All eyes are on ‘Sonic 2’ as movie theater owners hope families will finally return to cinemas

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Still from Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.”
Paramount

Hollywood is keeping its eyes on a speedy blue hedgehog this weekend.

Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” is the first major family-friendly film released in theaters this year and is expected to signal if this highly sought after demographic is finally ready to return to multiplexes en masse.

The movie’s early box office returns are encouraging for the industry. On Thursday, the film tallied $6.25 million in preview ticket sales, more than double the $3 million the first “Sonic” generated from its preview sales over two years ago. The studio is projecting the sequel will secure around $50 million during its opening weekend, shy of the $58 million video game movie record its predecessor scored in February 2020. At the time, Covid-19 had started to spread, but it was not yet officially designated a pandemic.

“Sonic 2,” which features Jim Carrey and the voice of Idris Elba, will be a key comparison for family films in 2022. Throughout the pandemic, parents have been more reticent to return to theaters with their young children, many of whom were not eligible for vaccines until fall 2021. Children younger than five are still ineligible.

“Family films have had a tough time gaining consistent traction over the course of the pandemic with parents being much more selective in what films they chose to take their kids to see at the multiplex and of course the endless availability of family-friendly content at home on the small screen,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Since March 2020, no film targeted specifically at families has generated more than $200 million at the domestic box office.

The family film genre is one that typically centers on parents with kids under the age of 13. These movies are targeted at younger generations and generally have a “G” of “PG” rating. Occasionally, PG-13 rated films are grouped into this category because the rating is a bit of a catchall before reaching the “R” rating.

For example, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “The Batman” and “Jungle Cruise” are all rated PG-13. Arguably, “Spider-Man” and “Jungle Cruise” are a bit more suitable for younger children compared to the dark and gritty new Batman film.

Marketing is a good indicator of whether a film is considered to be in the family genre, Dergarabedian said. “Spider-Man,” while technically accessible to families, was marketed to an older demographic in the 18 to 35 year range.

“Jungle Cruise,” on the other hand, was marketed as a family-friendly adventure film based on one of Disney’s most iconic theme park rides. It was the second-highest grossing family film released during the pandemic, snaring $116.9 million during its run last summer. The film came out between Covid variant outbreaks.

The highest-grossing family film released during the pandemic was Universal’s “Sing 2,” which has amassed $161.9 million since its December 2021 debut, according to data from Comscore. The film was released at a time when more children had received two doses of the vaccine.

For comparison, Disney’s “Encanto,” which arrived during the typically robust Thanksgiving holiday, generated just $96 million in theaters before arriving on the studio’s Disney+ streaming service on Christmas Eve.

Because of lackluster attendance during the pandemic, studios have punted family-friendly titles further along on the calendar. If “Sonic 2” secures a solid opening, it could be a signal that future films like Pixar’s “Lightyear,” due out in June, and Universal’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” arriving in July, are on track for more normalized box office hauls.

“Studios have waited a long time for parental sentiment to be high enough in the waning days of the pandemic before releasing high-profile family content on a regular basis,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “‘Sonic 2’ is capitalizing on a great deal of pent-up audience demand for those family movies, which have only sporadically opened in theaters during the past year and have often been at the mercy of new Covid variants dominating news headlines.”

“That isn’t the case now, though, as many have returned to something resembling pre-pandemic lifestyles like going to the movies,” he said.

BoxOffice.com predicts “Sonic 2” will open with between $60 million and $75 million in ticket sales.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. Universal is the distributor of “Sing 2” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

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