‘F9’ Is Under Pressure to Be the Flick That Revives Moviegoing

Donna Langley, the Universal Pictures honcho who was one of the first studio leaders to delay a major movie over pandemic concerns, now has Hollywood’s hopes riding on that popcorn flick’s long-awaited arrival in theaters.

“F9,” the latest installment of the Fast & Furious series, is a gut-churning visual spectacle of a film that has already generated almost $300 million in global ticket sales since it opened overseas in May. On June 25 it will be released in the U.S., the world’s foremost moviegoing market, where it stands to become a money-spinning monster that could kick off a broader cinema revival.

‘F9’ Is Under Pressure to Be the Flick That Revives Moviegoing

“I feel really good going into the release of the film,” Langley, chair of Comcast Corp.’s Universal Filmed Entertainment, said in an interview. “It feels that the audience is getting more comfortable to go back.”

The fact that critics think the movie is “asinine” and “bonkers,” chock full of car stunts that would make those even casually familiar with the laws of physics roll their eyes, is beside the point. Like many industries, moviegoing was brutalized by the Covid-19 pandemic. Theater revenue fell to nothing for most of 2020, forcing beloved cinematic venues to permanently close. Months into a recovery, the business is still hobbled, with year-to-date box-office receipts half of what they were at the same point in 2020, according to data from researcher Comscore Inc.

Hollywood insiders have therefore been waiting for a familiar figure, a hero purpose-built to save the day. Most predict it will come in the form of a tentpole, a big-budget installment of a reliably popular franchise that can only be fully enjoyed on the big screen. Through some luck and shrewd decision-making by Universal, “F9” has become that film.

‘F9’ Is Under Pressure to Be the Flick That Revives Moviegoing

“There is a lot of pressure, because let’s be honest, this is the first true summer blockbuster we’ve had in over two years,” said Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst at Comscore, harking back to the 2019 release of Walt Disney Co.’s “Avengers: Endgame.”

To get here, Langley had to start by ignoring the kibitzers at the dawn of the pandemic who said her quick decision to reschedule “F9” was a huge mistake. In March 2020, she refused to indulge in the notion that a warm summer would be enough to knock out the spread of Covid-19. Instead, she delayed the release of “F9” all the way out to April 2021 -- later pushing the date twice more.

“It was a bit frowned upon at the time. I think to some it felt like it may have been an overreaction,” Langley said in the interview this month. “But in hindsight, all indications seem to point to manuevering and pivoting around this title, and others, have served us well.”

Potential Pitfalls

There are still potential pitfalls. On Christmas Day, AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. released “Wonder Woman 1984” in what also could have been a triumphant return to the movies. It exceeded forecasts for its opening weekend, generating $16.7 million, but that was only a fraction of the $103 million its predecessor “Wonder Woman” made during its opening weekend in 2017. Many users opted to stream the film on HBO Max instead, and it didn’t open the floodgates for audience-starved theaters.

But there have been encouraging signs, too. “A Quiet Place Part II,” the sci-fi thriller that ViacomCBS Inc.’s Paramount Pictures released in May, came roaring into the box office. It’s made more than $200 million globally, about on par with the first movie in the series, and won’t be available to online audiences until July 12. (Langley said she has watched the performance of that film with great interest.)

‘F9’ Is Under Pressure to Be the Flick That Revives Moviegoing

Universal isn’t taking many chances with its crown jewel. It’s been on an expensive marketing blitz, having found itself in the unusual circumstance of advertising at two separate Super Bowls, one with the pre-Covid release date and one with the post-Covid date. It has also completely eschewed the tendency of its rivals Disney and Warner Bros. to spread their bets and put new movies both on streaming services and in theaters.

With about 80% of U.S. theaters open and some capacity restrictions lingering, analysts predict the film will generate as much as $60 million in its domestic opening weekend. That’s not even half of the $147 million that the largest Fast & Furious film, “Furious 7,” made on its opening weekend in 2015, and it would be a bit below average compared with the other movies in the franchise. Still, it would be the biggest release of the pandemic era by more than $10 million.

On a Monday in mid-June, moviegoers packed into a Hollywood theater for a screening of “F9” and offered a reminder of why studios are keen to revive the cinema. Viewers applauded, gasped, laughed and munched popcorn, adding to the emotional resonance of Vin Diesel’s on-screen character, Dominic Toretto, as he battled his emotionally tormented brother. Hollywood is betting that impossible-to-replicate-at-home experience will drive people off the sofa and back to ringing up the big revenue figures from before Covid.

“I’ve made TV shows, I’ve done films, and other independent films, and some of those I could say: ‘The level of engagement, if you want to watch it on your iPad, great.’ I just don’t think that’s the case with this,” Justin Lin, the director of “F9,” said in an interview. “For a film like ‘Fast,’ there’s something visceral if you see it in the theaters.”

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