Sony and Marvel’s Venom sequel (review) caused plenty of carnage at the domestic box office this weekend, earning a remarkable $90.1 million in its debut Fri-Sun frame. That’s a halfway decent (especially for a heavily-anticipated but not quite critically acclaimed comic book superhero sequel) 2.42x multiplier. Moreover, it’s the second-biggest October launch of all time, behind only Joker ($96 million on this same weekend in 2019). It’s 12.5% larger than the $80 million debut (on the same frame, natch, in 2018) of the previous Venom. Moreover, the Andy Serkis-directed and Kelly Marcel-penned horror/fantasy/romcom/superhero flick earned the biggest Fri-Sun debut since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ($173 million) in December 2019. Yes, Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage just nabbed the biggest opening weekend of the so-called “pandemic era.”
This opening, which Cinemark is reporting as their biggest Covid-era debut and their biggest-ever October opening, “proves” a few things. First, despite a resurgence of the “superhero fatigue” narrative in the aftermath of Black Widow’s “mere” $80 million domestic debut and The Suicide Squad’s catastrophic $26.5 million launch this past summer, audiences will still flock to the Marvel/DC flicks they actually want to see. Second, the relative theatrical failures of Space Jam: A New Legacy, Snake Eyes, The Suicide Squad and (arguably/possibly) Jungle Cruise are about variables associated with those would-be franchise flicks. This “bigger than the first Venom” debut shows what I’ve frankly been saying since May. The surefire blockbusters, think A Quiet Place part II, F9, Shang-Chi and now Venom 2 grossed in North America what they would have (or pretty close to it) pre-Covid.
Credit where credit is due, Sony was right to bet on a solo Venom movie. As noted yesterday, audiences liked Venom more than critics, pushing the Tom Hardy/Michelle Williams origin story to $213.5 million domestic and (thanks to a bonkers-huge $269 million in China) $854 million worldwide on a $90 million budget. But even those of us who didn’t entirely endorse the film tipped our hat to Hardy’s bonkers performance and the film’s flirtations with outright camp and metaphorical queer romance amid an otherwise conventional superhero origin story plot. With Hardy co-writing the film with Kelly Marcel, Let There Be Carnage has been (correctly) sold as 95 minutes of “just what you liked about the last movie.” This was a case of a studio learning the right lessons from a blow-out success.
Offering up a hammy Woody Harrelson as Carnage is obviously an added-value element. There was obviously demand for a solo Venom movie. Moreover, the specific camp comic sensibilities of the first film and especially this sequel, powered by Hardy’s gung-ho star turn, have created a franchise where even folks who don’t care about Venom in the abstract have at least some interest due to this specific franchise’s incarnation of the “lethal protector.” If Venom and Spider-Man ever meet up and beat each other up (either in this December’s multi-verse hopping Spider-Man: No Way Home or a future Venom flick), the value will be because Tom Holland’s MCU Peter Parker will be rubbing shoulders with Tom Hardy’s offbeat Eddie Brock. That specificity is far more valuable than merely the abstract notion of Spider-Man meeting Venom.
After this blow-out debut, Sony’s incarnation is popular and distinct enough that a cross-over is a bonus rather than a necessity. Like Jumanji, Sony revived a franchise by crafting something with value even for those who initially didn’t care. That’s a huge accomplishment, and maybe Sony should just let producer Matt Tolmach handle all of its IP revivals. We’ll see if the sequel even plays in China this time out, but a $110 million budget and a sky-high domestic debut (plus a fourth-biggest-ever $13.8 million launch in Russia) means that China can just be a bonus rather than a do-or-die territory. Remember that Mulan was tracking for an over/under $75 million domestic debut before its March 2020 release was canceled. Its inevitable failure in China would otherwise have been merely comic irony of little consequence.
“We are so grateful to Tom, Andy, Kelly and all of the many gifted contributors who made such a unique and fun film” stated Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group. “We are also pleased that patience and theatrical exclusivity have been rewarded with record results. With apologies to Mr. Twain: The death of movies has been greatly exaggerated.”
This is obviously very good news for next week’s domestic debut of No Time to Die. It adds an interesting wrinkle for Halloween Kills which ended up with a theaters/Peacock day-and-date release after (I’d argue) The Forever Purge, Old and Candyman all ended up below $60 million domestic. How the whole “31 days exclusive if it opens above $50 million” deal work if it’s already on Peacock? Speaking of, I’m entirely willing to admit that some of this year’s biggies, like Jungle Cruise (which to be fair earned domestic figures on par with non-Fast Saga Dwayne Johnson starring vehicles like Rampage and Central Intelligence) and Candyman (which I had pegged as a breakout biggie way back in early 2020) did earn less than they otherwise would have due to pandemic-specific circumstances.
Jungle Cruise had a day-and-date Premier Access release. Venom: Let There Be Carnage’s debut is more evidence of the value of theatrical exclusivity. A Quiet Place part II earned 85% of its predecessor’s $188 million domestic gross. F9 ($173 million from a $70 million debut) was the leggiest “not a spin-off” Fast & Furious movie since 2 Fast 2 Furious ($127 million from a $50 million debut in 2003). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will pass Bad Boys for Life ($206 million in January 2020) on Monday or Tuesday as the biggest domestic grosser of 2020 and 2021 and is heading for $220 million domestic. Would Venom 2 have opened with $100 million in non-Covid times? Maybe, but Sony will be happy with $86 million.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage just became the first “Covid-era” sequel to open bigger than its respective (and relatively recent, sorry Space Jam 2) predecessor. The good news is that it very much appears that the domestic box office is entirely safe for previously surefire blockbusters. The bad news is that the jury is still very much out on anything else. The general audience “go to the movies just to see a movie” demographics have shifted to streaming in the last six years. Moreover, the year’s biggest “event movies” now take up a much larger portion of overall annual ticket sales than ever before. In 2011, the top six movies accounted for 15%. In 2018, it was 26%. I only expect that divide to grow as pandemic-era consumer behavior becomes semi-permanent.