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Spider-Man defeated Omicron. Next, it’s Batman’s turn

<i>Courtesy Marvel Studios</i><br/>
Courtesy Marvel Studios

By Brian Lowry, CNN Business

Spider-Man has triumphed against tough box-office odds and the Omicron variant. As theaters and Hollywood get ready to turn the calendar toward 2022, they’re awaiting their next superhero.

After 20 months of fits and starts at cinemas, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has become the first movie to gross more than $1 billion worldwide since 2019, already eclipsing the previous record for the comic-book franchise.

But one film alone won’t be enough to revive the theatrical business. Plenty of high-profile titles have underperformed during this turbulent period of the pandemic.

The question now is the extent to which “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” released by Sony’s Columbia Pictures, might be an outlier, and what studio and theater owners have learned from the body blows they’ve absorbed over the last two years.

Why ‘Spider-Man’ succeeded when other movies failed

The latest Spider-Man installment benefited from pent-up demand for an in-theater movie experience. Fans had circled last week’s premiere on their calendars in anticipation of its release, thanks in part to the film opening exclusively in theaters.

Conversely, certain movies have continued to struggle as home viewing became a habit. That has created a two-tiered system that produces only a select group of box office blockbusters.

A gap had already existed between “event” movies and those more likely to be watched at home. But that divide has grown into what looks like a chasm this year, as movies without “Spider-Man’s” strength have fallen by the wayside.

Theater chains argue that film’s strong showing supports their argument that exclusive theatrical windows remain vital to their success, even if the duration of those theater-only runs has shortened by half to 45 days during the pandemic.

Notably, when Disney’s “Black Widow” fell short of box-office expectations following a simultaneous streaming and theatrical release in July, the National Association of Theater Owners issued a statement blaming the movie’s “stunning collapse” on that strategy, contending that “an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders in every cycle of the movie’s life.”

Unicorn or start of a trend?

Whether “Spider-Man” represents a significant breakthrough or an anomaly should come into focus soon.

Following the start of the new year, traditionally a slow stretch for the movie business, “The Batman” from DC and Warner Bros. looms large. (Like CNN, Warner Bros. and DC are owned by WarnerMedia.) It is set to open the first week of March.

“We will find out if this is a unicorn when ‘The Batman’ opens,” said Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore’s senior media analyst. “To me, that’s the next one.”

Although “Spider-Man” has dwarfed most 2021 offerings, its success wasn’t the only one for theaters this year. Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” also surpassed expectations with a $90-million US opening, and the studio has another dark title spun out of its Spider-Man universe — the long-delayed “Morbius,” starring Jared Leto as the vampire-like antihero — due in January.

The challenge facing theaters encouraged by “Spider-Man” is getting movie-goers to keep coming back. For that, they’ll need a steady stream of hits, not just one. The good news for them is that Marvel will send in its next phase of super-powered reinforcements in 2022, including much-anticipated sequels to “Dr. Strange,” “Thor” and “Black Panther.”

“Audiences are becoming much more selective in terms of what they’re going to seek out for the movie-theater experience,” Dergarabedian said.

Theaters hope fans who saw “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in theaters — and not incidentally, all the coming attractions attached to it — will return.

“Movie-going begets movie-going,” Dergarabedian said.

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