COVID Omicron: Will the New Variant Wreck the Holiday Movie Season?

No one’s entirely sure what the new COVID variant can do, but Hollywood is ready to panic

With fear of Omicron wreaking more havoc than the bug itself—especially now that it’s officially landed on our shores—the film industry is once again steeling itself for a worst case scenario in which moviegoers decide to stay home regardless of what tentpoles the studios erect this holiday season.

The World Health Organization labeled the mutant COVID strain a “Variant of Concern” on November 26—the day after Thanksgiving—as it spread across the globe, and has since estimated its risk to the public as “very high.”

This was the last thing an ailing Hollywood needed after narrowly surviving two years of theater and production shutdowns, not to mention certain studios perhaps using the pandemic to haphazardly experiment with day-and-date releases.

“The unfortunate thing about Omicron hitting now is that October was the first month where we’re incredibly close to average box office returns pre-pandemic,” Rob Mitchell, a box office analyst at Gower Street, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

As the magazine notes, with No Time to Die, Dune and Venom: Let There Be Carnage all pulling their weight in ticket sales, coupled with a reanimated Chinese market, global box office receipts were down just seven percent from October’s three-year average for 2017 to 2019.

This time last year, the domestic box office was closing out its worst year in four decades, cratering by 80 percent to $2.28 billion from $11.4 billion in 2019—the industry’s second-best year ever.

Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter thinks the industry’s more timid element should just relax for the time being.

“Rapid testing is widely available, so production facilities can test everyone every day, making transmission pretty unlikely,” he tells THR. “I really don’t see a big impact over the near term.”

Yet that calm advice comes with the caveat that “if it turns out that Omicron is more deadly than thought and we are more defenseless, it will become a problem.”

Currently, Tom Holland—along with the help of pretty much every baddie ever faced by every iteration of Spider-Man since 2002—is shouldering all hope, with Spider-Man: No Way Home expected to break records when it opens on December 17.

Predictions for the multiverse-hopping feature’s first weekend range from $135 million to $185 million domestically. In fact, when advance sales for the friendly neighborhood industry savior began on Sunday, demand promptly crashed the sales websites of AMC, Fandango, and others—not to mention causing at least one real life brawl.

Even at the low end of the expectation spectrum, if nature doesn’t intervene, No Way Home should handily beat this year’s current top earner, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which pulled in $90 million in its first weekend. It would also give the MCU a 2021 royal flush, with Black Widow ($80 million), Shang-Chi ($75 million), and Eternals ($71 million) rounding out the year’s top five openings.

Should the web-slinger’s latest outing meet its high-end estimate, it would also trounce the last pre-pandemic blockbuster, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which had a $177 million opener in 2019. Skywalker was also the last movie to break the $1 billion barrier internationally, a bar which only No Way Home is thought to have a chance of reaching.

As MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler tells THR, Spidey “could come away with the largest opening of the year, [and] consumer demand looks quite good as of right now. This film will then be followed by The King’s Man, The Matrix Resurrections and Sing 2, all of which should have decent appeal.”

So far, Sony hasn’t indicated that it will mess around with the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home. And it had better not.

As Handler notes, “Hollywood can’t afford a major disruption at this time given the relatively big budgets these films carry.”

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