To say an upcoming weekend is crucial to the box office is getting old, but in terms of the range of significant elements at play, this weekend is outstanding. And it’s not just “The Flash” (Warner Bros. Discovery) on the ropes. Pixar’s “Elemental” (Disney) also pops, and the stakes it represents could be even higher for the animated studio than the comic-focused one.
But the main story is how “The Flash” performs. The elevation of a DC Comics character to a standalone lead role also comes with the return of Michael Keaton as Batman. Its prime mid-June location, its expense, its centrality to DC as its universe hits the reset button, all could suggest, at least under ideal circumstances, that the film has a domestic opening at a $$ level. 100 million or higher.
It almost certainly won’t.
Published projections hover around $70 million, though sources at rival distribution and exhibitors are hoping it could hit the $80 to $85 million mark. Thank WBD for playing a difficult hand well. The film’s media attention was primarily directed at actor Ezra Miller’s behavior in the months leading up to its release. Aside from a recent red carpet premiere, Miller hasn’t been on hand to publicize the film.
An April CinemaCon screening provided positive reactions, while official reviews were more mixed, though hardly damning. Considering there was serious talk about the film not being released at the height of Miller’s bad publicity, a $70 million debut (with that and more in foreign dollars) would be something of a win. And if the audience reaction is good then, unlike some comic book movies, the potential for an above-average recovery is possible.
“The Flash” was not overseen by new DC bosses James Gunn and Peter Safran who, regardless of the fate of this film, are tasked with righting a ship that has seen troubled waters. Regardless of the performance of this entry, this production group will continue unhindered.
Pixar would probably happily switch places with DC. The vaunted animation unit has struggled in recent years with its latest releases and could almost certainly hit rock bottom this weekend. Last June, their ‘Toy Story’ spin-off ‘Lightyear’ opened to $50 million. This was considered disappointing. “Elemental”, their latest film, will be lucky enough to reach 40 million dollars.
Unlike unity at its peak, “Elemental” isn’t even getting good reviews (56 on Metacritic). Ironically, it comes in what has already been a big (and profitable) year for animation, with two of the three biggest releases of 2023 (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Man Verse”). .
Blockbuster animated titles these days are a combination of franchise and comic book appeal. “Elemental” is an original film in its own right, and while it has comic book-like elements, it comes after several Pixar original titles that used marketing tactics that conveyed dignity before fun. That, and Disney+’s recent uptick in upfront or exclusive play for many movie titles, has reduced any sense of urgency audiences might feel when it comes to searching for them on opening weekend.
Again, even if the film’s opening is weak, a better, sustained take could at least temper the overall negativity. But the outlook is currently bleak, and it’s hard to understand why Disney continues to allocate high-end budgets for Pixar without significant behind-the-scenes revamp.
In addition to these two releases, there are other indicators worthy of attention:
Look at this issue: What will the weekend total be? There’s the potential to top $200 million, and that’s really the minimum number needed to kick off an otherwise tepid summer. The optimistic hope was for a $4 billion season. After the first six weeks (about a third of the start; “summer” for movies means early May through Labor Day), box office receipts were up just 4.8% from 2022. Achieving that target number will require a 22% improvement the rest of the way. $200 million this weekend would be 21 percent better than last year, so that would be on target.
Both ‘The Flash’ and ‘Elemental’ exceeding expectations would help. But there are other paths, and in a way, it would be even better news if they did. How the current top three – “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”, “Spider-Verse” and “The Little Mermaid” will be critical. Hitting the summer box office target requires larger audiences and more films performing well at the same time.
These three titles grossed $140 million last weekend. Based on weekday numbers, the “Transformers” No. 1 could see a decline of 55% or more. Can the other two drop less and do so as new films hit their audience share? Look closely at this result.
Also worth watching: a third new wide release. Lionsgate premiered Tim Story’s low-budget film “The Blackening” in Toronto in 2022. The horror/comedy film has a holiday-appropriate Juneteenth theme, rave reviews, and a recent Tribeca premiere to elevate it. It’s an atypical mid-June release, but if it outperforms, that would be another sign of a risky date being rewarded.
Look for other signals for more specialized green shoots. Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” (Focus) opens in six theaters in New York/Los Angeles, possibly surpassing the good start of “Past Lives” (A24). Celine Song’s “Past Lives” continues its slow old-fashioned rollout with 85 theaters this weekend. Though only a small fraction of the total, it’s hard to underestimate how vital these two releases are to this struggling industry that needs every win possible.