If you've enjoyed a movie in a theater in the past few months, thank an 18- to 35-year-old male for it.
Multiplexes are still waiting for fans to feel safe indoors, with the delta variant ruining plans globally, as well as for studios to release enough titles to keep screens booked. If all goes well, big October movies such as "No Time to Die" will make that happen. But young men have been quickest to embrace in-person movies, so the genres they favor have done well already.
"It's been so stabilizing for the industry," said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for research firm Exhibitor Relations. "If you get them talking about a movie, it bleeds into other demographics. These people are really passionate about film, tweeting about it and blogging about it."
That helped "Candyman" gross $22 million in its first three days in the notoriously slow final weekend of August, despite a grim subject that reached venues after 18 months of real-life grimness. It also made gamer-themed "Free Guy" a surprise hit and powered "F9" to more than $700 million in theaters.
Young male fans aren't all those movies have in common. All three opened exclusively in theaters, rather than in the theatrical/streaming hybrid that has become common in the pandemic (the year's top film, "Black Widow," accrued more than $370 million while also on Disney Plus). As movies try to distinguish themselves on a variety of platforms and screens, playing in multiplexes can boost their profiles, according to Phil Contrino, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners.
"It pops for a little bit on a platform if it's prominent on the streamer's landing page, but then it kind of disappears when you're scrolling through the almost infinite options," Contrino said. He cites splashy fare such as "The Irishman" and "Mank" as movies that might have had longer shelf lives with wider exposure in theaters.
"A lot of people say, 'Was that good enough to play in theaters? Maybe I should watch that.' I think that stigma isn't going away anytime soon," he added.
Nathan Block, who owns the Woodbury 10 complex, hopes that is true. He said the exhibition business faces an existential crisis if Disney and Warner Bros. continue to debut biggies such as "Black Widow" and the upcoming "Dune" on streaming services at the same time as theaters. (One reason "F9" was theaters-only was that it's from Universal, whose streamer, Peacock, doesn't have the reach of Disney Plus or HBO Max.)
"Exhibition is having this conversation with studios now: You need to stop this streaming crap," said Block. "You did what you had to do in the pandemic. Everybody had bills to pay and you streamed a few movies. OK. But if you want those big box office numbers that we used to have when this was a $5 billion industry, we need to go back to the way it was: a four- or six-week theatrical window and then streaming. Otherwise, we're going to lose something that has been around for 100 years."
Experts put total industry losses at $50 billion over a 30-month span. Meanwhile, it's fair to say that nobody knows where anything is playing. Even Bock — whose parents regularly call him to find out if a new title is in theaters or streaming — says he'd be baffled if he weren't in the business. Especially since the rules keep changing.
The documentary "Roadrunner" came out in July but still can't be streamed. On the other end of the spectrum, "Respect" announced earlier this month that it would debut on-demand earlier than expected (its theaters-only run failed because the older moviegoers it needed to attract have been the last to return indoors). Netflix announced that several fall titles, including "The Harder They Fall," will be in theaters. Paramount shifted November's "Top Gun: Maverick" to next year.
But Disney seems more bullish. After skipping theaters with titles such as "Soul" and "Luca," plans for the rest of this year's slate — including Marvel's "Eternals" and "Spider-Man: No Way Home" — call for theatrical-only for 45 days, followed by streaming.
To Block, that idea is almost as welcome as a new "Star Wars" movie.
"There will always be people on the back end who don't go to theaters. That's fine if they want to sit at home. But let them wait," he said. "We need that four, six weeks of play where we make money, keep our lights on, keep people employed."
So, if you want to see movies this fall, here's how to figure out what's going to be where. Several websites, including decider.com, track where to find stuff. If you're anticipating specific titles, find out who's releasing them and check their websites. For instance, "No Time to Die," which already has missed three release dates, is being released by United Artists.
Bock looks to history when he cautions fans not to fret that streaming will kill off moviegoing, a claim once made about radio, TV and VCRs, too. Noting that early streaming is a danger because it makes pirating easier, he sees plenty of reasons to believe things will settle down.
"We had the biggest year ever for global box office in 2019," noted Bock of the most recent year when venues were in full swing. "I'd argue there's plenty of room for theatrical and streaming to exist simultaneously and prosper."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib