‘Free Guy’ Faces Off Against Four Newcomers
The box office is looking a little brighter after last weekend’s expectations-beating, $28.4-million-opening of Free Guy. This was a pleasant surprise to those who worried the Delta variant’s continually climbing case-count would scare away audiences. Though no one would argue that we're anywhere near “normal,” the fact that we aren’t backpedaling is a positive sign. Still, studios are showing some signs of concern at the pace of recovery, as we can see from recent release date shuffling.

Vaccine passports are starting to go into effect as well, with New Orleans having begun requiring vaccination for moviegoers on Monday and San Francisco rolling out its requirements on Friday. New York started Tuesday, though there won’t be inspections and enforcement until September 13. Although attendance in France took a hit after they installed vaccine mandates, it is hard to expect the same from the U.S. when it is being implemented in a piecemeal fashion, and in any case it’s a slow mid-to-late August weekend anyway.

Free Guy looks like it will take the top spot again this weekend, despite a slew of star-studded newcomers. Its best competition comes from Paramount’s PAW Patrol, likely to end up in second place. The Nickelodeon-produced animated film is based on the series of the same name about a team of search and rescue puppies. Opening in 2,800 theaters, it also has a same day Paramount+ streaming debut. Reviews are limited so far, but critics are charmed by the film, which is currently at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. The voice cast includes Kim Kardashian, Dax Shepard, and Tyler Perry.

Hugh Jackman stars in Reminiscence which opens in 3,250 theaters, making it Jackman’s first wide release since 2017’s The Greatest Showman became a surprise box-office smash. Reminiscence, a noirish, sci-fi thriller, featuring a post-apocalyptic setting, a memory dream machine, and a femme fatale played by Rebecca Ferguson, is written and directed by Lisa Joy. Joy is the Westworld co-creator and executive producer who wrote a good chunk of the series and directed a few episodes. A mid-August sci-fi box-office showdown between Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman should have been a bigger deal, but expectations are low for Reminiscence, which is receiving middling reviews (44% Tomatometer) and will also be available on HBO Max.

Lionsgate is releasing The Protege on 2,500 screens. The John Wick-esque revenge actioner stars Maggie Q as the titular protege on a revenge spree. Michael Keaton plays the antagonist and the film is right in the wheelhouse of director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Foreigner). The Millennium-produced film, which is a theatrical exclusive, was not screened for critics in some markets.

The other theatrical exclusive wide release this weekend is Searchlight’s horror film The Night House, debuting in 2,150 theaters. The independent film premiered at Sundance 2020 where Searchlight bought it for $12 million. David Bruckner (The Signal, V/H/S, The Ritual) directs and Rebecca Hall stars in this critically-acclaimed ghost story which is at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and offers up something different from the more mainstream horror fare (mostly sequels) of the summer.

Of interest in limited release is Flag Day, Sean Penn’s latest as a director, which is getting a release on around 24 screens from United Artists, a month after its Cannes premiere. Penn stars alongside his daughter Dylan Penn, with Josh Brolin in a supporting role. Based on the true story of John and Jennifer Vogel (played by the Penns) and written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Fair Game, Ford v Ferrari), the film centers on the father/daughter relationship after Jennifer finds out about her father’s criminal history. The reviews have been mixed, with a 45% Tomatometer.

IFC’s Demonic is another limited release of note. It is the latest from District 9 and Elysium writer/director Neill Blomkamp. It’s his first film since the box-office disappointment of Chappie, and it’s a new direction for him, eschewing his signature dystopian sci-fi for horror in a star-free, self-financed, low budget production that he shot near his home during the pandemic. Unfortunately the reviews have not been kind, with a 13% Tomatometer.

Some good news on the international box office front: The blackout on Hollywood films in China has ended. Disney/Pixar’s Luca, which went straight to Disney+ in the U.S. in June, is opening in China this weekend, making it the first American film to release there in over two months. While the recent slate of blockbusters is still unscheduled in China, Luca’s release is a welcome sight.