Spider-Man’s Massive Theater Debut, Omicron Explosion Complicate 2022 Streaming Calculations

Spider-Man: No Way Home
(Image credit: Sony)

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to, uh, stream. It’s not quite Sir Walter Scott-level melodrama, but boy, has the epic theater-only debut of Spider-Man: No Way Home given studio executives more to think about this holiday season as they prepare for a suddenly way more complicated 2022. 

For those who missed it, this weekend’s latest installment of Sony’s Spidey franchise sent fans tingling to the tune of a first weekend global box office of $587.2 million. That’s not only the best theatrical debut of the pandemic era, it’s the third-best debut weekend ever. It sure seemed like, for one lovely weekend, theatrical exhibition had gotten its groove back. Audiences are coming! They’re buying popcorn! There’s nothing like the big screen! 

Seeing that boatload of bounty snagged in Spider-Man’s web has to make other studios ponder a more aggressive return to theaters, especially for anything with even a whiff of spandex in its log line. 

As the New York Times put it, superheroes did what superheroes do: save someone, in this case, the pandemic-battered theater business. It also likely bolstered the confidence of studio executives who are moving past the premium VOD and day-and-date simultaneous release strategies of the past 20 months. 

Studio after studio has been settling on a post-pandemic playbook that calls for all or most of their (big) movies in theaters for up to 45 days before sending the film straight to streaming, rather than waiting eight months to pop up in the “pay one” window. 

But it’s important to remember what else happened the past few days while seemingly everyone went to the movie theater: 

> White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that the United States is likely to see record levels of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations as the Omicron variant spreads quickly across the country. Areas with low vaccination levels are particularly vulnerable, Fauci said. 

> New York City’s COVID-19 caseload doubled in three freakin’ days, while New York state set a record for cases with more than 21,000 on Friday, before setting another record on Saturday. That’s to say, the case counts are even higher than in the dark early days of the pandemic when New York was a disastrous ground zero.

> NBC’s Saturday Night Live put on this weekend’s show without an audience, and limited the cast and crew who took part in the production. 

> Only seven of 32 Broadway shows were staged this weekend. The rest had lost too many performers to COVID-19 quarantine protocols to open.

> The issues aren’t confined to the Big Apple either. Three NFL teams – in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. – postponed games because each had a significant portion of their rosters unavailable because of positive COVID-19 testing. The L.A.’s Rams had 29 of their 53 players on the league’s COVID inactive list. Multiple NHL and NBA teams have faced similar depredations, with three hockey teams getting “shut down” through the end of the year. 

All of this is to say that it’s just possible Spider-Man may see the biggest drop in box office  history next weekend, as everyone decides that maybe now once again isn’t the best time to go sit in a dark room filled with strangers for a couple of hours. 

It’s like the rerun from hell, as we’re once again seeing overwhelmed emergency rooms, widespread event and travel cancellations, and people desperately trying to get tested, vaccinated or boosted in time for the holidays. 

Dismaying as those realities are, it also should give Hollywood executives further pause in their halting segue to a post-pandemic release strategy. 

The soon-to-be-unemployed Jason Kilar, for instance, once again is looking smart for that hugely controversial decision to put all of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate on HBO Max the same day it hits theaters.

We’ll see the benefits of that strategy play out again this week, as The Matrix Resurrections arrives in theaters and on HBO Max. I, happily, will watch the long-awaited third sequel to the Wachowski’s ground-breaking sci-fi classic on Kilar’s streaming service. Furthermore, I suspect many millions of others will, too. Regardless, it’s seems, shall we say, unlikely that Resurrections will continue the box office resurrection in a way that can match homeless Spidey’s bangin’ box office.  

The sudden Omicron outbreak holds lots of implications for entertainment in general, beginning with all those game cancellations and postponements, which impact the networks and streaming services that carry those games. 

And what happens with live events, beyond Broadway and SNL and sports? Are people really going to head to Las Vegas in three weeks for the Consumer Electronics Show? What about  the Sundance Film Festival set for the third week of next month? 

At least now that everyone in Hollywood has their streaming services launched, they’re in much better shape to respond than they were 20 months ago. But what happens next? 

Should companies pause their theatrical releases, again? Should they bet that Omicron ends up being more widespread but less lethal, both to humans and theatrical box office, than initially feared? 

How should marketing campaigns get tweaked, or pulled back? And should companies start devising new marketing tricks for their streaming services, as would-be audiences retreat to the safety of their homes and those fancy entertainment centers they’ve put together? 

Once again, we’re in a time with no playbook we can rely on. Another crazy weekend of box office bounty seems unlikely as people internalize the impacts of Omicron’s bewilderingly fast spread.

That means Hollywood executives will have plenty to chew on during their usual break between Christmas and New Years. Their decisions right now may shape the streaming business for months to come. Happy holidays. 

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!