The US box office remains virtually nonexistent, with many theaters still closed and no new movies to put in the ones that are open. But 5,000 miles across the Pacific, Japan’s box office is booming.
Demon Slayer, an anime film based on a popular comic series, shattered the record for the biggest opening weekend in Japanese history when it grossed $44 million (4.6 billion yen) between Oct. 16 and Oct. 18. It surpassed the three-day total of Frozen 2, which earned about $30 million (3.2 billion yen) when it opened in Japan last year.
The film’s huge opening weekend came a few weeks after the Japanese government eased restrictions on movie theaters, allowing them to open at full capacity. Most theaters in the country had been open with limited capacity since May, but initially struggled to attract audiences. The easing of restrictions and the subsequent success of Demon Slayer are clear signs Japan’s movie industry has now rebounded from the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The US can’t say the same. Roughly 25% of its theaters remain closed, including in the key markets of New York City and Los Angeles. While some states have allowed all theaters to reopen, others remain cautious, permitting them only on a county-by-county basis depending on infection rates. AMC Theatres, the country’s largest chain, reopened two-thirds of its nearly 700 locations in August, though Regal Cinemas, the second biggest chain, re-closed all 536 of its theaters mere weeks after reopening many of them.
Most mainstream Hollywood movies scheduled to premier in theaters this year have been rescheduled to 2021. One significant big-budget film that was released (in September, where allowed) was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. The action movie’s box office results in the US were seen as disappointing, convincing studios to hold their movies-in-waiting until next year, when, in theory, more theaters could be open and more US moviegoers would be willing to go to them.
That may not happen if cases of Covid-19 continue to surge in the US. Several states are still reporting record high numbers of cases. Even if all theaters were to reopen, it’s unclear if Americans would feel safe returning to them until there is a widely distributed vaccine.
In total, the US had 69,000 new cases of the disease on Friday—the highest single-day total since July, according to Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, just 430 cases were reported in Japan yesterday. Japan’s population is approximately 2.5 times smaller than that of the US.
As the film industries in countries like Japan prove they’re capable of recovering, Hollywood studios will face more pressure to release content to capitalize on moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters in those places. So far, studios have generally decided to wait until the US market rebounds to release films globally again. But the more they wait, the more theaters bleed cash. And if they wait much longer, there may not be as many theaters left to put movies in when they’re ready to.