It’s May in New York City, and what better way to ring in the summer movie season than venturing to AMC Theaters in Times Square for opening night of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”?
If you and a friend wanted to be among the first to catch Marvel’s latest, the 3 pm screening was the earliest possible. But let’s say your friend ran a bit late, so maybe the 3:05 pm showtime was better. Needed a bit more time? How about 3:15 pm? 3:20 pm? Oops, it turns out all of those were sold out… but maybe you two could’ve squeezed into the 2 am showtime that happened 11 hours and a whopping 45 screenings later.
AMC hosted more than 60 screenings of “Multiverse of Madness” last Thursday at New York’s AMC Empire 25, packing showtimes end-to-end over 12 hours. It’s only one of several multiplexes that Disney staged a veritable takeover of to roll out the Marvel sequel. As major circuits across the country devoted most of their auditoriums to the Sorcerer Supreme, other theatrical releases were put on the back burner with limited showtimes for 72 hours. “Multiverse of Madness” played in 4,534 theaters over the weekend, making it the seventh-widest release in the history of the domestic box office.
Only a select few blockbusters get that kind of treatment. Similar attention was given to 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” and 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — two prior Marvel Cinematic Universe installations that saw large theater chains packing in showtimes and keeping multiplexes open through the night to the early morning to meet demand. Those films stand as the biggest and second-biggest opening weekends in domestic box office history. In the case of the “Strange” sequel, the strategy paid off again, this time to the tune of $187 million in its first three days. That ranks as the biggest domestic debut of 2022, as well as the 11th-highest of all time.
That Marvel is popular at the box office isn’t exactly news. Fans flock to multiplexes as soon as possible to avoid the threat of spoiler culture, catching installations before top-secret cameos or characters’ fates can be ruined online. Exhibitors attempt to satiate that level of excitement by setting aside a majority of screens, which is the kind of saturation that allows a film to hit an opening weekend figure north of $150 million in the first place.
At a time when it feels like superhero movies are in competition with themselves for supermassive debuts, multiplex domination has become standard industry practice. But how does that extreme prioritization impact smaller releases? It can be hard to quantify the impact that comes with a box office juggernaut sucking up real estate, but, for a likely victim, look no further than another multiverse movie.
A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has benefitted greatly from word-of-mouth, grossing an impressive $41 million in the process. Now in its seventh week of release (most movies usually start to wind down by this time, but “Everything Everywhere” has actually been gaining traction), the Michelle Yeoh vehicle lost roughly a third of its screens — its biggest drop yet. It’s not possible to directly attribute that decline to “Doctor Strange,” but there’s no denying the Marvel film was ubiquitous over the weekend.
According to Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, independent releases have long tried to steer clear of studio tentpoles flooding multiplexes. Distributors will aim for launch dates far outside of the blast radius of massive blockbusters, as they understand most auditoriums will be dedicated to those movies for two or even three weeks.
“Indies have a difficult time having their films stay in theaters for more than three or four weeks. The fact that ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ has been playing remarkably for six — that’s an outlier,” Bock says. “It’s very difficult to maintain any sort of momentum if you’re not one of the big studios.”
Major studios hold most of the cards in negotiating theatrical rollouts with theater owners. Higher attendance means more concession sales, which is the main source of revenue that keeps multiplexes afloat.
“There’s no negotiating with Disney, it usually sets the terms,” Bock says. “They’ll say something like, ‘Listen, if you don’t play this in 12 screens for four weeks, we’re not even giving you our next film.’”
However, according to Bock, it’s likely that the decision to keep theater staff working through round-the-clock screenings originates with large theater chains like AMC and Regal. Of course, it’s one that studios are happy to see.
The latest “Doctor Strange” comes at a time when theaters are starved for a sizable hit. April saw only one wide release, Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” grossed more than $100 million from North American theaters. Other offerings were underperformers (“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” “Morbius”) or out-and-out bombs (“Ambulance,” “The Northman”). It wasn’t exactly a difficult decision for theaters to devote every screen and then some to “Strange.”
“It is when we get into June and July when the negotiations will get more heated. There’s a lot of blockbuster films fighting for screens,” Bock said.
And with 2021’s total box office down 60% from 2019’s pre-pandemic numbers, it’s not unexpected that theaters would bet on a sure thing like Marvel. But even as Disney and exhibitors celebrate the massive hit of “Strange,” the lopsided numbers of the weekend’s box office remain a concern. While the Marvel entry scored $187 million, the weekend’s second biggest film, Universal’s animated romp “The Bad Guys,” drew a measly $9 million — roughly five percent of the top dog’s haul.
“It’s very top-heavy,” Bock says. “If you’re a theater owner, you may not like it personally, but you have to go that way… They have to enjoy the media attention that the theatrical industry gets when a film opens like this and people talk about theaters again instead of talking about streaming.”
Going all-in on screenings of a hotly anticipated release isn’t only a chance to maximize revenue — it’s a way for exhibitors to put the spotlight back on the big screen after the COVID-19 pandemic took the wind out of their sales. During this period of prospective box office regrowth, a megahit is interpreted as a sign of life — a promise of potential long-term value for the theatrical ecosystem, even if only one study is making gains in the short-term. The question remains of how that promise can be extended to more modest releases.
In the meantime, if you have a hankering to see “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” AMC has you covered.