‘Free Guy,’ ‘Don’t Breathe 2,’ & ‘Respect’ Up Against Covid Resurgence
There are three new wide releases this weekend, but the question is whether they can pull the box office out of the downward trend it has been on. Last weekend had an overall box-office total of $65 million which, despite the opening of a big budget comic book franchise film, was the weakest overall weekend gross since June. It’s not easy to say exactly how much the resurgence of Covid-19 has impacted the box office in recent weeks, as there are other variables to factor in, from shortened or nonexistent theatrical windows, to content that perhaps isn’t quite “Must See” status, to get people out the door.

However, at this point it’s hard to deny that the Delta variant could set back the industry’s recovery, as Covid cases are the highest they’ve been in over six months and double where they were just a few weeks ago. Studios are starting to react, and Sony just shifted the release date of Venom: Let There Be Carnage from September 24 to October 15, a move that follows Paramount’s decision to pull their September 17 slated Clifford the Big Red Dog from the release calendar. There have also been announcements of vaccine requirements for theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and though those have yet to come into effect, once they do we may see a similar drop in cinema attendance as we saw in France and Italy when their vaccine passports were instituted.

Free Guy is the weekend’s top newcomer. Opening on over 4,100 screens, the big budget ($100+ million) 20th Century/Disney film stars Ryan Reynolds as Guy, an NPC in a video game who becomes self aware and takes control of his life. Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum series, Real Steel), the effects-laden action-comedy had originally been scheduled for July 2020 before a slew of delays due to the pandemic.

Despite releasing in a box office climate that looks grimmer than a month ago, Free Guy has a few things going for it. For one, it’s Disney’s first wide release theatrical exclusive of the year, with a 45-day release window, and it’s one of only two big-budget theatrical exclusives since F9: The Fast Saga released at the end of June (the other being Snake Eyes). It doesn’t have much direct competition for the rest of the month, either. It has also received a warm welcome from critics (86% on Rotten Tomatoes, on par with the Deadpool films), which praise the clever concept, dazzling visuals, and zany humor. None of that is necessarily a case for optimism, though, and under the current circumstances it would be great if Free Guy could match Reynolds’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which opened to $21.4 million in mid-August 2017. Free Guy opens in most of the world where theaters are open, though Spain and Brazil will wait until next weekend and there is no word yet on the China release.

If there’s one genre that’s been dependable this summer, it’s horror, which has seen many relatively low budget films become modest successes, or at least only modest failures. Screen Gems’ Don’t Breathe 2 is the sixth horror sequel since May, and it comes five years since Don’t Breathe became a surprise hit, grossing $26.4 million in its late August opening weekend and going on to make $89.2 million domestically and $157.8 million worldwide.

Stephen Lang returns as “The Blind Man,” and director Fede Álvarez returns as co-writer, while Don’t Breathe’s co-writer Rodo Sayagues makes his debut as director. Though not enough reviews are in yet, it appears that Don’t Breathe 2 (currently at 43% on Rotten Tomatoes) will not get the positive critical reception of the first film (88% Tomatometer), though it's hard to imagine horror fans being turned off by this. The Forever Purge ($12.5 million opening) is a solid comp on the high end while Escape Room: Tournament of Champions ($8.8 million opening) is a solid comp on the low end.

The third wide release is the biopic Respect from MGM, which sees Jennifer Hudson step into the shoes of soul legend Aretha Franklin. Respect is the feature debut of Tony-nominated Broadway director Liesl Tommy, and it also stars Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, and Mary J. Blige. Reviews are mixed but they lean positive (66% on Rotten Tomatoes), and Hudson’s performance has been singled out by many for high praise. What looks like a best case scenario would be numbers similar to Get On Up, the James Brown biopic from August 2014 which had a disappointing (for normal times) $13.6 million opening and total gross of $30.7 million.

Among the weekend’s limited release titles is Ema from Music Box. The Chilean drama is directed by Pablo Larraín (No, Jackie) and premiered at Venice in 2019.

Well Go USA is releasing the Donnie Yen starrer Raging Fire, which for the last two weekends has been the number one film in China, grossing $83 million by the end of its second weekend.

The documentary The Lost Leonardo is getting a domestic release from Sony Pictures Classics. The doc tells the story of the most expensive painting ever sold, the Salvator Mundi, and the doubts of the $450 million da Vinci painting’s authenticity.