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'Godzilla vs. Kong' stomps to pandemic-best $48.5M opening

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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Kaylee Hottle in a scene from "Godzilla vs. Kong." (Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

NEW YORK – With the help of a few old friends, the box office rekindled some of its old might over the weekend. “Godzilla vs. Kong” scored easily the best opening of the pandemic with an estimated $48.5 million since opening Wednesday, even as it was simultaneously streaming at home.

The monster mash, from Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment, was the widest domestic release in the past year, playing in more than 3,000 theaters. Many theaters have been reopening over the past few weeks; about 60% of theaters were open this weekend, according to data firm Comscore. Most are operating at 50% capacity or less.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” stomped to $32.2 million from Friday to Sunday, according to studio estimates Sunday. The five-day total far exceeded expectations, and even outpaced the three-day debut ($47.8 million) of the franchise's last entry, 2019's “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” Globally, “Godzilla vs. Kong” grossed $120.1 million over the weekend, bringing its two-week worldwide total to $285.4 million.

Made for approximately $160 million, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is one of a small handful of big-budget movies to open in theaters. WarnerMedia, which owns Warner Bros. and HBO Max, hedged its bet, though, by streaming the film to subscribers in North America at the same time — a strategy it's pursuing for all 2021 releases.

The studio didn't offer viewing data Sunday but said “Godzilla vs. Kong” had a larger audience on HBO Max than any film or TV show since the service's launch in 2020.

But clearly the clash of two of the movies' most iconic big guys was enough to drive more people — whether they have HBO Max accounts or not — to the big screen more than anything else over the past the year. After a punishing year for theaters, it's one of the most promising signs in ages that moviegoing can be revived after a punishing pandemic year.

David A. Gross, who runs the movie consultancy FranchiseRe, estimated that “Godzilla vs. Kong” would have debuted with a $50 million three-day weekend and $500 million worldwide if not for the pandemic.

“While it’s half of what it would be under normal circumstances, the weekend is a clear and positive indication that moviegoing has inherent strengths that aren’t going away, including going out for the group experience; the big screen quality; and the value for cost,” Gross said.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” had already launched with $123.1 million internationally last weekend, led by especially strong ticket sales in China. There, it opened with $70 million, surpassing the performance of previous entries in the franchise. This weekend, it added another $44 million, Legendary said.

“Moviegoers have been waiting for an event film like ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ to arrive on the big screen and the numbers don’t lie — it’s clear that wherever audiences are ready to safely return to the theater, they have, and we’re thrilled with the results," Jeff Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros., said in a statement.

A new series of movies was restarted in 2014 with “Godzilla,” followed by 2017's “Kong: Skull Island” and 2019's “Godzilla: King of Monsters.” Returns have been steadily diminishing. The previous three films opened domestically with $200.7 million, $168.1 million and $47.8 million, respectively. But the franchise had been leading up to the prize fight of “Godzilla vs. Kong." Directed by Adam Wingard, its human co-stars include Alexander Skarsgård, Brian Tyree Henry and Rebecca Hall.

The pandemic high had belonged to “Wonder Woman 1984,” which launched with $16.7 million in December. The previous best opening of 2021 in North America was “Tom & Jerry,” with $13.7 million in late February. That gives Warner Bros. the top three movies of the last year, all distributed in a hybrid release plan in both theaters and on HBO Max for a 30-day period.

Theater owners seized on the film's performance as proof that moviegoers are ready to return to theaters, and Hollywood should release more of the big-budget films it has withheld during the pandemic. In the past month, theaters reopened in the U.S.'s two largest markets — New York and Los Angeles — which were both the top markets for “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Also driving sales were private or “pod” bookings of an entire theater, of which the Warner Bros. release had more than 10,000.

The film drew mostly younger moviegoers. According to the studio, 72% were under the age of 35. “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which has received mostly positive reviews from critics, scored an “A” CinemaScore from audiences.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP