‘Free Guy’ Game To Take On Pandemic With Disney-20th Century’s Theatrical-Only Release

After the industry’s and Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson’s ire over Disney’s day-and-date strategy, Disney returns to the theatrical-window form this weekend with Free Guy, the video game-inspired romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy. It’s Disney’s first wide release respecting a theatrical window since 20th Century Studios’ horror pic The Empty Man last October, which was released at a time when Regal, New York and Los Angeles were still closed.

Free Guy

Free Guy was developed by the 20th Century Fox brass of pre-pandemic yore and was inherited by Disney via the acquisition of the studio. To Disney’s credit, it believed in the film and held it continually throughout the pandemic rather than send it to streaming. The pic has a mid-August release as the studio believed in hindsight that Covid would have eased by this point in time — not to mention Reynolds previously found great success in mid-August with Lionsgate’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard in 2017, which opened to $21.3 million domestic and finaled at $75.4M stateside and $176.6M worldwide. That movie’s sequel back in mid-June opened to No. 1 but with significantly less fanfare, at $11.4M over three days and $16.7M over five. Note however that Lionsgate spends less in P&A then Disney’s traditional big blast. Furthermore, the Burbank, CA studio has more marketing muscle on social media across its sister businesses.

Still, Free Guy arrives at a time when there’s some concern over the looming Delta variant, not to mention that kids are heading back to school and it’s original IP, which is always a box office challenge. This Friday, comScore shows 67% K-12 schools out, down from 89% on summer break last Friday. As such, the hope is that Free Guy gets to mid- to high-teens at the domestic B.O. in its 4,100 theaters. A $20M+ start would be phenomenal, but isn’t guaranteed.

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Disney did open Jungle Cruise two weekends ago at $35M, $10M more than tracking and at a time when there were still concerns about the Delta variant.

The Levy-directed Free Guy is going in 70% of the foreign B.O. landscape with a hoped-for $20M+ start. It will debut in major territories like France, Korea and Italy today; Germany, Russia, Australia and Mexico follow on Thursday; and the UK and Japan bow is Friday. Not releasing in this opening suite are Spain (staying wide of a religious holiday) and Brazil (where a wider berth was carved because of The Suicide Squad). Both of those markets go next session. Also, South East Asia (save Singapore) remains closed and there is no China date on Free Guy so far — though in a positive sign, Pixar’s Luca was just granted an August 20 PRC release which could mean further dates for Hollywood to come after a long drought.

Here in the states, Free Guy will start previews tomorrow at 6 p.m. Of its domestic exhibition footprint, there are 330 Imax auditoriums, 700+ Premium Large Format screens; 1,200 3D locations, and 200 specialty D-Box/4D screens. Free Guy is tracking among the 18-34 bunch, mostly guys, but not too shabby with younger females.

Respect

Two other wide releases, also respecting a theatrical window, are in the mix this weekend: MGM/United Artists Releasing’s long-awaited Aretha Franklin biopic Respect starring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul in 3,207 theaters, and Sony/Screen Gems and Stage 6’s Don’t Breathe 2 at 3,000 locations.

In what seemed like a different era, the first Don’t Breathe opened in late August 2016 to a surprising $26.4M stateside and legged out to $89.2M domestic, $157.8M global on a budget (before P&A) that was under $10M. Previews for the Rodo Sayagues-directed sequel start at 6 p.m.

Respect hopes to best its high single-digit start given its solid 71% fresh reviews. The pic is aimed at older women and African Americans, with the overall older female demo being reluctant to head out to the cinema during the pandemic. Showtimes start at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

Don’t Breathe 2 is looking at $8M-$10M which is the same range of Sony’s other horror summer sequel, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, which debuted to $8.8M domestic and through its fourth weekend has grossed $23M. No RT rating yet for Don’t Breathe 2.

Overall, it’s a real battle this weekend to see if souring headlines on the pandemic can damage turnstiles, yet at what is traditionally a funky time already at the summer B.O.

Comps for Free Guy abroad are recent Disney releases Cruella and Jungle Cruise — despite their day-and-date streaming strategy (pre-pandemic we’d be looking moreso at Ready Player One, which did 49% of its overseas box office in China). Momentum and sentiment have been growing: In France, notably, the film has the biggest wannasee factor of all new titles. Rotten Tomatoes for Free Guy stands at a great 86% certified fresh.

It’s important to bear in mind that offshore markets are continuing to see shifting Covid restrictions and/or closures. For example, cinemas in Australian regions repping about 70% of the national box office are shuttered, and France and Italy are finding difficulty adjusting to the health pass requirement. Japan gave F9 a great start last session, but there are still states of emergency in place with the curfew on business hours set at 8 p.m. until August 31. This weekend is the annual Obon holiday in the market where The Suicide Squad is also opening. Still, Japan is a big gaming market, so Free Guy is likely to see some good action.

Elsewhere, the UK and Russia have been doing well of late, as has Germany (though there is a strong local title in the mix with Constantin’s Kaiserschmarrn drama having just set a pandemic opening record for a German film).

Reynolds has had recent success internationally with the Deadpool movies and Pokémon Detective Pikachu. If word of mouth continues its positive trend, and as markets further untangle from Covid caps, the film could leg out nicely. Cruella, for example, posted strong holds and strutted to a 4.5x multiple with $136M to date internationally.

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