‘Space Jam 2’ Dunks On ‘Black Widow’ With $13.1 Million Friday

By normal standards, a $150 million sci-fi kid-friendly sequel like Space Jam: A New Legacy opening with “just” $13.1 million yesterday would be a slight underperformance. Or, at the very least, it would be a sign that a sequel to Space Jam should have cost closer to a Shazam! than Aquaman. That second point still applies, but I digress.

However, considering the current theatrical challenges, along with the LeBron James/Bugs Bunny flick’s concurrent availability on HBO Max, well, this possible $35-$40 million domestic debut qualifies as “much better than hoped.” Like Tom & Jerry, Cruella and Mortal Kombat, the animated/live-action 25-years-later Space Jam sequel at the very least earns a tip of the hat as a “successful disappointment.” Even in the best of times, a sequel to Space Jam was a commercial coin toss.

While Space Jam was well-liked and commercially successful ($230 million worldwide on a $90 million budget) in its day, the Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny flick isn’t a generational milestone. It’s not like the Lucas/Spielberg classics or many Disney flicks, which every kid discovers and obsesses over as they grow up. While LeBron James is famous, he’s not quite as huge in this excessively-fragmented pop culture as was Michael Jordan back in the day.

Space Jam, even with its craven commercial motivations, stood out as weird and unique alongside conventional studio programmers like Ransom and Jerry Maguire. A New Legacy, with its implicit intent to spread IP awareness as a glorified commercial for HBO Max, now more closely resembles “par for the course” in an IP-obsessed and nostalgia-driven entertainment culture. A New Legacy now stands not on its own but alongside the likes of Ready Player One, Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Emoji Movie.

All of that being said, Warner Bros. is still the studio that released a slew of “regular movies” into mostly empty auditoriums in late 2019/early 2020. The Dream Factory offered up, among others, Blinded By the Light, Motherless Brooklyn, The Kitchen, Richard Jewell, The Good Liar, Doctor Sleep and The Way Back in a rare case of arguably “going broke” overestimating the tastes of the American moviegoer. When Space Jam: A New Legacy makes more on its first day than In the Heights made in its opening weekend, the message is loud and clear.

However, on a Covid-curve, a $13.1 million Friday (no Thursday previews) for Space Jam: A New Legacy is, well, a slam dunk. It’s the fourth-biggest opening day of 2021 behind only Black Widow ($39.5 million), F9 ($30 million) and A Quiet Place part II ($19 million). If the film, which earned an A- from Cinemascore, legs out like Onward ($39 million from a $12 million Friday in the second-to-last “pre-Covid” weekend), it’ll open with a $42 million Fri-Sun frame.

If it plays like a general audiences flick (no huge boosts on Saturday and Sunday despite being a kid-targeted toon), it’ll still nab $35 million. Sure, it could collapse after opening day, as did Black Widow last weekend (it dropped 79% this Friday), but a lousy (for a toon) 2.44x still gets it to $32 million. That would be above the Fri-Sun $31 million launch (amid a $50 million Wed-Mon debut) of Godzilla Vs. Kong.  

Point being, at least on a Covid curve, audience showed up last night. Warner Bros.’ multigenerational nostalgia pitch, along with LeBron James being a solid marquee character alongside the added value element Looney Tunes in a kid-friendly fantasy comedy. Critics may despair, but we should remember that explicitly kid-targeted flicks like Space Jam were never supposed to get exceptionally good reviews.

Back in its day, a movie like Space Jam didn’t need good reviews. Moreover, the critical establishment was willing to bend over backward to acknowledge its charms because they had a steady diet of adult-skewing, star-driven, non-franchise “movie-movies” alongside the PG-rated basketball fantasy. My despair over A New Legacy isn’t that it exists (my ten-year-old enjoyed it just fine), but that the likes of Daylight and Michael no longer do at the theatrical level.

We’ll see how it legs out over the weekend, but at the very least Space Jam: A New Legacy is thus far playing as it might have had it slightly disappointed (the original opened with $29 million or $60 million adjusted-for-inflation in 1996) in non-Covid times. In this environment, with HBO Max availability, a still-serious Covid threat and the film playing specifically to unvaccinated kids and at least some overall demographics disproportionately affected by the pandemic, a $13.1 million Friday for Space Jam: A New Legacy qualifies as a slam dunk.

The other main newbie this weekend was Sony’s Escape Room: Tournament of Champions. The first Escape Room was a surprisingly good surprise hit, earning $57 million domestic and $155 million worldwide on a $9 million budget in January of 2019. The PG-13, tension-over-gore psychological thriller which played as a kind of “Saw 4 Kidz” ended up grossing more (sans inflation) than any actual Saw movie save for Saw III.

The clever and engrossing flick was an ideal “rip-off, don’t remake” example of putting an original spin on an established formula and getting your own unique franchise. It’s not quite as big as when The Fast and the Furious essentially remade Point Break, but you get the idea. In a non-Covid time, Tournament of Champions may well have been a mild breakout sequel, as pretty much everyone who discovered the first Escape Room over the last 2.5 years has enjoyed it.

However, things being what they are, the $15 million, PG-13 sequel, which pits survivors of various Escape Room games alongside each other in a bigger, deadlier, etc. game of cooperation and skill, will have to settle for a $3.75 million Friday and a likely $8.2 million opening weekend. I’m hoping this one legs out because it too is damn fun and even more its own specific thing beyond the initial Saw Jr. angle. One nice thing is that both of this weekend’s new wide releases, LeBron James’ Space Jam 2 and Taylor Russell’s Escape Room 2, are fronted by Black actors.

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