How Shang-Chi’s “monumental” box office explains the week's biggest surprise

“This may be one of the most important moments for the movie industry, ever,” says one box-office analyst.

Marvel Entertainment

Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu is a force to reckon with — especially at the box office.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first Asian-centric superhero movie, blew past expectations and shattered existing Labor Day weekend records with a stunning $94.4 million domestic gross during its opening four-day frame.

Shang-Chi is now the highest-grossing Hollywood movie ever to open Labor Day. Globally, it’s already passed the $150 million mark. What does that mean for everyone else? Actually, quite a lot.

While Shang-Chi’s sub-$100 million domestic gross is not the most impressive in Marvel history (pre-pandemic, 2019’s Captain Marvel grossed an epic $153 million stateside on its opening weekend in March, and about twice that overseas), industry insiders see Shang-Chi as a major win — especially given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and rising cases of the more contagious Delta variant.

But as the pandemic rages on, what does the success of Shang-Chi say about what the rest of the year’s major movie releases? One box office analyst, Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian, tells Inverse that Shang-Chi’s Labor Day victory will have a seismic impact.

“One of the most important moments for the movie industry, ever.”

“This may be one of the most important moments for the movie industry, ever,” says Dergarabedian by phone.

Shang-Chi proves the mighty flex of the Marvel brand and the value of an audience ready and waiting to see authentic stories by filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. More than that Dergarabedian says it communicates the deceptively simple strategy studios can use to get audiences back to theaters despite the pandemic: Tell good stories.

“It’s really about the movies,” Dergarabedian says. “This is a monumental performance. This movie is a symbol of the power of the theater to draw people even during a pandemic, a testament to how beloved the Marvel brand is, and it’s also a testament to creating stories from different points of view that feature what heretofore have been nontraditional superheroes.”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first Asian-led blockbuster from Marvel Studios, grossed a mighty $94 million domestically in its Labor Day opening weekend.

Marvel Entertainment

Even popular movies can suffer in a pandemic-impacted marketplace; DC’s The Suicide Squad had critical and audience acclaim, but its hybrid release perhaps worsened an underwhelming box office. Dergarabedian says theatrical-exclusive films will bring audiences out to the movies — if there’s something worth seeing.

“If people were reticent to go out, it doesn’t matter what the movie would be,” he says. “They would stay. But people can control their health and safety and go out to have that escapist experience only the theater can provide. This was a great weekend, and [Shang-Chi was] a great movie to usher in this new level of confidence for the future of the industry.”

The success of Shang-Chi is instilling confidence in some studios to not only keep current release dates but move them up. In one of the week’s biggest surprises so far, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a Sony/Marvel production directed by Andy Serkis, bumped up its release from October 15 to October 1 on Monday morning, as Shang-Chi’s box office numbers were rolling in.

“The movement of Venom was no coincidence.”

“Every studio is looking at every other studio’s strategies,” says Dergarabedian. “They’re all taking cues from each other. They’re learning. I keep calling this a box office laboratory. There’s lessons to be learned from every film that’s been released, and in every permutation of release model. The movement of Venom [to open sooner] was no coincidence.”

Dergarabedian adds that this year’s Labor Day weekend, which is typically avoided by major movie studios, had momentum as Shang-Chi was the first new theatrically-released Marvel film since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July 2019. “It paid off big,” says Dergarabedian.

“This is typically the end of summer in any other year,” he adds. “But this year, it feels like the summer season is just getting started, and that’s because of Shang-Chi.”

Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a sequel to 2018’s Venom and a Sony/Marvel production, is now opening sooner than previously scheduled on October 1.

Sony Pictures

Are hybrid releases still a popular option?

Though theatrical-exclusive movies like Shang-Chi demonstrate the value of restricting big movies to theaters, Dergarabedian isn’t ruling out movies with hybrid releases, particularly those by Warner Bros., like Dune and The Matrix Resurrections. (Disney, the studio behind Shang-Chi, does not have any more “Premier Access” releases set for the rest of 2021.)

“Warner Bros. is still a player in how we perceive the box office,” Dergarabedian says. “Movies like Dune and Matrix demand to be seen in the movie theater. The lessons learned from HBO Max is how powerful that big screen experience [is] for fans. We’ll get even more data to chew on to decipher what’s going on in this unusual marketplace.”

Dergarabedian adds that he doesn’t see Warner changing its simultaneous streaming-and-theatrical release strategy. “They’re going to stay with that through the end of the year,” he says.

This is not to say that the pandemic has ended and that the film business shouldn’t be concerned with imminent problems. “I don’t know if we’ve stabilized until 2022,” he says. “While this is a great performance by Shang-Chi and should be looked at as a great sign for the industry, lest anyone think we’re in a ‘normal’ environment, I don’t think we find out until 2022.”

Dune, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Frank Hubert’s 1965 sci-fi novel by Denis Villeneuve, will be released in theaters and HBO Max on October 22. The movie has earned rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Julia Alexander, a senior strategist at Parrot Analytics, counters Dergarabedian’s perspective in a series of tweets (published September 6) that warn against getting comfortable during the pandemic.

Shang-Chi won’t be a crystal ball for success or failure at the box office for a sea of movies scheduled to be released over the next few months,” Alexander tweeted. “There are so many variables for each titles — most of which don’t have MCU backing.”

Dergarabedian doesn’t disagree with this. “If any studio looks at the performance of one movie and modifies their entire release strategy, that’s really misguided,” he adds. Besides creating confusion for audiences, studios might be at risk just by shifting release dates further.

“I think we have to accept now that early in the pandemic, people were reticent to go to a theater. Now it’s the movies that matter that draw people in,” he says. Dergarabedian cites the success of Free Guy, an original film that’s not connected to any pre-existing franchise and has made $240 million worldwide, as proof of his argument.

Even though theaters did suffer during the pandemic, movies like Shang-Chi show audiences still want a theatrical experience. “It’s baked into our DNA,” he says, “For a movie like Shang-Chi, or Free Guy, or A Quiet Place Part II, there’s nothing like it. People haven’t forgotten that.”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now in theaters.

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