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A Short History of Hollywood Box Office Success (or Failure) During the Pandemic

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People wait to go inside an AMC movie theater in Times Square on March 31, 2021 in New York City. After undergoing various shutdown orders for the past 12 months the city is currently in phase 4 of its reopening plan, allowing for the reopening of low-risk outdoor activities, movie and television productions, indoor dining as well as the opening of movie theaters, all with capacity restrictions. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
One year into a devastating pandemic, something about Godzilla vs. Kong is getting audiences into movie theaters. While you can't account for taste, perhaps it has something to do with the gloriously straightforward premise of two iconic monsters facing off on-screen. Or maybe it simply came along at the right time: Theaters are opening. Vaccination rates are rising.  
Regardless, for the first time in at least a year, Hollywood is celebrating its first clear-cut box office success of the COVID era. The film has pulled in $48.5 million domestically and $285.8 million worldwide. (These numbers from the Box Office Mojo by IMDbPro, a popular industry resource.)
That makes it easily the highest-grossing U.S. film of 2021 so far, and places it in the running for the highest since the start of the pandemic — though Christopher Nolan's Tenet, the first tentpole movie to venture into multiplexes after the outbreak, still holds the lead. 
Even measuring theatrical success during the pandemic became a challenge. Back in March 2020, Comscore, a leading box office reporting agency, suspended reporting after Disney stopped releasing its own worldwide sales. With a major studio and distributor out of the running, the move was all but inevitable. This led Warner Brothers to break decades of tradition by only releasing sales numbers for Tenet on Sunday rather than in real-time. 
All of this, of course, took place against the backdrop of an unprecedented drop in movie-going. U.S. box office sales fell 80 percent in 2020, according to an annual report from the Motion Picture Association. Global sales fared only slightly better with a 72 percent decline. 
In addition, the geography of the movie industry shifted. In 2020, China and Japan matched North America in the top ten list of the highest-grossing films worldwide. 
The top-grossing movie of 2020, for instance, was the Chinese historical epic The Eight Hundred, which made $461 million worldwide and came out in August. The top-performer out of the U.S. was Bad Boys for Life, which made $426 million but came out at least two months before COVID hit America's shores. 
In other words, 2020 was an odd year for movies, and 2021 is still a long way from normal. For a closer look at this period, here's a sampling of the movies that hit theaters during the pandemic despite shutdowns and social distancing rules, and how they fared at the box office. 

Tenet

Let's start with arguably the most audacious COVID release of all. As some will recall, this trippy espionage thriller controversially hit theaters in September, when some parts of the U.S. were experiencing a lull in the virus, even as others continued to see high infection rates. 
At the time, just getting people used to the idea of sitting in a theater with other people required a massive PR push. Notably, daredevil-actor Tom Cruise released a video of himself in the U.K. taking a bus to the theater and watching the film while wearing a mask.
With a budget of approximately $200 million, expectations were high, but the film turned in relatively low numbers for its first few weeks, which is usually when tentpoles make the biggest bucks. The film made $20 million at its opening, compared to Godzilla vs. Kong's $32 million. 
However, Warner Brothers has proven committed to Christopher Nolan's bizzaro-blockbuster. When New York City and Los Angeles reopened theaters earlier this year, Tenet saw a mini-revival that led the studio to extend its run on IMAX until the end of March. 
So after seven months of off-and-on showings — comparable perhaps to the film's disjointed narrative — the film has totaled $57.9 million domestically and $363 million worldwide. 

The New Mutants 

Around the same time that Tenet started dominating the headlines of the Hollywood press, Disney slipped The New Mutants into theaters nearly two years after its initial planned release. The X-Men spin-off was poorly reviewed and posted a disappointing opening. 
As one entertainment reporter pointed out, due to contractual obligations related to Disney's purchase of Fox, HBO had first dibs on the post-theatrical release. This meant Disney couldn't just do a streaming release on Disney+, as it did with Mulan and Hamilton
All of this did not bode well for the final installment in the 20-year-running X-Men series. The film made $23.8 million domestically and $46.9 million worldwide toward a budget of $67 million. By almost any account, that's what people in the biz call a bomb. 

Mulan 

Okay, let's circle back on Mulan for a quick streaming interlude. Disney released the live-action remake of its classic cartoon in September exclusively on Disney+, completely foregoing a theatrical release. In this way, it shared a fate with a number of 2020 releases that made their debut on streaming platforms.
How to measure the success of these streaming releases is still a matter of much debate in the movie industry, but on Disney's own terms, here's how it did. The company saw a 68 percent spike in Disney+ downloads with the release of the film, according to app intel company Sensor Tower. It also said subscribers paid 193 percent more on the app, due to an extra $29.99 for premium access. 
This proprietary data only tells part of the story, but such are the difficulties of tracking a movie's success in the age of streaming. 

Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 was one of a small number of films that made its debut on streaming but has since been released into theaters.
On the streaming front at least, the much-anticipated sequel to 2017's smash success did well. Released on Christmas, just days after the highly-anticipated launch of HBO Max on Roku, the movie drew an additional 17.2 million subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to HBO's parent company AT&T. 
In theaters though, the results are mixed. At a $200 million production cost, it has made $46 million domestically and $166 million worldwide. By traditional standards, that's another bomb, but it's value as a streaming release may have made up for the losses. 
Again, in the world of streaming, we may never know. 

The Croods: A New Age

All right, back to the multiplex. One of the top-grossing U.S. films worldwide in 2020 is one that you — presumably an adult film-watcher — probably haven't heard of. 
With a budget of $65 million, DreamWorks Animation's second entry in this family-friendly series about a prehistoric family hauled in $56 million domestically and $162 million worldwide. 
The release marked a major win for DreamWorks, which also saw a hit with Trolls World Tour earlier in the year. 
Notably, the computer-animated adventure came out November 25, in the middle of a nationwide second wave of the coronavirus.
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