This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Ryan Reynolds in a scene from "Free Guy."(20th Century Studios via AP)

NEW YORK -- "Free Guy," an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds as a background character in a video game, opened better than expected last weekend, collecting an estimated $28.4 million in ticket sales in U.S. and Canadian theaters despite a marketplace challenged by covid-19.

After a few weeks of declining audiences and underwhelming debuts amid the delta variant surge, "Free Guy" succeeded with an old-school formula: an original, star-fronted movie with good word-of-mouth playing only in theaters. The movie, directed by Shawn Levy, was made by the Walt Disney Co.-owned 20th Century Fox, with a theatrical release contractually stipulated for the roughly $100 million production.

Playing in 4,165 North American theaters, "Free Guy" was expected to debut around $20 million. Its surprisingly strong opening gave further proof to what some analysts have been saying throughout the year -- hybrid releases that send new movies immediately onto streaming platforms can significantly harm ticket sales. The last two No. 1 movies -- Warner Bros.' "The Suicide Squad" and Disney's "Jungle Cruise" -- premiered simultaneously in theaters and homes.

But the way movies are being released right now, box office conditions are far from ideal. Cinema owners are grappling with shifting covid-19 rules -- the result of surging caseloads -- that are likely to hinder attendance or discourage consumers. Though about 86% of theaters were open last weekend, according to Comscore data, local officials are enacting new restrictions. Soon, ticket takers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco will have to check if customers are fully vaccinated, and mask mandates have returned in some places.

David A. Gross, who runs the movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research, estimates that new releases are selling about half the tickets they normally would.

"Since Memorial Day weekend, the domestic box office has been running at approximately 50% of 2019 levels, with several spikes from strong titles, but then returning to 50% of 2019," Gross said. "Under normal conditions, 'Free Guy' would be opening 50% higher than this weekend's number -- comfortably."

But the enthusiasm for "Free Guy" was enough to lead Reynolds to announce Saturday that Disney wants a sequel. In the film, Reynolds' character, Guy, realizes he's a "non playable character" in a "Grand Theft Auto"-like game. It features co-stars Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery and Taika Waititi.

"Free Guy" is also the latest in a comeback for gaming-based movies. After decades of futility, Hollywood is increasingly finding success by mining video games for intellectual property. Reynolds starred in one of the best performing video game adaptations -- 2019's "Pokemon: Detective Pikachu," which grossed $432 million worldwide.

"Free Guy" will play exclusively in theaters for at least 45 days -- and its strong performance through the weekend suggests it could buck the summer's typical trend of fast drop offs.

The previous top film, "The Suicide Squad," slid steeply, dropping 70% in its second weekend. After its $26.2 million debut, James Gunn's "Suicide Squad" redo pulled in just $7.8 million for Warner Bros., bringing its two-week total to $42.9 million. It's concurrently playing on HBO Max.

That film's tumble gave a few other releases more room at multiplexes. Columbia's horror sequel "Don't Breathe 2" opened with $10.6 million, in line with studio projections. While "Don't Breathe 2" debuted with less than half the opening of the 2016 original, the sequel was made with a modest budget of $15 million.

MGM and United Artists' Aretha Franklin bio-pic "Respect," starring Jennifer Hudson, debuted with $8.8 million.

Disney's "Jungle Cruise," starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, landed in third place in its third weekend with $9 million. Its worldwide total is $154.3 million. It's also playing on Disney+ for an additional $30.

Apple didn't report grosses for "CODA," one of the company's major movie acquisitions and one seen as a crowd-pleasing milestone in deaf representation on screen. The film, starring deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, was a prize-winning sensation at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Apple plunked down a festival-record $25 million for the film. "CODA," which stands for child of a deaf adult, debuted simultaneously in theaters and on Apple TV+.

This image released by MGM shows Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in a scene from "Respect." (Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM via AP)

Print Headline: 'Free Guy' lifts cinema coffers with $28.4M debut


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