Going into the weekend, expectations for ticket sales were guarded at best. With reported COVID cases spiking higher than they’ve been at any point in the past six months, box-office prognosticators skewed conservative with their predictions. Would any of the session’s trio of new titles—Free Guy, the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, and the horror sequel Don’t Breathe 2 —prove muscular enough to topple The Suicide Squad? Or would folks avoid masking up and steer clear of multiplexes all together? In the end, it turned out that they did show up for the most part, but just not for the films the experts thought.
Originally slated to hit theaters back in July of 2020 before the pandemic forced it back onto the studio’s shelves to gather dust, Free Guy was the frame’s biggest question mark. After all, the title was an unusual box-office unicorn in an era of sequels, prequels, and pre-existing franchise extensions—it was an original concept with a not-insignificant $100 million price tag attached which could only be seen in theaters. Not to mention that movies revolving around video games have historically been a tough sell. Early guess-timates for the film had it finishing in the $15-$19 million range. But when all was said and done, Free Guy soared past all of those low-ball predictions, racking up an impressive $29.4 million in North America.
The PG-13-rated film, which costars Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer and tells the story of a background character in a videogame racing to save his virtual universe before its real-world developers shut it down, earned a healthy $6,818 per-screen average in 4,165 theaters and added another $22.5 million overseas, bringing its first-week worldwide total to $50.9 million. Strong reviews from critics and a straight ‘A’ grade from audiences via CinemaScore certainly helped. But, no doubt, so did the fact that Free Guy could only be seen on the big-screen for its first 45 days unlike so many other recent blockbusters, which have followed a hybrid release where titles are rolled out simultaneously in theaters and at-home through streaming platforms. In fact, it was the studio’s first wide theatrical exclusive of 2021. And Disney was so pleased with the film’s early numbers that it is already talking about putting a sequel in the works.
In the runner-up spot was Screen Gems’ belated horror sequel, Don’t Breathe 2. The R-rated follow-up to 2016’s kick-off home invasion thriller (which then, as now, stars Stephen Lang) pulled in $10.6 million in its opening frame. While horror films have continued to fare well at the box office during the pandemic, Don’t Breathe 2’s numbers have to be considered especially solid in light of the fact that the film’s budget was only $15 million and that critics gave the film a woeful 51% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, it fell short of the first chapter’s $26.4 million bow five years ago. That film wound up topping out at $89.2 million domestically and at $157.8 million globally. Don’t Breathe 2 scared up a $3,527 per-screen average at 3,005 locations and tacked on an additional $3.4 million overseas, bringing it one-week worldwide take to $14 million.
In third was Disney’s Jungle Cruise, which added $9 million in its third weekend. The PG-13-rated white-water adventure starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt slid -43.1% from the previous weekend, managing a $2,307 per-screen average at 3,900 locations. Those third-week numbers now bring the movie’s domestic box-office total to $82.1 million, while its $72.2 million in international receipts pushes its worldwide tally to $154.3 million. Jungle Cruise is also available to Disney Plus subscribers for a $30 surcharge.
In fourth was the weekend’s third and final major rookie, Respect. MGM’s PG-13-rated biopic of Aretha Franklin, which stars Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul, bowed to $8.8 million at domestic theaters. The movie played in 3,207 theaters, which translated to a $2,745 per-screen average. Respect’s numbers have to be a bit of a let-down for MGM considering the film’s $55 million budget. But, while reviews were mixed, the movie did manage an ‘A’ grade from CinemaScore. There were also some interesting demographic nuggets from the film’s first-week turnout: 48% of its audience was Black and two-thirds of its ticket buyers were over age 35.
Rounding out the top five, in what has to be considered a disappointment by any metric, was last weekend’s box-office heavyweight, The Suicide Squad. Warner Bros.’ R-rated wannabe-blockbuster about a motley crew of colorful antiheroes suffered a freefall drop-off of -70.4% from the previous session, pulling in just under $7.6 million in its sophomore weekend. While the film is also available on HBO Max, which certainly contributes to the film’s poor week-two performance in theaters, it only was able to grab a $1,928 per-screen average in 4,019 locations. To date, The Suicide Squad has accrued $42.9 domestically and $75.2 internationally, bringing its global box-office total to $118.1. The film’s reported budget was $185 million.
Finally, one dilemma that will be worth keeping an eye on in the days and weeks ahead is how studios will react to the pandemic’s new wave of Delta-variant infections. Will they keep their titles scheduled for late summer and early fall in place, or will they start reshuffling their release dates like they did during the pandemic’s first wave? Some early games of musical chairs are already underway as Sony just bounced its Venom: Let There Be Carnage from Sept. 4 to Oct. 15 and Paramount pulled the Sept. 7 release of its Clifford The Big Red Dog from the calendar all together.