‘Free Guy’ is the box office barometer Hollywood has been looking for

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds star in 20th Century Studio’s “Free Guy.”

Disney

20th Century Studios’ “Free Guy” could be the barometer the movie theater industry has been looking for as the Covid delta variant spreads domestically.

After months of franchise films that released in theaters and on streaming platforms on the same day, along comes “Free Guy.” It will be released Friday exclusively in cinemas — a rarity during the pandemic.

The Disney film, which stars Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, is also one of only a few original concept films to arrive on the big screen this year.

Box office analysts are eager to see how the action-comedy performs during its opening weekend, as it may be one of the purest tests of whether the movie theater industry is really seeing a comeback. Most of the high profile films that had a theatrical-only release — like Universal’s “F9” and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” — are part of established film franchises, giving them a ready-made fan base eager for a new installment.

Likewise, it’s been difficult with hybrid releases, like Warner Bros.’ “The Suicide Squad,” to determine if ticket sales were hurt because of the pandemic or because the film was available to stream at home.

“There are fewer variables,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, referring to “Free Guy.” “We can actually analyze things in an empirical way rather than the theoretical.”

With an exclusive theatrical release, the box office performance will be based on three things: Were people comfortable going to the theater? Were they interested in seeing “Free Guy?” Did the film get good word-of-mouth buzz during the weekend?

“Disney has held onto ‘Free Guy’ for quite a while now, as the company has high hopes it can break through the befuddled box office,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Truth is, in a normalized marketplace ‘Free Guy’ would have a clear path to success.”

Bock noted that film has likable stars in Comer and Reynolds, good reviews and positive word of mouth heading into its opening weekend.

“If ‘Free Guy’ doesn’t plug into $20 million or more this weekend, it could be a clear sign of more theatrical release chaos is on the horizon.”

Current estimates for the film range from $15 million to $20 million.

Disney’s decision to keep this film on the theatrical slate implies that the studio sees potential for a large-scale comedy to thrive even during the current climate, said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.

While some speculated that “Free Guy” could wind up on Disney’s streaming service instead of in cinemas, CEO Bob Chapek said during an earnings call Thursday that the film’s previous distribution agreement with Fox — which the company bought in 2019 — didn’t allow for much flexibility in its release method.

New Covid cases are being diagnosed at a pace not seen since February. Blame has fallen on the highly contagious delta variant, which is spreading quickly among unvaccinated people and at times causing breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. The pace of the spread has raised concerns that consumer behavior will change, as people grow more cautious and state and local government reinstate precautions like mask mandates in indoor settings such as theaters.

On Aug. 20, San Francisco will require proof of vaccination for indoor activities including movie theaters. New York City plans to enforce proof of vaccination at indoor entertainment centers beginning Sept. 13, although some establishments plan to put the plan into effect on Monday.

Robbins said “Free Guy” has the advantage of a PG-13 rating, good buzz and a “core male audience that has been a driver of this year’s more positive box office performances.”

It also has Reynolds, who is not only the star but has handled much of the marketing in recent months. The “wild card,” Robbins said, is the fact that it is an original property and doesn’t have any built-in demand like films that are part of major franchises.

Sony has postponed its release of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” opting for an October opening instead of late September. If “Free Guy” performs well over the weekend, studios may be more confident about sticking with the current schedule.

Disclosure: “F9” is distributed by NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC.