Spider-Man: No Way Home’s gangbusters weekend reshaped the collective imagination on what a movie could do during the turbulent pandemic moment, with projections showing the new Marvel/Sony movie earned $260 million from Dec. 17 through 19. That’s a whole lot of money. No Way Home is now competing only with pre-pandemic history, pushing past Avengers: Infinity War to become the second-biggest opening of all-time.
That’s all well and good for Peter Parker. But what about everyone else?
If all the friendly neighborhood Spider-Men vacated the box office, the weekend’s numbers would look positively dismal. In second place was Disney’s Encanto, the animated musical with songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda that has been in theaters for a few weeks, earning $6.5 million. Beyond that, Steven Spielberg still-slumping West Side Story brought in $3.4 million, a 68 percent drop from past weeks, suggesting that word of mouth is helping the well-reviewed musical remake.
And then, below Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which is rolling after its pre-Thanksgiving release, is the other new movie this week: Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley with $2.9 million. Boasting Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and No Way Home’s Willem Defoe, del Toro’s noirish re-imagining of a 1947 movie about a con man moving his way through a carnival and society has been at the center of Oscar buzz.
But opening in wide release against No Way Home has been the real nightmare. Ticket sales have been so poor that some theaters have reportedly bumped Nightmare Alley to open up more screens for Spider-Man. The failure has been so stark that some on Twitter are alleging that Disney, which owns Nightmare distributor Searchlight Pictures, and also oversaw the disastrous release of October’s The Last Duel, are setting its movies up to fail.
According to Frank Rodriquez, SVP general sales manager at Searchlight Pictures, they weren’t thinking of Spider-Man at all. Rodriquez tells Deadline that West Side Story was actually believed to be Nightmare’s main competition, and that “nobody thought Spider-Man would be this big.” To his point, The Numbers, an independent website that tracks box office numbers, predicted No Way Home would hit $153 million in it’s opening weekend. The actual numbers are a 165-percent increase.
“The hope is that after people have seen Spider-Man, they may choose to see a film like Nightmare Alley,” Rodriquez says. “It’s not just arthouse, it really is a four-quadrant film able to play in upscale multiplexes, mainstream locations, and even urban markets.” Once the awards season gets into full swing, a nomination for Cooper or del Toro could swing things around.
Del Toro has been here before. During its first week of wide release, 2017’s The Shape of Water opened with numbers only slightly better than Nightmare Alley with $3 million. And eventually, after the weekend of the 2018 Oscar nominees on Jan. 23, 2018, where Water led all nominations, it had the best weekend of its run with $5.9 million. (The Best Picture-winner would go on to make over $60 million in the U.S.). So a turnaround might be possible, although Shape of Water’s $20 million budget was only a third of Nightmare Alley’s reported $60 million price tag, making the situation more pronounced.
Men under 25 are by far the most comfortable returning to theaters right now, according data from movie exit-poller PostTrac. Forty-four percent of them feel fine going back to the big screen at the moment, and that number doubles to 88 percent among the vaccinated. They’re followed by men over 25, who are comfortable returning to the movies in 38 percent in general and 74 percent vaccinated. Women under 25 (34 percent, 84 percent) and women over 25 (30 percent, 74 percent) follow suit.
Looking beyond the age of 25, older audiences are less enthused. Speaking to AARP Magazine, David Herrin of the film-tracking data company The Quorum says “about 44 percent of the over-50 crowd say they feel safe. For the general public, it was closer to 62 percent.” Over-50s, who generally seek out Oscar fare more, feel less safe in theaters than under-25s. The box office seems to reflect those realities for the time being.
The Quorum has put out a study looking at how to get audiences back into theaters, and upgraded experiences, like more space between seats, could be effective. The outlook isn’t hopeless for the non-action-oriented theater attendee, but the numbers at the moment are certainly grim for anything resembling blockbuster counter-programming.