LOS ANGELES—The “Fast & Furious” franchise gave Hollywood its best opening weekend since December 2019 at the box office this weekend, offering further evidence that American entertainment industries are accelerating toward some semblance of normalcy.

“F9: The Fast Saga,” the ninth installment of the car-racing franchise, collected an estimated $70 million from domestic theaters. While that opening is only the sixth-best of the series so far, it comes after several releases that indicate a steadily growing appetite among moviegoers to venture back to the theater.

“This film establishes that we’re coming out of it,” said

Jim Orr,

president of domestic theatrical distribution at

Comcast Corp.’s

CMCSA 0.64{960021229dc1dc07dce4932a9ddab0b26243ff9ca1f758a9c1fcae84a7a57436}

Universal Pictures, which distributed the film.

The opening of “F9” is the best of any Hollywood release since “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in late 2019, and follows the encouraging openings of “Godzilla vs. Kong” in March and “A Quiet Place Part II” in May.

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“F9,” however, offers the clearest test yet on the post-pandemic habits of moviegoers. The movie is the most-anticipated title released since the pandemic closed theaters and comes as about 80{960021229dc1dc07dce4932a9ddab0b26243ff9ca1f758a9c1fcae84a7a57436} of the auditoriums have reopened and major cities allow full-capacity seating inside them.

Across the American economy, vendors, executives and investors are watching metrics like box-office receipts to see how the post-Covid-19 entertainment landscape will take shape. Signs of life are coming quickly: On Saturday, Bruce Springsteen reopened his hit Broadway show, “Springsteen on Broadway” to a fully vaccinated crowd. Venues such as the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles are hosting summer concerts at full capacity, and

Walt Disney Co.

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theme parks have expanded hours and loosened attendance restrictions. A return to pre-pandemic habits is encouraging—and necessary—for an American movie business with weeks of much-delayed, costly films scheduled to premiere after “F9.”

“F9,” in particular, has also been an unlikely indicator of how Hollywood planned to weather the pandemic. In March 2020, just days after lockdowns became a reality for most Americans, Universal pushed its original May 2020 release by nearly a year. The decision shocked corners of Hollywood, since it signaled that Universal brass forecast that the pandemic would keep major releases on the shelf for months longer than expected. The movie was eventually delayed several more times, keeping one of the studio’s most important and lucrative franchises out of theaters and forcing competitors to adjust their calendars accordingly.

A poster for ‘F9’ in May at a metro station in China, where the movie has brought in more than $200 million in box-office receipts.



Photo:

VCG/Getty Images

Universal wanted to wait until a majority of its top markets were back online before releasing the film, said Mr. Orr. Toronto is the only significant moviegoing city that still has theaters closed, he said, which likely shaved a few million dollars of box-office receipts from this weekend’s total.

“F9” premiered a few weeks ago in certain international markets, where it has collected a total of $335 million, including more than $200 million in China, the world’s second-largest moviegoing market. Box-office receipts in China fell sharply in the movie’s second week of release, indicating a poor response from audiences. American crowds gave it a “B+” grade, according to the CinemaScore market-research firm.

Around the time it delayed big-budget releases such as “F9” last year, Universal also began shipping would-be theatrical releases straight to home release. The decision, which meant movies like “Trolls World Tour” premiered in living rooms and not on the big screen, drew outrage from some movie-theater operators but quickly became the industry norm.

Today, all of the studios are opting for a mix of release strategies. In a sign of how topsy-turvy the release schedule can look, Universal’s next two releases—“The Boss Baby: Family Business” and “The Forever Purge”—will both premiere on July 2. The “Purge” sequel will play only in theaters, while the “Boss Baby” sequel will play in theaters but also stream on its in-house streaming service, Peacock.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at [email protected]

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