Movie theaters are in trouble.
It’s been a lackluster year at cinemas, to say the least. Movie theaters have sat empty during spikes in the COVID-19 pandemic. Movie houses in the two biggest markets in the U.S., New York City and Los Angeles, remain closed as those cities fight to keep infection numbers under control. Over the summer, Hollywood looked to Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated Tenet as a savior of the moviegoing experience, but when the film finally premiered after numerous delays, it trickled out to little fanfare. (It has managed to bring in $300 million, mostly from overseas, though that box office total falls far short of the rest of Nolan’s films.) Still, theater owners have been pinning their hopes on a resurgence in moviegoing this fall.
But in the last two weeks, as case numbers have risen across the U.S. and it has become increasingly apparent that people simply do not feel safe going to the movies, studios have begun to push the last of their 2020 films to 2021, dashing those hopes. On Monday, Cineworld—which owns Regal Cinemas, the second largest theater chain in the U.S.—announced that all of its 663 cinemas in the U.S. and Britain would close temporarily, affecting around 40,000 employees. AMC, the largest theater chain in the States, will stay open, though the company’s stock fell 10% following its rival’s statement on Monday.
Mooky Greidinger, the CEO of Cineworld, said on Sky News, “It’s the wrong decision from the studios to move the movies to next year,” and exhibitioners have squarely laid the blame on the producers of the latest Bond film, No Time to Die. Back in March, the film’s producers were among the first to anticipate that the spread of the coronavirus would wreak havoc on theaters and delayed the release of the Daniel Craig movie from April until November. On Friday, No Time to Die abruptly shifted dates again to April 2, 2021. “This isn’t the right time,” Craig said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon on Monday. He even cast doubt on the ability of movie theaters to reopen in the spring. “Fingers crossed April 2 is going to be our date.” Cineworld employees say that No Time to Die’s date shift is what compelled the theater chain to close.
But studios can hardly be blamed for a logical business move—not to mention a wise public health decision. The few movies that have released in theaters across the world this summer, including Tenet, Mulan and X-Men: New Mutants, have not performed well. Health experts have warned for the last several months that sitting inside with strangers for prolonged periods of time—even at a distance—is unsafe, especially if ventilation is poor and those strangers are taking off their masks to eat popcorn and sip soda. “It’s just about the last thing I’d do right now,” one epidemiologist told The A.V. Club. For many would-be moviegoers, the risk is too high.
And so studios, unwilling to take huge financial hits on films that might succeed in theaters in the future, are bumping their slates. Bond moved. Disney delayed Black Widow from May 2020 until November 2020, and now has pushed the film’s premiere again until May 7, 2021. Dune, originally set for December 2020, will move to Oct. 1, 2021. There are still a few holiday movie holdouts, including Disney and Pixar’s Soul and Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984, but it’s likely those movies will move as well.
Regal, which like AMC has billions of dollars of debt, is left with little recourse. Smaller theaters face even grimmer prospects. Meanwhile, streamers like Netflix are offering thousands of hours of content to consumers at home, competition which terrifies an industry dependent on fans packing theaters. Here’s what all these delays mean for the future of your favorite franchises and the fate of the moviegoing experience.
Could any of the delayed movies still end up on streaming or VOD this year?
Studios, especially those with their own affiliated streaming services, could send some fare straight to streaming this year. WarnerMedia, for instance, owns both Warner Bros. and HBO Max. So it makes perfect sense that Warner Bros. has decided to release its Anne Hathaway movie The Witches, based on the Roald Dahl children’s book of the same name, straight to HBO Max rather than debut it in theaters. That movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away), is one of the larger offerings, along with Mulan, to pivot to streaming this year.
Similarly, Disney could send a movie like Pixar’s Soul, which is currently still slated for Nov. 20, 2020, to Disney+. Disney would likely charge viewers an extra fee on top of the Disney+ subscription for a period of time, as they did when Mulan debuted on the service.
Other studios that don’t have an obvious outlet for their films would have to cut a deal with a streaming service. MGM, which produces the Bond films, has no streaming service, and while they cut a deal with Universal for the international streaming rights for Bond, Universal’s only streaming outlet is the newly-launched Peacock, which hasn’t built up an adequate enough subscriber base to attract audiences to a big release like the latest 007 movie.
And regardless, don’t expect movies like No Time to Die or Wonder Woman 1984 to ever go straight to VOD. Studio executives believe those films are dependent on the immersive, cinematic experience and lose much of their power when watched for the first time at home, possibly even on a phone. What’s more, action movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, and it’s not clear whether studios can turn a large profit or even recoup their costs when they send these films straight to streaming.
There’s mixed evidence that big-budget movies can succeed financially on streaming. If Netflix’s self-reported numbers are to be believed, some of its splashy superhero movies, like The Old Guard starring Charlize Theron, are massive hits: Netflix reported that movie was watched by 72 million households in the first month of its release. Netflix depends on subscriptions, not streaming purchases, so it’s hard to say directly how much money Netflix made from The Old Guard. Disney offers a less optimistic data point: Mulan made $33.5 million in its opening weekend from Disney+ subscribers. That’s a lot of money for a streaming movie. But Mulan, which was also saddled with controversy, likely cost over $200 million to make, and scored a lackluster opening weekend overseas: It was one of Disney’s worst-performing remakes at the Chinese box office.
What does it all mean for 2021 at the movies?
Right now, 2021 is looking very crowded. Studios have shifted many of their most anticipated films from 2020 to 2021, including Black Widow, Dune, The Eternals, Fast & Furious 9, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, In the Heights, Morbius, No Time to Die, A Quiet Place Part II, Top Gun: Maverick, West Side Story and many more. There are only so many weekends per year, and it’s not like theaters will magically reopen their doors on Jan. 1. So in order to make room for all the 2020 movies, studios will be forced to either compete with one another for dwindling box office returns on the same weekend or bump some of their 2021 movies to 2022.
Those dominos have already begun to fall. Dune moved to the 2021 weekend that was already occupied by the Robert Pattinson starrer The Batman, and the latest caped crusader reboot shifted to March 4, 2022. The long-awaited Avatar sequel moved from December 2021 to December 2022 in order to make room for one of Disney’s other movies, the third Tom Holland Spider-Man flick. Halloween Ends has shifted from October 2021 to October 2022. Matrix 4 is a unique case, as its release was actually moved up from April 2022 to December 22, 2021. DC movie The Flash was pushed from June 3, 2022 to November 4, 2022, and Shazam 2 has moved from that November 2022 slot to June 2, 2023. The untitled Indiana Jones movie we were supposed to get next summer won’t debut until July 2022. And Black Adam and Minecraft have been taken off the schedule entirely.
Things may yet shift again if there is no widespread distribution of a vaccine by spring 2021. But studios are incentivized to hold out for the theatrical release of their movies. A few films have cut their losses and headed straight to VOD, like Trolls World Tour. That children’s movie made nearly $100 million in the first week of rentals, more than the previous Trolls film had made in that time in theaters. But franchises like Marvel and Fast & Furious expect to make billions, not millions, in theaters: Furious 7 grossed $1.5 billion globally, and Captain Marvel raked in $1.13 billion.
Many filmmakers, too, fervently believe in the theatrical experience and want to do their part to keep those communal gathering spots in business. When director John Krasinski announced that A Quiet Place II would shift its release date, he wrote on Instagram, “One of the things I’m most proud of is that people have said our movie is one you have to see all together….As insanely excited as we are for all of you to see this movie…I’m gonna wait to release the film til we CAN all see it together! So here’s to our group movie date!”
What does this mean for Marvel, DC, and other superhero franchises?
The state of superhero movies is a little more complicated. The genius of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, up until this point, has been how all the movies are connected to one another. The post-credits scene from, say, a Captain America movie, will set up Black Panther: the Black Panther post-credits scene previews the next Avengers installment, and so on. In order to get the full story, you need to watch all 23 MCU movies.
Unfortunately, that means Disney doesn’t have much flexibility when it comes to releasing the superhero movies it currently has in the can. In all likelihood, the plot of Black Widow somehow ties in to future movies like Eternals or even Disney+ MCU TV series like Falcon and the Winter Soldier. If Disney were to release any of the movies or shows out of order, it would spoil the entire story. Delays for Black Widow and The Eternals mean that Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man 3 will inevitably need to be pushed back as well. That delay also means we likely won’t get to see the X-Men or Fantastic Four characters—whom Marvel Studios acquired when Disney bought 20th Century Fox last year—in any MCU movie for a long time.
The other studios are a little less dependent on a strict schedule: Warner Bros. has established that Wonder Woman 1984 does not exist in the same universe as The Joker and is only tangentially related to the Harley Quinn movie that premiered earlier this year. Nor does she have anything to do with the Batman movie or the Suicide Squad reboot that are both currently filming. So Warner Bros. can release those movies whenever the studio feels they will be able to turn a profit.
What does this mean for movie theaters and the moviegoing experience?
Tenet was supposed to save the movies. It didn’t. No one movie ever could have. It’s made just $45 million domestically. This past weekend, Hocus Pocus, the Bette Midler Halloween film about witches that debuted 27 years ago, beat it at the box office.
It’s unclear when people will want to go to movie theaters again. Only 17% of Americans feel comfortable attending the movies, according to a mid-August Morning Consult poll. Some health experts have called the movie theater experience during COVID-19 “Russian roulette,” pointing out that theaters make most of their money from concession, but people necessarily have to take off their masks to eat popcorn and slurp their soda. As the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors in general, experts say we’re likely to see another wave of the virus. If people aren’t willing to attend the movies now, it’s unlikely they’ll be eager to catch the latest flick in the dead of winter if we’re seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases.
That leaves cinemas in a precarious position, to say nothing of indies and arthouse theaters. Even once there is a vaccine, it’s unclear how long it will take theatergoers to venture out of their homes again: streaming services like Netflix threaten studios’ profits by offering alternative entertainment at home. Cinephiles fear that watching movies at home will become the norm.
What does this mean for streaming services?
One thing is certain: streaming is having a banner year. Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched last fall, and HBO Max and Peacock joined the streaming arms’ race this year. As a result, audiences have more content than ever to choose from at home. This fall is no exception: Amazon Prime has scooped up several Oscar hopefuls, including Steve McQueen’s anthology of films titled Small Axe, Regina King’s directorial feature debut One Night in Miami. Apple TV+ will debut Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as well as one of this year’s most raved-about animated films, Wolfwalkers. Disney+’s biggest releases will be television series, namely the second season of The Mandalorian and the MCU series WandaVision.
But all those new services are just playing catchup to Netflix. Netflix has had more time to build up a massive library, and had already filmed most of its 2020 content before the virus hit and thus had to delay few releases. In Q2 of 2020, Netflix generated $6.14 billion in revenue, up from $4.9 billion at the same time last year. And Netflix has begun to experiment with bigger-budget productions made just for the small screen. Recent hits like The Old Guard, Spenser Confidential and Enola Holmes have proven, at least according to Netflix’s own analysis, that mid- to big-budget movies can succeed on streaming. Netflix releases a buzzy new movie or show every week—if not more often. In the coming months, they’ll release the Adam Sandler comedy Hubie Halloween, Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar hopeful Trial of the Chicago 7 and David Fincher’s latest, Mank.
Streaming probably won’t supplant moviegoing. The movie date will always have a place in American culture. But the pandemic has, for now, accelerated the trend towards watching more content at home—and the timing of the movie date’s return is as uncertain as ever.