As COVID-19 has turned Hollywood upside down, leading to new levels of disruption-seeking, what constitutes “radical” thinking seems to have no ceiling. Most notably, WarnerMedia decided to throw its entire 2021 slate onto HBO Max (alongside their theatrical release), a move that precipitated the $43 billion spin-off of WarnerMedia with Discovery last week. Other studios may be less audacious, but every studio in town is treating movie releases like advanced calculus, hauling in the analysts and Harvard MBAs to try to divine the best strategy to launch their precious, $200 million pieces of intellectual property out into the COVID-tattered world. Generally, the answer lies in a tepid solution—a hybrid of streaming and theatrical—that attempts to cut losses but, at least this far along in the pandemic, tends to give some kind of a boost to new streaming services.
Given this environment, Universal’s decision to release F9 in theaters only last weekend—with no streaming option—is perhaps the most radical move of all. Yes, that’s right: putting a movie in a theater where people can sit in a socially distanced way to eat their popcorn and enjoy the show is suddenly the new vanguard.
Even bolder: The “wild” experiment worked. Last weekend, the latest in the Vin Diesel-fueled action franchise racked up $162 million in foreign markets including China, Korea, and Hong Kong, a number that is not that far off from “normal” box-office figures in those areas for a Fast and Furious film. This makes it not only a COVID-19 anomaly, but the first and biggest sign yet that studios can start nudging the MBAs toward the door and start to re-embrace the good ol’ fashioned but still proven box-office model. (It’s also a signal that movie theaters need not throw in the towel just yet.)