming/pay-TV rights are more valuable now because you’re getting access to them much, much earlier than you did before,” says Grode. “So you kind of have to rerun your model of how the movie is going to perform over its lifetime.”

It’s also meant some tense negotiations over profit participation. When Warner Bros. surprised with its hybrid release plans for 2021, Legendary — whose highly anticipated “Dune” is to be released in the fall by Warner Bros. — considered legal action before arriving at an agreement.

“We obviously didn’t like the way they announced what they were doing in 2021, and I think they would admit they didn’t handle it perfectly,” says Grode. “But when you look at the state of the world, the facts as we all knew them at the time, their decision made a lot of sense.”

“You get over that pretty quickly and you get back to business,” he added.

Helping theaters get back to business, Gelfond believes, are large-format screens “that differentiate the couch as much as they can.” IMAX accounted for 14% of the Chinese box office for “Godzilla vs. Kong.” This weekend, the film will be playing on 1,170 IMAX screens worldwide. Showings in New York and Los Angeles, Gelfond said, are already sold out, albeit at lower capacity.

The box office might not quite roar again this weekend, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” may show it has a little bite left. Says Grode: “In years from now, when people write about coming back to the movies, I’m very proud that ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ will be in that history.”

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