Last September, Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan gambled that global audiences were ready to return to movie theaters in force with the cerebral blockbuster Tenet. But it’s anemic $20 million opening in North America (over two weekends in many markets) scared away Hollywood distributors for the rest of 2020. In fact, WB eventually pushed its entire 2021 film slate onto a “hybrid” model of simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max releases. In retrospect, perhaps we were all just… waiting for Godzilla?
That’s one takeaway from the rousing theatrical debut of Godzilla vs. Kong, which despite being simultaneously available to watch in theaters and on HBO Max was able to rally an impressive $48.5 million at the U.S. box office during a pandemic.
Opening Wednesday, March 31, the film grossed nearly $50 million over its five-day start, including $32.2 million on just the traditional three-day frame over the holiday weekend. The numbers are all the more impressive when one recalls that Godzilla vs. Kong debuted across North America in theaters playing at limited capacity—when they were playing at all. Whereas Tenet demonstrated a severe reluctance among American audiences to return to movie theaters at the end of last summer, Godzilla vs. Kong suggests a renewed enthusiasm for the moviegoing experience. We’re still in a delicate spring in which vaccine rollouts in the U.S. are racing against rising COVID-19 infection rates and a potential “fourth wave,” but movie theaters are finally showing signs of renewed health.
Hence Godzilla vs. Kong becoming the first relatively successful theatrical opening since movie theaters began shutting down in mass in March 2020. In addition to topping Tenet’s underperformance, the lizard-on-gorilla action also surpassed WB’s own arguably higher profile hybrid release, Wonder Woman 1984, which opened in theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas Day, but only earning $16.7 million in its debut. Indeed, its entire North American run of $46.1 million falls beneath Godzilla vs. Kong’s five-day bow.
Joshua Grode, CEO of Legendary Pictures, which produced Godzilla vs. Kong in association with WB, celebrated the news in a press statement signaling a seeming return to theatrical moviegoing.
“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,” Grode told THR. He added that the decision to release the film was a difficult one but that it was the “right movie for the right moment.”
It appears so. After more than a year of doom and gloom headlines and developments regarding movie theaters—including WarnerMedia moving unilaterally to put the WB film slate on HBO Max (much to Legendary Pictures’ surprise)—Godzilla vs. Kong’s rollout in both the U.S. and other international market demonstrates a desire by some audiences to return to the movie theaters. The fact it could over-perform while also being available online at a streaming service is all the more remarkable.
In China, Godzilla vs. Kong opened a week ago on March 26 to the tune of $69.2 million over three days. This was up fromthe debut of Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019, which earned $66 million in pre-COVID Chinese markets. And this past weekend, Godzilla vs. Kong dropped a meager 37 percent in China, leading to a cumulative $137.1 million gross thus far making it the first Hollywood movie studio to cross $100 million in China since Frozen II in 2019.
Globally Godzilla vs. Kong has earned $285.4 million, including with solid runs in countries like Australia and India, and is on its way to clearing $300 million worldwide. While that number is still far below what WB and Legendary would’ve hoped for when they greenlit a pricy monster mash up—and it is indeed still affected by the fact European markets remain closed out of necessity after COVID-19 infection rates have spiked throughout the continent—it shows there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel.
It also speaks to audiences’ appetites to return to movie theaters, particularly in this case with the spectacle of giant kaiju punching each other. Given so much of the industry has been trending toward streaming solutions in the COVID era, with many speculating the theatrical window is dead because of decisions like WB’s hybrid model, Godzilla vs. Kong’s robust earnings indicate that movie theaters’ popularity with audiences sick of staying in the house may yet survive the storm.
During a period where about 60 percent of Americans have yet to have their first vaccination shot, Godzilla vs. Kong is stomping to success in a limited capacity market. Imagine what a highly anticipated superhero movie could do when vaccination rates are closer to covering 70 or 80 percent of the population, and the movie in question is not available for streaming?
Perhaps reports of movie theaters’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.