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Almost every movie released in 2021 came with a whispered plea from fans: “I hope it doesn’t tank.” In some ways, this was just a desperate wish that the movie not suck. But it was also a hope for something more: That, amidst an ever-fluctuating Covid-19 pandemic scene, the movie be a success, make money, find an audience. Moviegoers are savvy enough now to know that if any particular franchise/director/star doesn’t do well, the chances of more films from that franchise/director/star dwindle. Success begets opportunities for more success.
But in this, the year of coronavirus 2022, what even is success? Traditionally, it’s been measured by box office receipts (for movies) and viewership numbers (for TV). But in the age of streaming, and particularly in this pandemic-induced time of the theater-streaming hybrid, there is no single metric to determine if a film did well, leaving everyone—particularly Hollywood execs—a little anxious about the future. Or, at least, that was the case before Spider-Man found his way home.
Over the holiday weekend, Spider-Man: No Way Home went head-to-head with the long anticipated Matrix Resurrections and absolutely crushed it. Or so it would seem. Resurrections made about $12 million domestically in its opening weekend, while Spider-Man made more than $81 million, even though it was in its second week of release. That would seem pretty bleak for Neo and co., until you remember that the film was also released on HBO Max the same day it hit theaters, while Spidey was a strictly theatrical release. Still, the streaming viewership wasn’t that impressive either. Only 2.8 million smart-TV households watched Lana Wachowski’s Matrix sequel/reboot thingy, according to streaming viewership firm Samba TV. But wait, there’s more! Contrary to those low numbers, TorrentFreak reported on Monday that Resurrections was the most-pirated movie in the first week of the new year.
What does all this say? Kind of a lot and kind of nothing. If anything, it says that the metrics for success and popularity in moviemaking are changing. Rapidly. There is no longer one distinct place—a movie theater, a streaming service, a VOD platform—to consume any one film. Determining how much audiences are appreciating any of them feels like doing third-year algebra. Streaming numbers, box office totals, torrents, hell, Rotten Tomatoes scores and trending on Twitter—they all tell us something, but short of a blowout, it’s hard to say anything is a true hit. It would have been easy to chalk up Resurrections’ tepid theatrical performance to the fast-spreading Omicron variant of Covid, if it weren’t for the fact that No Way Home did so well. It would also be easy to call it a flop, if it weren’t for the fact that so many people are torrenting it. Both films have gotten good critical reception, but as Eternals proved, even rotten tomatoes can do well at the box office in a pandemic.
Perhaps, then, it’s time to reevaluate what makes a movie successful. Hollywood studios will always look at the bottom line, and will always decide what to greenlight based on what’s made money in the past. A few weeks ago, I speculated that HBO Max might have outsmarted the streaming wars with its 2021 plan to put all of Warner Bros.’ theatrical releases on the streaming service. Given what happened with Matrix Resurrections, it would be easy to say this hypothesis was misguided. But I don’t think so, not entirely. If anything, WarnerMedia (home of Warner Bros. and HBO Max) is just acknowledging the shifts that are happening and trying to innovate ways to work with them—grabbing some new subscribers here, getting some money from theaters there. It may not be the answer, but it is an answer. Maybe that’s how everyone should be thinking about the movie business. Maybe it’s time to consider breaking the box office.
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