'New Mutants' box office success sees drive in theaters emerge as nation's top earners amid COVID-19 pandemic

Despite the change, studios like Disney say they're committed to returning to normal

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hurt theater chains across the country, two drive-ins in southern California have emerged as some of the top earners in the nation for people looking to catch the latest superhero release from Marvel.

The comic book giant's long-awaited project, “The New Mutants,” led the domestic box office with its opening of $7 million in 2,412 locations. The movie, which was made by 20th Century Fox prior to Disney’s acquisition, tested the waters of the new theatrical release landscape after news that Disney was releasing its major tentpole film, “Mulan,” as a digital release for Disney+ subscribers willing to shell out an extra $30.

According to Deadline, Southern California drive-in theaters The Paramount and the Van Buren were responsible for a lot of those profits, having packed, mostly socially distant, crowds there to see “New Mutants” and the Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged.” The two theaters aren’t alone, with only 62% of U.S. theaters open, the last two weekends have seen drive-in theaters emerge as some of the most popular in the country. In fact, the outlet reports that three of the top five theaters showing “Unhinged” were drive-ins.


Audience members wait in their cars for the start of the film "The Little Hours" at a drive-in screening presented by ArcLight Cinemas at the Vineland Drive-In theater, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Industry, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

However, that trend cannot be expected to last as studios, including Disney, despite its decision to forge ahead with “Mulan” on digital, continue to assure both audiences and theater companies that they are committed to returning to a normal theatrical release model once the pandemic is under control.

“We continue to have faith and believe in the theatrical experience. We think consumers are ready to start having that experience with others sooner rather than later,“ Cathleen Taff, Disney’s president of global distribution, said. “We're encouraged. We're very encouraged.”

'New Mutants' got a bump from drive-ins across the country. (IMDBand iStock)

Unfortunately, that optimism should come with a healthy dose of caution. Drive-in theaters may remain the go-to movie theater experience for a long time as normal auditorium-style seating in most parts of the country will have to remain between 25% and 50% capacity due to state and local restrictions on large, indoor gatherings due to the ongoing pandemic.


A view outside AMC 34th Street 14 movie theater during the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 303,000 lives with over 4.5 million infections reported (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Geography will play a big factor as well, with otherwise reliable major markets like New York City and Los Angeles a no-go for releases like “New Mutants.” As a result, most of the film's moneymaking was done in the Midwest and the South with cities like Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, Orlando, Denver and Salt Lake City making up the heftiest chunk of change for the dark superhero film, according to Deadline.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.