As Moviegoing Returns, Will Hollywood Studios Continue to Hide Box Office Grosses?

Rebecca Rubin
·7-min read

On the heels of opening weekend for “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Warner Bros., which distributed the film, celebrated its $48.5 million debut, the biggest showing in the coronavirus era. In a note to press, the studio cheered itself on with an all-caps message: “BIG MOVIES ARE BACK WITH OUR KAIJU-SIZED OPENING!”

The tone was markedly different than the one that greeted the media last September following the release of the studio’s confounding sci-fi thriller “Tenet.” That film, the first major tentpole to premiere theatrically since the pandemic began, generated $20 million in its first five days. “There is literally no context in which to compare the results of a film opening during a pandemic with any other circumstance,” the studio said in an email. “We are in unprecedented territory, so any comparisons to the pre-COVID world would be inequitable and baseless.”

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For “Tenet,” Warner Bros. was initially opaque about the film’s box office performance, breaking longstanding industry tradition and angering competitors and box office analysts. When coronavirus struck, however, it wasn’t just Warner Bros. who attempted to safeguard information and control the narrative around a movie’s commercial prospects.

Other studios were quick to follow suit, leaving those who closely track the industry to fear that traditional Hollywood companies could travel the path of streaming services such. Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example, tout baseless viewership metrics for what they deem as their hit titles and avoid the kind of scrutiny that comes with reporting box office data. That’s not to say spinning theatrical revenues isn’t its own long-practiced art form, one that involves finding ways to lower a film’s budget or tout pre-sold foreign territories to make an easier path for profitability. But until COVID-19 forced cinemas to close, studios had always been open with the actual quantity of movie tickets sold.

As theaters began to reopen last September, Sony also started to be selective with the information it shares on opening weekend. With its recent releases, including “The Broken Hearts Gallery” and “The Unholy,” the studio has stonewalled initial revenues and holding until Sunday to send notes to the press. It’s also waiting until a movie’s second weekend to release more comprehensive data, such as city-by-city or theater-by-theater grosses. That information is circulated among distribution executives on the research platform Rentrak, which is owned by Comscore. It’s a service that Hollywood studios pay large sums of money to gain access.

Other major studios, such as Universal Pictures and its specialty label Focus Features, as well as Disney, have continued to document numbers in a traditional manner during the pandemic. Paramount Pictures hasn’t released any movies in a standard theatrical fashion in the past 12 months, but the company plans to report grosses for “A Quiet Place Part II” on May 28.

For indie studios, box office reporting has been mixed. Companies including IFC Films, 101 Studios, and Solstice Studios, have remained transparent. However, Searchlight Pictures, which is owned by Disney, wasn’t originally forthcoming with revenues for Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-frontrunner “Nomadland,” which played in more than 1,100 theaters. Likewise, indie distributor A24 was quiet with opening weekend ticket sales for Lee Isaac Chung’s drama “Minari,” another Academy Award hopeful. And Neon didn’t share figures for “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” a documentary about the pop star that debuted simultaneously on Apple TV Plus.

In the period of time since “Tenet,” traditional studios have experimented with all kinds of release models as movie theaters across the country, notably in major markets like New York City and Los Angeles, have started to welcome back customers. And while there have been drastically fewer new movies in the past eight months — 175 movies were released between September 2020 and April 2021, while 533 movies were released between September 2018 and April 2019, according to Comscore — Hollywood has been able to get a better sense of the larger picture of moviegoing in the vaccine era.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” marked what appears to be a return to form. Warner Bros. began to report box office revenues on Thursday April 1, the morning after the film opened on Wednesday March 31, rather than waiting until Sunday for a more robust total. It set a single-day record for pandemic times, generating $9.6 million in the U.S. The studio continued to detail daily numbers to the press, as well as allowing competitors to have access to detailed grosses through the weekend.

Studios have no obligation to publicly unveil box office information in real time. Yet as moviegoing continues to recover, executives and box office analysts have questioned whether or not Hollywood players will return to the traditional method of reporting box office tallies — or if studios will choose to cherry pick the type of data they want to disclose. After all, it’s exciting to tout a win like “Godzilla vs. Kong.” But what happens if ticket sales aren’t as strong for the studio’s next big-budget blockbuster hopeful, “Mortal Kombat,” which is opening on April 23? And even if Warner Bros. does continue to share stats, will its fellow studios comply as well?

Revealing grosses is only part of what people in the entertainment industry are interested in seeing. Distribution executives want their studio counterparts to divulge very granular levels of data behind the numbers, going beyond the splashy opening weekend figure that’s featured in headlines and across internal memos.

Some studios believe it should be up to the individual company to interpret and position the information. They can distribute overall weekend tallies on Sundays but insist it’s not necessary to expose the minutia of grosses for individual theaters in Pensacola, Fla. or Springfield, Miss.

Others disagree. That’s precisely the kind of data that is essential in the complex craft of distributing movies, they maintain. Seeing how films are performing in different parts of the country can help studios determine whether or not to release a big title, particularly at a time when COVID has changed the game.

Pandemic notwithstanding, a film’s performance in a particular venue would determine how long it will play on the big screen. For theater operators, the goal is to strategically allocate screens to maximize their revenues. For studio executives, the name of the game is keeping their film on movie theater marquees for as long as possible.

It’s not always cut and dried. There’s a deep-rooted, unspoken bartering system in place that allows distribution executives the opportunity to fight for their movie to play on as many screens as possible. Executives can leverage a dud with the promise of more access to an upcoming potential blockbuster. In other words, it’s the business equivalent of “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” It becomes trickier to negotiate if they don’t have access to ticket sales for its peers.

Privately, the Hollywood studios that have continued to play ball despite the impaired marketplace have lamented the ambiguity and see little reason to continue reveal grosses to the companies that aren’t complying with industry standards.

The lack of transparency from some companies comes at a time of massive change for the movie business. Theatrical windows have been amended, likely for the long-term, while simultaneously releases on digital platforms have been accepted as commonplace rather than exceptions. There’s a chance that the pandemic hasn’t just changed the way movies are distributed. Depending on how the moviegoing revival shakes out, it could be altering the way that studios approach transparency, as well.

Nobody wants to air their dirty laundry in public. COVID-19 may have given movie companies a chance to hide their flops, while still celebrating their success stories.

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