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Omicron surge: Uncertainty prevails at theatrical box office worldwide

New Covid variant is threatening production output as the US studios push back work once again.

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Los Angeles: With the boom in box office grosses from ‘Spiderman: No Way Home’ beginning to subside and the Omicron surge taking its toll, movie theatres worldwide are facing a sobering reality that the first two months of the 2022 box office could turn out to be a gloomy dry spell.

In the past week, according to TheWrap.com, Sony moved its next Marvel movie, the Jared Leto-led, ‘Morbius’ from late January to 1 April. Then, on Friday, Disney pulled the early-March Pixar film, ‘Turning Red’ from theaters entirely, instead of making it the third straight feature film from the animation studio to get an exclusive release on Disney+.

That means that the US theaters will soon be lacking all three of the major ingredients for box office riches at this time of year — holiday holdovers, Oscar contenders, and major new releases — with only the prospect of Sony’s Tom Holland action film ‘Uncharted’ on 18 February and Warner Bros.’ ‘The Batman’ on 4 March is on the horizon to lure audiences in large numbers.

Even prior to the pandemic, box office performances in January and February have been mixed. On one hand, films like ‘Hidden Figures’, ‘Bad Boys for Life’, and Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ found success with audiences in these early-year slots, combined with December releases like ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ and Oscar contenders like ‘La La Land’ to provide a solid start for the year. However, for the next four to eight weeks, the 2022 box office appears unlikely to see those levels of success play out again.

To complicate matters, Omicron is beginning to play havoc in Hollywood as a surge in cases is causing production delays. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, despite a rebound in film and TV production in late 2021, as the Covid-19 crises began to subside, the recent emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant now threatens production output as studios push back work once again. “We’re not seeing the typical level of rebound of production,” FilmLA President Paul Audley told The Times. “We’re hearing from people who are asking to cancel or postpone their permits right now.” FilmLA is the nonprofit group that handles film permits for the Hollywood region.

The International Box Office faces similar yet unique challenges as the new Omicron variant causes concern around the globe. The new year begins as did the previous one, with cinema closures in several markets. Europe has been particularly affected, with Netherlands and Denmark in complete lockdown and restrictions in many others. Meanwhile, a slowdown in Hollywood productions due to Omicron could eventually hit the International Box Office’s bottom line.  Although Q1 is looking soft, some studio executives are hopeful that the overseas landscape, particularly in the northern hemisphere, will settle down by spring with moviegoers ready to return in Q2 with some normalcy.

A unique international box office wildcard, as reported by Deadline, is China. With a powerhouse 44 per cent of the 2021 worldwide box office haul, China has been more ornery to navigate than usual, notably not approving a single movie with a Marvel character in 2021, from Disney’s ‘Black Widow’ straight through to Sony’s ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ and having a huge influence on the International Box Office in the process.

In general, China appears to be putting the brakes on Hollywood. 2021 already saw fewer than 20 revenue-sharing movies allowed in, versus 30-plus in 2019. There are varying theories as to why this is happening, which include the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, which put the focus on local so-called “propaganda” movies like the $900 million-plus grosser ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’. There also appears to be the targeted blackballing of Marvel. Some believe it may be linked to Black Widow’s depiction of communism, while some think the slate of films was a no-go as years-old comments allegedly made by ‘Eternals’ helmer Chloé Zhao surfaced last year.

However, notable Hollywood titles that did release in China in 2021 include ‘A Quiet Place Part II’, ‘F9’, ‘Godzilla vs Kong’, ‘Dune’, and ‘Free Guy’. China also allowed films such as ‘Jungle Cruise’ and ‘Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins’ which had already been out elsewhere for months. In doing so, USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen told Deadline, “They are showing that they’re not closed off, but they are telling Hollywood, ‘We don’t really need you and we will pick and choose for whatever reasons we want to’.”

Does it matter to China that it left potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by not releasing the Marvel movies? While an oft-heard refrain is that China doesn’t care about money, it’s also said the country does care about cultural power. And, though it may be entirely capable of churning out local films that gross well over $500M at home, without Hollywood products, sources believe it will not be able to feed its ever-growing number of screens (currently 82,248 and eyed at 100K by 2025).

Rosen stated, “They don’t need Hollywood as much as they used to, that’s very clear. But, they want to be the number one film market in the world and want to show themselves as a global power and not close off. That includes film, so they need to have Hollywood products to show that.”

As both the Domestic and International Box Offices eye a hopeful Q2, uncertainty remains as Covid-19 (including the Omicron strain) and China appear to hold blind cards to handing 2022 a winning box office prize.

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