Those having any concern that the pandemic is wrecking complete havoc at the box office can rest a bit easy as Disney/20th Century Studio’s Free Guy smashed expectations with a $28.4M opening weekend. Worldwide the Shawn Levy-directed movie is at a $51M start. Something more to applaud is the fact that stateside business for Free Guy surged 24% on Saturday when you back out Thursday previews from Friday’s number; all indicative that great word of mouth works in the current marketplace, as well as sheer star power, and we’re talking Ryan Reynolds, who announced yesterday on social that Disney already wants a sequel to this movie which was held from release during Covid.
“This is the first non-IP, non-sequel that Disney has released in literally years. And not just because of the pandemic, but because of the culture of our industry, which more and more rarely bets, and bets big –they’ll bet small—but bets big on a new, original movie. That was the bet that (former 20th Century Studios Boss, now at Paramount) Emma Watts placed and that Disney doubled down on,” Levy told us recently. We also hear that former 20th Century Studios Exec Mike Ireland, who also at Paramount now, was also one of Free Guy‘s original champions.
“I want the studios to see that when we give the culture, when we give the audience, something new and original, and therefore inherently original, the audience comes, the audience exists,” says Levy.
“If we end up evolving in an industry that is nothing but sequels and franchises, we’ll be the poorer for it,” he adds, “Not just as an industry, but as a culture.”
Another movie that also came in slightly ahead of expectations was Sony/Screens’ R-rated horror sequel Don’t Breathe 2 which did $10.6M. Back out that pic’s Thursday $965K previews from its $4.3M Friday, and Saturday at $3.65M was actually +7%. Again, another encouraging sign that the box office isn’t entirely in freefall, rather clicking with the younger demos.
The key thing here to remember is that both Free Guy and Don’t Breathe 2 were propelled by the 18-34 demo, respectively at 50% and 63%, and that’s a crowd who’s been increasingly showing that they’re unafraid to head out to the cinema.
That can’t be said for all moviegoing demos, in particular the older female crowd who didn’t show up in bulk to MGM/United Artists Releasing’s Aretha Franklin biopic Respect which despite a solid A CinemaScore did $8.8M in 4th place this past weekend. On one positive note, Respect, for an older-leaning movie turned in a higher start than Focus Features’ Stillwater which began at $5.1M, and held -45% in its second frame. But there’s concern here about films geared at older crowds in the pandemic especially as we head into Q4 awards season. Either Respect holds like a rock, or with great audience scores like these, it overperforms in its home ancillaries. However, it’s going to be a long road for older-skewing titles as the headlines of delta and lambda variants continue. From the moment the campaign for Respect began, overall moviegoing comfort levels dropped from 81% to 66% in NRG polling, while the worst confidence came from the female over 35 (52% sentiment) and over 45 (44% sentiment) quads; the latter demo dropping 30 points since Respect‘s promo push. Those demographics are Respect‘s targeted crowds, and among the few who bought tickets. Respect pulled in 67% over 35, 45% over 45, & 26% over 55 years old. Best markets were Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, NYC and LA.
Some might ask, what’s the big deal? So, Free Guy opens to a $26M+ weekend after last weekend’s The Suicide Squad did $26.2M, which was painted by the media and Warners as a collateral damage from the pandemic (yet, was the highest start for an R-Rated movie during Covid). Free Guy gets plenty of trumpets this weekend because it’s, once again, expensive original IP, which is very risky and it’s debuting at a time when younger adults have other distractions such as returning to school or college. There was a great concern out there that Free Guy was going to be sidelined due to Covid. Oh, and let’s not forget, Free Guy is on a pure 45-day theatrical window, which will only fuel its legs at the box office (Respect and Don’t Breathe 2 are also theatrical window titles).
Again, a majority of James Gunn’s Suicide Squad downfall stemmed from a marketing misfire in identifying the title from its predecessors, fanboys’ previous dissatisfaction with the DC franchise’s history, and, oh, it was available free to HBO Max subscribers, the negative results of which we witnessed again at the box office after the studio’s Space Jam 2 as the former Harley Quinn and friends film plummeted -70% this weekend with $7.75M.
“Free Guy was built with one prime objective, audience delight” Levy told us about the pic, “we made it for an audience experience.”
“Disney from early on loved this movie, and that love went to another level, when they sat in a test screening of Free Guy, which I can say is the best of Ryan’s and my careers, and we both had successful test screenings in the past. You could feel it in that theater. I’m so grateful that the Alans were there (Bergman and Horn), and (Disney Marketing Boss) Asad (Ayaz) was there. You could feel that this movie becomes something bigger than the movie when it’s shared by an audience,” Levy tells Deadline. In addition, Free Guy is a win for 20th Century Studios President Steve Asbell and his team this weekend. SVP of Global Publicity Michelle Sewell was also a big supporter of Free Guy. “They really have given this the full Disney effort,” says Levy who’s been blown away by the campaign.
Levy received the script five years ago. He was initially reluctant to do it, that it is until Reynolds called him three years ago. Reynolds knew Levy was the guy for the project; the actor’s vision being a high concept videogame movie, but one that was warm and humanist, not limited to the gaming crowd.
“We made this movie for our younger Back to the Future-obsessed selves. We wanted that feeling of wish fulfillment, aspiration, a huge ‘what if’ at the center, but we wanted it to be as warm as it is funny. If it was just cool, we would have failed,” adds Levy.
“That was the key that unlocked me,” said Levy, “We called Emma. I said ‘It’s me and Ryan, let’s go’”
While most movies based on videogames are boxed by the parameters of their IP and gamer’ expectations, Reynolds and Levy weren’t burdened by any limits in making the movie, “and we got to create Free Guy with only our imagination as the rule of law” says the helmer.
Free Guy initially kicked off its campaign at NYC Comic-Con and Brazil CCXP 2019 with talent appearances and content drops before the pandemic kicked in. Reynolds and fellow Free Guy star Taika Waititi put their Marvel sensibility in the marketing with a huge online bit of their Deadpool and Korg characters watching the trailer, as well as a hilarious NPC lawyer content piece featuring attorney “Bryan Breynolds.”
Three trailers leveraged high-profile events including New York Comic-Con, Monday Night Football, and Summer of Game Fest. Early media kicked off with hits in key sporting events including MLB All-Star Game, NBA Finals (Games 3, 5, and 6), Concacaf Gold Cup (group stage, quarterfinals, and finals), Hallmark’s Christmas in July, connected TV takeovers and out-of-home teases with a “Big Movie, Big Screen” message (Sunset Wall, Hollywood Towers, The Grove, Penn Station and Marriott Times Square, Disney Story Times Square, Bus Ultra Super Kings, Wildposting, and more). There were also big broadcast moments in the Olympics, Bachelorette, NFL Hall of Fame Game, NBA Draft, Fantasy Island premiere, Stargirl premiere. Not to mention there were takeovers on connected TV, Fandango, IMDb, ESPN, IGN, Complex Jumbotron, Spotify and Soundcloud, Bustle Kindle Fire, and beyond.
Integrated marketing and synergy included #FreeGuyFieri/Food Network, Freeform Becomes Free Guy takeover, FX daylong stunt on Aug. 12, 5-day countdown blitz with countdown clocks across GMA, ABC World News and Nightline.
On the exhibition side, there was a Regal AR Activiation (where users can put on Guy’s glasses to see the game overlay of the city, with in-world tappable elements revealing fun moments from the film, and a level-up experience to get a Guy “cardboard cutout” to place into their world for a photo-op experience) and a Cinemark Esports Fortnite Duos tournament that included buy-one-get-one-free ticket offer for entrants and a private watch party for the top two winners.
Digital hits included emoji, spotlight trend, and premiere coverage on Twitter; custom stickers & gifs, influencer engagement, custom AR lens, and word-of-mouth program on Facebook and Instagram; shareable opportunities on TikTok. There were stunted digital PR beats for Mashable, Fandango, Buzzfeed, Bustle, IGN, LadBible, Yahoo!. There was a first-to-market spectacles opportunity on SnapChat with a custom Free City World lens. Alongside Fortnite, Disney tapped into the gaming community with a custom Free Guy Questline Integration, custom “Don’t Have A Good Day, Have a Great Day” emote and playable dude skin. Promotional elements include: influencer activations, social stunted interaction with talent, in game message of the day, CRM Fortnite social support, Fortnite store hero placement and in-console game support.
A big list of promo partners were lined up here by the Mouse House including XBOX celebrating NPCs in a global gaming campaign with a custom greeting and trailer during the XBOX Global Launch Celebration. The campaign also included the first ever XBOX NPC Awards consisting of three custom pieces launched across XBOX’s social channels, a NPC Lawyer content piece on late night Cable/TV and Outdoor digital boards in LA and NYC Times Square, incremental support across Microsoft businesses including a profile page on LinkedIn, co-branded gaming kits for influencers, PR events and activations and a premiere sponsorship with a first-time reveal of the HALO Warthog on the Red Carpet along with the NCP Trophy. Under Armour also was a co-branded spot highlighting the limited Edition Power Up Blue Sole Shoe with all of the proceeds going to support the Boys and Girls Club, with a digital and social campaign on Twitch, Snapchat, YouTube and a LEVEL UP workout on TikTok. Under Armour also sponsored the Premiere and had a themed shirt giveaway. Additional domestic partners included Zenni, GrubHub, GFuel, HyperX.
Audience breakdown to date from Disney for Free Guy is 59% male/41% female. General audience was 84%, with parents and kids repping 16% of all ticket buyers. Those over 25 were 54% of Free Guy‘s crowd. Premium formats including IMAX, PLF, 3D, DBox and 4D accounted for a very strong 29% of the pic’s weekend.
Big shoutout to Universal’s F9which at $681.4M is the highest grossing Hollywood film during the pandemic. The movie crossed $500M at the offshore box office, becoming the first major motion picture studio to do so ($509.3M to be exact) since 2019 and one of only three titles (including two Chinese local movies, Detective Chinatown 3 at $686.3M and Hi Mom at $821M) to cross this milestone in 2020 and 2021.
Total weekend for all films per Comscore is $76.9M, +17% from last weekend. The 2021 annual box office is close to eclipsing 2020 with a running total of $1.9B, -1%, for the period of Jan. 1-Aug. 15.
This’s weekend’s top 10 films:
1.) Free Guy (20th/Dis) 4,164 theaters Fri $10.5M (includes $2.2M previews)/Sat $10.3M/Sun $7.6M/ 3-day $28.4M/Wk 1
2.) Don’t Breathe 2 3,005 theaters (Sony/SG) Fri $4.3M (includes $965K previews)/Sat $3.65M/Sun $2.56M/3-day $10.6M/Wk 1
3.) Jungle Cruise (Dis) 3,900 (-410) theaters, Fri $2.55M (-43%)/Sat $3.9M/$2.55M/ 3-day $9M (-43%)/Total $82.1M/Wk 3
4.) Respect (MGM/UAR) 3,207 theaters Fri $3.6M (includes $650K previews)/Sat $3M/Sun $2.2M/3-day $8.8M/Wk 1
5.) The Suicide Squad (WB) 4,019 (+17) theaters Fri $2.2M (-81%)/3-day $7.75M (-70%)/Total $42.9M/Wk 2
6.) Old (Uni) 2,631 (-507) theaters Fri $710K/Sat $990K/Sun $700K, 3-day: $2.4M (-42%)/Total $43M/Wk 4
7.) Black Widow (Dis) 2,060 (-1,040) theaters Fri $569K/Sat $846K/Sun $585K/3-day $2M (-49%)/Total $178.1M/Wk 6
8.) Stillwater (Foc) 2,179 (-432) theaters Fri $380K/Sat $560K/Sun $360K/3-day $1.3M (-54%)/Total $12.5M/Wk 3
9.) The Green Knight (A24) 1,784 (-1,014) theaters Fri $344K/Sat $455K/Sun $364K/3-day $1.16M (-55%)/Total $14.7M/Wk 3
10.) Space Jam: A New Legacy (WB) 1,841 (-1,028) theaters/3-day $1.115M (-54%)/Total $68M/Wk 5