Venom: Let There Be Carnage just had the biggest opening weekend at the domestic box office in 2021 with $90 million, showing what a true box office success looks like in the post-pandemic era. While there’s been a number of moderate box office hits, there’s been even more misses and even the year’s biggest movies are a bit of a letdown when compared to pre-pandemic box office trends.
COVID-19 decimated theaters in 2020, and while 2021 has seen a big comeback, it’s hasn’t been to the level Hollywood and theaters need for long-term survival. Even the year’s biggest franchise blockbusters grossed less than their predecessors and some haven’t even made their budget back. As the box office continues to recover, it’s not yet clear what the new normal should even look like.
Meanwhile, Venom: Let Their Be Carnage not only improved on the pre-pandemic domestic box office opening of the original Venom but also surpassed the opening weekend box office of every other 2021 blockbuster, doing so with a much smaller budget than its immediate competition, showing Hollywood the kind of movies that will have the best odds of turning a profit going forward.
The COVID-19 Pandemiic Changed the Box Office
Ticket sales were already trending downward for nearly 20 years before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the arrival of coronavirus accelerated the inevitable. The 2020 box office was almost non-existent, and while things were trending back in 2021, even the year’s biggest hits would have been considered a letdown just a few years earlier. F9 is the year’s biggest box office hit so far with $716 million worldwide, which more than covers its budget of over $200 million, although it’s still a significant step down for the franchise, as Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious both grossed well north of $1 billion.
Meanwhile, the next highest-grossing movies, Godzilla vs Kong and the Marvel movies, Black Widow and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are far less certain when it comes to their financial success. Black Widow‘s global box office figures come in well under the $400 million budget ($200 million) x2 break-even rule of thumb to account for marketing and other expenses, while Shang Chi and Godzilla vs Kong‘s lower budgets suggest they managed to eke out a small profit, but as the year’s top performers, it’s hardly a box office high-water mark to be proud of.
This trend shouldn’t be expected to change drastically any time soon, either. Many movies are opening simultaneously in theaters and on streaming, and shorter exclusive windows for the ones that do, even a recovered box office can only be expected to continue the downward trend in ticket sales theaters were seeing for two decades before the pandemic.
The Post-Pandemic Box Office Isn’t Enough For Pre-Pandemic Budgets
Part of the problem is the fact that all the movies releasing in 2021 were budgeted assuming a much stronger release market. With every Marvel movie in 2019 clearing $1 billion (a feat accomplished by nine total movies in 2019), 2021’s top movies were budgeted assuming that kind of return on investment was still possible. Most Marvel movies are made for around $200 million, and they’ve all justified that expense prior to Black Widow. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings lucked out, as it was budgeted notably lower at an estimated $150 million, otherwise, it would be in the same boat as Black Widow.
Looking outside the year’s biggest performers, there’s a number of big box office questions, like The Suicide Squad, which was budgeted at $185 million and has only grossed $167 million worldwide, or Jungle Cruise, which was budgeted at $200 million but has only earned $210 million worldwide. The Suicide Squad also saw success on HBO Max, which helps alleviate its underperformance at the box office but is still a glaring example of just how risky a budget of that size can be in this new environment.
Venom Proves Theatrical Exclusivity Can Still Be Profitable
There’s been a number of big box office wins from lower budget movies, particularly A Quiet Place Part II, Candyman, and other horror movies, but of the handful of blockbusters to see $70 million or better opening weekends domestically, Venom: Let There Be Carnage stands alone as an unquestioned success in multiple categories. First, it’s the biggest opening of the year at over $90 million. Second, its budget is lower than the top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2021, other than A Quiet Place Part II. Third, it’s the only franchise movie in 2021 to open higher than its predecessor.
Altogether, these factors make Venom: Let There Be Carnage the only unquestionable box office success in 2021 that doesn’t require an asterisk, other than Free Guy, which, despite a lower opening, seen impressive legs take it to $321 million worldwide on a budget of $100-125 million. While that certainly makes it a success, its low opening weekend and lack of previous entries make it hard to know how it would have performed if it weren’t for the pandemic.
Regardless, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the only 2021 movie producing the kinds of box office numbers we would have expected pre-pandemic, showing the right kind of movie can still see real success at the box office. While the genre and style are surely drastically different from Christopher Nolan’s next movie, the lower budget (for a blockbuster) and theatrical exclusivity lend credence to his negotiated release strategy with Universal. Of course, assuming this kind of performance continues, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is still a step down from the kind of numbers we would have expected from the year’s biggest movie in the past, but, for a new normal, the combination of its budget and box office proves a path forward for the financial viability of theatrical experience.
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