We can debate whether Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or Malignant counted as “summer releases” in this most unusual of summers. I think we can all agree that Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho and Gerard Butler’s Cop Shop are Fall flicks, while the first mainstream Oscar season flick (Jessica Chastain’s The Eyes of Tammy Fey) opens in 450 theaters this morning. Summer 2021 is over, which means we can take stock of what did and didn’t happen at the box office. So, just for fun, I wanted to run down the biggest “winners” and “losers” of summer 2021 on a movie-by-movie basis, with the obvious caveat that the choices will hopefully highlight macro trends (horror movies, safe franchises and theatrical windows = good) via micro results (like F9 becoming the leggiest non-spin off Fast Saga flick since 2 Fast 2 Furious).
The overall domestic summer box office netted $1.935 billion, which is about half what summer 2019 ($4.067 billion) and 2018 ($4.1 billion) pulled in. And, yes, a big part of that was due to the comparatively smaller-scale releases offered up as studios mostly played it safe with their safest franchises. If the likes of Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Minions: The Rise of Gru stuck around, we may have seen a cumulative total closer to $4 billion (or even $3 billion if we’re being fair) than $2 billion. However, no judgment on that score, save for side eye at folks wondering why box office wasn’t returning to normal in a summer anchored by Snake Eyes and Space Jam 2. Aside from the horror movies, the franchise titles offered in summer 2021 were mostly (but not entirely) less commercially surefire offerings. And now…
Winner: Wrath of Man
Much of the summer conversation centered on the notion that the post-pandemic theatrical industry would be what I’ve feared since 2016, namely that the biggest, safest, most “immersive,” IMAX-friendly franchise flicks (Jurassic World, Marvel, Fantastic Beasts, etc.) going to theaters while everything else (save for year-end Oscar flicks) going to VOD or streaming. However, the summer’s biggest exception to the rule was Guy Ritchie’s brutal and hyperviolent actioner, Wrath of Man. The R-rated, non-franchise Jason Statham thriller, starring Statham as a mysterious armored car driver with a knack for killing truck hijackers, quietly grossed $27.4 million domestic from an $8 million debut and legged out to $103 million worldwide, including $25.5 million in China. That’s not a barn-burner, but it’s one of the biggest sums ever for a solo Statham actioner, behind only Transporter 3 ($109 million in 2008) and Mechanic: Resurrection ($126 million in 2016).
Winner: Quiet Place 2, Conjuring 3, Old and almost every horror movie
The theaters were kept afloat by both a few surefire tentpoles and a deluge of low-cost, low-risk horror franchise titles. A Quiet Place part II earned 90% of its predecessor’s $188 million domestic/$341 million global gross. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It crossed $200 million and quintupled its $39 million budget while pushing the Conjuring Universe over $2 billion. M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, which got a “normal” theatrical window, earned real “see it to believe it” buzz and $90 million worldwide on an $18 million budget. Candyman may have been bigger had it opened in a non-Covid world in June of 2020, but around $65 million worldwide so far for a well-received $25 million chiller is just fine on a Covid Curve. While they earned a lot less than their predecessors, The Forever Purge ($77 million on a $25 million budget), Don’t Breathe 2 ($45 million/$10 million) and Escape Room 2 ($45 million/$15 million) justified their expense.
Well, obviously. The Universal action sequel positioned itself as a variation on what Tenet tried to do last year, namely in being a huge surefire blockbuster that would open the doors for others to follow in its footsteps and metaphorically announce that “the big screen is back.” Alas, F9’s rousing performance was undercut by a surge in Delta variant infections right as Hollywood was offering up franchise-specific tentpoles again. Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious 9 still earned $173 million domestic (on par with Hobbs & Shaw), $216 million in (a mostly recovered at the time) China and $714 million worldwide. That’s closer to Transformers: The Last Knight ($604 million) than Fate of the Furious ($1.236 billion), but Vin Diesel and family took one for the team. Moreover, the film’s domestic legs (the best post-debut multiplier for a non-spin-off since 2 Fast 2 Furious) showed that the film could do about as well as expected even with a 31-day window.
Winner: Free Guy
The narratives behind Cruella ($225 million on a $100 million budget with a sequel in development) and Jungle Cruise ($200 million/$200 million, with Jungle Cruise 2 allegedly in development) are complicated by the Disney+ Premier Access availability. The Dwayne Johnson/Emily Blunt adventure comedy legged out to a decent $110 million domestic cume and either did well enough on Disney+ to warrant a sequel or got a sequel because Disney wanted to create the perception of success. Ditto Emma Stone’s relatively well-liked (and very leggy for a Memorial Day weekend release) origin story/prequel/reboot for the 101 Dalmatians baddie. But the “narrative” behind 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy, Disney’s first big-budget “only in theaters” release since the pandemic, is a lot simpler. The well-reviewed and well-liked video-game comic adventure has earned $103 million domestic from an overperforming $28.3 million debut while earning a remarkable (especially by modern standards) $77 million in China for a $277 million global cume.
This, for an over/under $115 million, original, star-driven, high-concept old-school “just a movie.” The likely over/under $300 million cume for Free Guy would have been a huge win for a $100 million-plus star-driven, high-concept original even in non-pandemic times. That the Ryan Reynolds/Jodie Comer flick pulled it off this summer is another sign that, when it comes to some “must-see movies,” audiences are showing up in approximate numbers equal to pre-pandemic levels. And, yeah, it was a shot in the arm for those championing even a token amount of theatrical exclusivity, as well as a boost for Ryan Reynolds whose non-Deadpool stardom has been (at best) inconsistent. Ironically, having constantly noted that Disney hasn’t had a new live-action theatrical franchise (outside of the MCU) since National Treasure, they got one this summer… from a Fox acquisition. If we get a Free Guy 2, it’ll be because audiences wanted it, not because shareholders demanded it.
Winner: Shang-Chi And the Legend of the Ten Rings
The narrative behind Marvel’s Black Widow ($185 million domestic and $370 million worldwide) is a little complicated, mainly due to the damage done to the theatrical box office and (more likely) the post-theatrical revenue streams due to the Disney+ “Premier Access” release. The hybrid release may have been a necessary evil in an unprecedented time (ditto WB’s HBO Max/theaters hybrid release slate), but Disney getting sued by Scarlett Johansson over it didn’t help. The “narrative” behind the other MCU movie is a lot simpler. If Godzilla Vs. Kong ($460 million worldwide) “saved” the summer season by giving studios the confidence to program a seasonal movie slate, then Shang-Chi saved the rest of 2021. It succeeded where Chris Nolan’s Tenet failed on Labor Day weekend 2020, in this case preventing a slew of post-The Suicide Squad delays for late-2021 tentpoles. It’s because of Shang-Chi that you can buy tickets for Venom: Let There Be Carnage and No Time to Die next month.
Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi has earned $155 million domestic from a $94 million Fri-Mon Labor Day weekend opening and likely crossing $300 million worldwide by the end of this weekend. Its $205-$220 million domestic finish (and maybe as much as $235 million if Disney legs kick in) is about as well as it might have done (think Ant-Man and the Wasp or Doctor Strange) in non-Covid times. That’s with a truncated 45-day window, which like A Quiet Place part II and F9 showed that the must-see movies could earn about what they’d otherwise earn even with a shorter exclusivity window. More importantly, Shang-Chi has been established as a viable MCU brand, meaning Shang-Chi 2 will likely make up any “lost Covid ground” in a few years. It also answered whether Marvel might struggle a bit (commercially and artistically) with the post-Endgame world-building. If Shang-Chi is any indication, Marvel can remain “the danger” without rushing into the X-Men or centering generational nostalgia.