Have you heard the news? Godzilla and King Kong have utterly decimated Hong Kong, unfortunately, but also they may have just brought the movie business back to life.
Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs. Kong opened in theaters nationwide last Wednesday, and though it also released simultaneously on HBO Max, that didn’t stop the blockbuster from putting up monster numbers. Through the end of Easter weekend, the tentpole brought in nearly $50 million, easily smashing the pandemic’s previous movie turnouts like they were a multistory apartment complex. So far, no other COVID-era release has surpassed even $25 million in overall first-weekend sales in the U.S., and just Raya and the Last Dragon, Wonder Woman 1984, and Tom & Jerry managed to hit $20 million.
The box office success first and foremost suggests that consumers are increasingly comfortable sitting in movie theaters after a year of social distancing. It also, more subtly, is a bit of a middle finger—albeit a very early and tentatively raised one—to the naysayers who said streaming would usurp theatergoing as the dominant method of movie consumption when Warner announced its simultaneous release strategy in December. While HBO Max said the film had a larger viewing audience than any movie or TV series it released since the service first launched last May (HBO Max did not release specific numbers), consumers appear to have spoken loud and clear: They want to go back to the movies.
“I think a big movie like this working should tell everyone if we are rational in how we release a title, there is an appetite for people to have a shared experience in theaters,” Joshua Grode, the CEO of Godzilla vs. Kong’s production company, Legendary Pictures, said of the results.
As some media analysts have maintained as the streaming age took hold in recent years, at-home viewing and theatergoing can exist concurrently, if not symbiotically. Godzilla vs. Kong’s dominance on both platforms is a great reminder of that, though, of course, a better evaluation will come once society is completely reopened and the choice is based on leisure and convenience rather than safety.
Still, industry observers had been talking up Godzilla vs. Kong—a film so brash and bold that it almost demands to be seen on the big screen—as the first true stress test of the theater industry’s recovery. The stakes became even higher once it was announced that both New York City and Los Angeles’s theaters would reopen in time for the blockbuster’s release date. (The two metro areas alone account for more than 16 percent of domestic box office sales.) And even though theaters in those two markets are currently limited to 25 percent capacity, Los Angeles and New York were the top-grossing areas for Godzilla vs. Kong, with almost 8 percent and 6 percent of the box office, respectively, according to Comscore.
“Without these two major entertainment hubs back online, we wouldn’t see those [box office] numbers,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “Godzilla vs. Kong hit the sweet spot of the big cities being reopened, and the vaccination rollout instilling consumer confidence to the point where those who had the option to see it at home opted in to the movie theater experience.
“This is why studios have been waiting for those two cities to come back,” he added. “It’d be a tougher sell to be convinced to release a huge blockbuster if New York and Los Angeles weren’t available. It’s not just about consumer confidence, it’s about studio confidence.” And increased studio confidence means that a slew of other buzzy titles planned for this summer—Black Widow, Fast 9, A Quiet Place 2, Top Gun: Maverick—likely won’t have to be pushed back any further.
However, while Godzilla vs. Kong might’ve just defibrillated the movie business, there’s a long way to go before it’s totally off life support. For now, $50 million is fantastic; in normal times it’d be pretty mediocre considering the film cost $160 million to produce. And while GvK seems to prove that big-budget blockbusters still have a place in theaters, the fate of less, quite literally, explosive titles in cinemas is still less clear. As with many facets of our lives, some things post-COVID will never be the same.
Still, with vaccinations increasing daily and more and more theaters returning to business, studio executives and consumers alike can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And unlike the fictional universe of Godzilla vs. Kong, there’s reason to be hopeful it won’t be crushed into a blackened rubble.