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Strong Opening for ‘Fast & Furious’ Film Suggests Movie Crowd Is Back

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Is the box office back?

Hollywood is hoping so as Universal Pictures reports that the ninth installment of the Fast & Furious franchise, “F9: The Fast Saga,” is expected to earn $68 million on 4,179 screens — the largest theater count for a single film since the pandemic shuttered the movie theater business in March 2020.

The opening receipts for the series that began 20 years ago and has collected $6.2 billion in total global box office revenue falls within the range of previous iterations of the car-racing action series — which saw its peak in 2015 when “Furious 7” took in $147 million during its debut weekend, and its nadir in 2006 with “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which earned only $23.9 million in its opening weekend.

Internationally, the newest movie has already earned over $300 million with a majority of the ticket sales coming from China, where “F9” recently crossed the $200 million mark.

For Universal Pictures, though, the opening success is vindication for a studio that in the early days of the pandemic decided to delay its potential blockbuster by an entire year — a move that was considered excessive when it was announced in early March 2020.

“In hindsight, it turned out to be a really great decision,” Donna Langley, the chair of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, said in an interview on Saturday. “We had a range of scenarios from best to worst, and this is right there as the best.”

“F9,” directed by Justin Lin and starring Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez, isn’t the first movie to perform well since movie theaters began reopening their doors. Paramount’s gamble to delay the release of “A Quiet Place 2” also paid off. While the studio sold off some of its other properties including “Coming 2 America,” and the forthcoming “The Tomorrow War” to streamers itching to get their hands on additional content, it held on to “A Quiet Place 2,” the John Krasinski-directed horror sequel, until Memorial Day weekend last month and has accrued $135 million in the United States and over $200 million worldwide.

Others haven’t been as lucky. Warner Bros. Entertainment’s “In the Heights,” for instance, has had a muted run in theaters despite rave reviews from critics. Since opening simultaneously in theaters and on the company’s streaming service, HBO Max, on June 11, the adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical has earned only $22.5 million.

“I would call the moviegoing market during the last month ‘tentative,’” said David A. Gross, who owns Franchise Entertainment Research, a movie consultancy. “It’s hard to get a clean read because of the muddle of streaming options — different for each movie.”

Indeed, the pandemic has only accelerated Hollywood’s interest in experimenting with release patterns for its feature films, and that flexibility is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

While moviegoers could see “Quiet Place” and “Fast 9” only in theaters, most of the other new releases offered in the past month offered consumers multiple viewing options, clouding the ultimate success of these long-delayed movies. For example, Disney’s “Cruella” has made nearly $71 million since it opened on May 28, in addition to what it has earned on the company’s streaming service, Disney+, which charges viewers there an extra $30.

The movie business has high expectations for Marvel’s return to theaters, but “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson, will not be an exclusive theatrical release; it, too, will be available on Disney+ for an additional charge. In contrast, the Warner Bros. film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” will be free for consumers on HBO Max when it opens in theaters, similar to Universal’s “Boss Baby” sequel, which, in a rare twist for the studio, will release in theaters and for free on its streaming service, Peacock.

Are all these release strategies confusing to moviegoers?

Ms. Langley doesn’t think so. “Consumers definitely seem to be finding movies, whether it’s in a theater or on any one of the streamers,” she said. “I think the question becomes what it says about the impact that it has on the theatrical business.”

Mr. Gross says it’s all going to take some time to sort out.

“You don’t shut down a $42 billion business for 15 months, rearrange the pieces and expect it to be back to full strength in a month or two,” he said. “The effects of the pandemic will take some time to heal. The new normal is coming — it’s not here yet.”

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