Saying an upcoming weekend is crucial for box office is getting old, but in terms of the range of significant elements that are in play, this weekend is stand-out. And it’s not just “The Flash” (Warner Bros. Discovery) on the ropes. Pixar’s “Elemental” (Disney) also opens, and the stakes it represents might even be higher for the animated studio than the comic book-centric one.
But the headline story is how “The Flash” performs. The elevation of a DC Comics character to a standalone, titular lead role also comes with the return of Michael Keaton as Batman. Its prime position mid-June, its expense, its centrality to DC as its universe hits the reset button all might suggest, at least under ideal circumstances, the film have a domestic opening at the $100 million or higher level.
It almost certainly will not.
Published projections sit around $70 million, although rival distribution and exhibitor sources are hopeful that it could reach the $80 million to $85 million mark. Credit WBD with playing a tricky hand well. The film’s media attention has mostly been about actor Ezra Miller’s behavior in the months leading up to its release. Other than a recent premiere red carpet appearance, Miller has not been on hand to publicize the film.
An April CinemaCon screening provided positive reactions, while official reviews have been more mixed, though hardly damaging. Considering there was serious chatter about not even releasing the film at the height of Miller’s bad publicity, a $70 million debut (with that and more in foreign dollars) would be something of a victory. And if audience reaction is good then, unlike some comic book movies, the potential for an above average take is possible.
“The Flash” wasn’t overseen by new DC chiefs James Gunn and Peter Safran who, irrespective of this film’s fate, are tasked with righting a ship that has seen rough waters. However this entry performs, this production group will continue unhindered.
Pixar would likely happily switch places with DC. The vaunted animation unit has struggled in recent years with its latest releases, and almost certainly could hit bottom this weekend. Last June, their “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear” opened to $50 million. That was considered disappointing. “Elemental,” their latest, will be lucky to hit $40 milllion.
Unlike the unit in its prime, “Elemental” isn’t even getting good reviews (56 on Metacritic). Ironically, it comes in what has already been a great (and profitable) year for animation, with two of the three biggest releases of 2023 (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”).
Hit animated titles these days are some combination of franchise-related and comic book appeal. “Elemental” is a standalone original film, and though it has comic-like elements, it comes after multiple Pixar original titles that used marketing tactics that conveyed worthiness ahead of fun. That, and recently elevated Disney+ early or exclusive play for many theatrical titles, has reduced the sense of urgency audiences might feel when it comes to seeking them out on opening weekend.
Again, even if the film’s opening is weak, a better sustained result might at least temper overall negativity. But the prospects are currently grim, and it is hard to see why Disney would continue to allocate high-end budgets for Pixar without significant revamping behind the scenes.
Beyond these two releases, there are other indicators worthy of attention:
Watch this number: what will the weekend total be? There’s potential for it to exceed $200 million, and that really is the minimum number needed to kickstart an otherwise tepid summer. The optimistic hope has been for a $4 billion season. After the first six weeks (about a third of the way in; “summer” for movies means early May through Labor Day), grosses are up only $4.8 percent from 2022. Reaching that target figure will require a 22 percent improvement the rest of the way. $200 million this weekend would be 21 percent better than last year, so it would be on target.
Both “The Flash” and “Elemental” exceeding expectations would help. But other routes exist, and in some ways, it would be even better news if they did. How the current top three — “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” “Spider-Verse,” and “The Little Mermaid” hold will be a critical element. Hitting the target summer gross requires an expanded audience and multiple films performing well at the same time.
Those three titles grossed $140 million last weekend. Based on weekday numbers, #1 “Transformers” could see a dip of 55 percent or more. Can the other two drop less, and do so while the new films reach their share of viewers? Watch this result carefully.
Also worth watching: a third new wide release. Lionsgate has Tim Story’s low-budget Toronto 2022-premiered “The Blackening.” The horror/comedy film has an appropriate Juneteenth theme for the holiday, strong reviews, and a recent splashy Tribeca premiere to elevate it. It’s an atypical mid-June release, but if it overperforms, it would be another sign of a risky date getting rewarded.
Look for more signs for more specialized green shoots. Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” (Focus) opens in six New York/Los Angeles theaters, with a chance it might outgross the strong start for “Past Lives” (A24). Celine Song’s “Past Lives” continues it old-style slow rollout with 85 theaters this weekend. Though only a small part of the total, it’s hard to underestimate how vital these two releases are for this struggling sector, which needs all the wins it can get.