‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Ensnares Audiences and Refills Studio Coffers

LOS ANGELES — For nearly two years, ever since the pandemic brought moviegoing to a halt, Hollywood has been consumed with a creeping dread. What if the movies never bounce back? What if the naysayers writing big-screen epitaphs are right?

So the sense of relief — elation — that washed through the movie capital over the weekend, as “Spider-Man: No Way Home” arrived to sensational ticket sales, was palpable. “Have you seen The Daily Bugle headline?” Thomas E. Rothman, Sony’s movie chairman, said by phone, referring to the tabloid newspaper in the Spider-Man comics. “Spidey Saves the Day!”

“No Way Home” collected an estimated $253 million at theaters in the United States and Canada, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. Not only did more than 20 million people leave their homes to see a blockbuster movie, prying themselves away from their streaming services, but they faced down the Omicron variant to do it — a reflection, box office analysts said, of the film’s novel “multiverse” storytelling, a pent-up desire to be part of a big cultural moment, and, perhaps, weariness with the impingement of the pandemic on their lives.

It was the highest opening-weekend result in the 19-year history of the eight-film, live-action Spider-Man franchise. And it was the third-highest in the overall Hollywood history books, behind “Avengers: Endgame” ($357 million) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($258 million).

Some theaters in the New York area, where infection rates have been skyrocketing, played “No Way Home” to sold-out crowds. In contrast, Omicron has cast a shadow on numerous other cultural offerings, from the Rockettes’ canceling the remainder of their holiday run to Broadway shows’ missing performances to an abrupt decision by “Saturday Night Live” to forgo a live audience.

Explore the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The popular franchise of superhero films and television series continues to expand.

  •  ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’: The web slinger is back with the latest installment of the “Spider-Man” series.
  • ‘Hawkeye’: Jeremy Renner returns to the role of Clint Barton, the wisecracking marksman of the Avengers, in the Disney+ mini-series.
  • ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’: The superhero originated in comics filled with racist stereotypes. The movie knocked them down.
  • ‘Eternals’: The two-and-a-half-hour epic introduces nearly a dozen new characters, hopping back and forth through time.

No movie has managed more than $90 million in domestic opening-weekend sales since “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019, according to Comscore. (Sony-produced “Venom: Let There be Carnage” collected $90 million over its first three days in October. Like “No Way Home,” the “Venom” sequel played exclusively in theaters, with no simultaneous streaming option.)

“We can legitimately say that we’re in recovery mode,” Mark Zoradi, chief executive of Cinemark, one of North America’s largest multiplex chains, said by phone. He added, “This is a major shot in the arm. I think it’s going to propel a satisfying Christmas season.” Cinemark, which, like other chains, has implemented wide-ranging safety protocols, said on Friday that “No Way Home” delivered the company’s biggest opening-night gross ever.

IMAX’s chief executive, Richard L. Gelfond, called “No Way Home” ticket sales “an emphatic reminder of the unique power of the theatrical experience.” IMAX had its best weekend since 2019.

“No Way Home,” directed by Jon Watts and re-teaming Tom Holland as Peter Parker and Zendaya as MJ, collected an additional $334.2 million overseas, according to Sony. The studio said the film’s $587.2 worldwide total was a record for its primary division, Columbia Pictures, which was founded in 1918.

“No Way Home” cost Sony and Disney at least $200 million to make, not including the price of a megawatt marketing campaign.

Movie theaters continue to face enormous obstacles, of course, not the least of which is the Omicron coronavirus variant, which has prompted a global surge of infections and tightened safety measures. “The ‘Spider-Man’ numbers are sensational, but until Covid recedes and is considered something like the flu, the business is not out of the woods,” David A. Gross, who runs the film consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research, said in an email.

Look no further than “Nightmare Alley,” a lavish noir thriller with an all-star cast that arrived in 2,145 North American theaters on Friday. It collected a disastrous $3 million, a result that Mr. Gross called “a reminder of the parts of the business that are still broken.” Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, “Nightmare Alley” cost Searchlight Pictures, which is owned by Disney, an estimated $60 million to make.

Movies aimed at older moviegoers — “Nightmare Alley,” “West Side Story,” “King Richard,” “The Last Duel” — have been struggling at the box office, held back in part because older women, in particular, remain concerned about the coronavirus, analysts say. In addition, audiences do not seem to be in the mood for dark and dour, and “Nightmare Alley” is pitch black.

The long-brewing concern that superhero sequels and other fantasy spectacles are pushing more modest films out of theaters gained another proof point over the weekend. Steve Buck, the chief strategy officer for EntTelligence, a research firm, said that “No Way Home” represented 90 percent of film attendance overall; 62 percent of the seats at North American cinemas were dedicated to the movie, which played in 4,336 domestic locations.

Ticket buyers gave “No Way Home” a rare A-plus grade in CinemaScore exit polls, an indication that word of mouth will be strong and the film will continue to generate large sums in the weeks to come. The stretch between Christmas and New Year’s Day is traditionally the busiest moviegoing period of the year.

Like the “Avengers” movies, “No Way Home” features characters and story lines pulled together from multiple prior movies, turning the film into a can’t-miss event for fans. “No Way Home” finds Peter Parker enlisting Doctor Strange’s help. But a spell goes terribly wrong, tearing a hole in the universe that releases — spoiler alert — villains and Spideys from earlier films. The cast includes Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Jamie Foxx, Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe, who returns as the Green Goblin.

“This is a radical approach to a superhero movie, one never tried before, and fans are responding to that creative risk,” Rothman said. “To succeed in this marketplace, movies must be great. Not good — great.”

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