Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi’ broke a box-office record, but the real test for movie theaters and Disney is still to come

Shang-chi and the legend of the ten rings
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.’ Marvel Studios
  • Marvel’s “Shang-Chi” earned $US90 ($AU121) million over the four-day weekend, a Labor Day record.
  • Its second weekend could show the value of theatrical exclusivity and inform Disney’s release plans.
  • Disney has yet to announce concrete plans beyond “Shang-Chi,” which has sparked ire from theater owners.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Marvel Studios’ latest movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” blew away expectations at the US box office over the weekend.

It earned $US75.5 ($AU102) million in the three-day weekend and $US90 ($AU121) million over the four-day holiday in the US, a new Labor Day record for a weekend that is historically quiet at the box office. The previous record holder, 2007’s “Halloween” remake, earned $US30 ($AU40).5 ($AU41) million in its first four days. “Shang-Chi” has grossed $US146 ($AU196) million worldwide so far.

The movie’s success shows that Marvel is still a powerful brand, but it’s even more impressive given that it stars a brand new character for the franchise who hadn’t been introduced in previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. “Shang-Chi” is also the first MCU film headlined by an Asian superhero, played by Simu Liu, and to star a primarily Asian cast.

But the real box-office test for the movie, and the struggling theatrical industry, is yet to come.

Big-budget tentpoles have dropped dramatically in their second weekends, including those that currently lead this year’s box office like “Black Widow” and “Fast and Furious 9,” which fell 67.9% and 67.2%, respectively.

“Black Widow,” another Marvel film that debuted on Disney+ for an additional $US30 ($AU40) fee the same day it arrived in theaters, fell 41% from its first Friday to Saturday, an unusually sharp decline for a Marvel movie.

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the largest theater trade group, blamed “Black Widow’s” drop on Disney’s simultaneous streaming and theatrical strategy, which led to increased piracy. In a critical statement after the movie’s second weekend, NATO called the strategy “a pandemic-era artifact that should be left to history with the pandemic itself.”

“Shang-Chi,” on the other hand, is exclusive to theaters for its first 45 days, at which point it’s expected to be available to stream.

“I guarantee that ‘Shang-Chi’ will have a better second-weekend hold than ‘Black Widow’ because it’s an exclusive theatrical release,” NATO CEO John Fithian told Insider during a recent interview.

Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow

How “Shang-Chi” performs in the coming weeks will be a crucial test for the theatrical industry’s future. Word of mouth will likely be positive; it has a 92% Rotten Tomatoes critic score and a 98% audience score. And it faces little competition until “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” which Sony moved up two weeks to October 1 after the first-weekend success of “Shang-Chi.”

Whether the movie has legs could also inform Disney’s release plans. Fithian said that NATO wants answers from studios that have yet to indicate their strategies heading into 2022. While most major Hollywood distributors have committed to some sort of shortened, but exclusive, theatrical window, Disney has yet to announce concrete plans beyond “Shang-Chi.”

“There are several big remaining questions about major distributors’ thoughts coming out of the pandemic, and we would like to see where that’s going,” Fithian said. “We don’t have all those answers yet and that’s why we’re making the case.”

Disney’s biggest release remaining this year is another Marvel movie, “Eternals.” The company will be left with a decision that weighs the benefits and risks of an exclusive theatrical release and a simultaneous model. How “Black Widow” performed on Disney+ would also factor into that.

Disney said “Black Widow” earned $US60 ($AU81) million from Premier Access purchases during its first weekend. But “Black Widow” star Scarlett Johansson is suing Disney over its release of the movie, alleging the company breached her contract by not giving it an exclusive theatrical run. And Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was resistant to the idea of debuting “Black Widow” on Disney+, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“I suspect after the ‘Black Widow’ debacle Disney+ Premier Access is off the table for any future Marvel releases,” a former Disney+ staffer told Insider. “Kevin Feige holds a lot of sway.”

Studios like Disney will also be paying attention to how consumer comfort changes. Last week, Paramount moved “Top Gun: Maverick,” which cost $US150 ($AU202) million produce, from this November to May 2022 due to the spread of the coronavirus Delta variant.

Recent National Research Group data, which is provided to movie studios, showed that audience comfort averaged 67% in August compared to an average of 78% in July.