Over the past few months, it’s become something of a predicable game: Studios announce plans to release a new film in theaters, the pandemic upends those plans, and said studio delays the movie again. Rinse, wash, repeat.
We’ve seen this play out with high-profile movies like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which has moved twice in the last month, and Disney’s “Mulan,” which has been postponed three times since March. There’s a good chance that trend continues if coronavirus cases keep rising across the country and states force theaters to remain shuttered.
In a pre-coronavirus world, it would be impossible for premiere dates to be this fluid. But when cinemas first started to close in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, studios began shifting movies en masse into the back half of the year or into 2021 and beyond. “Tenet,” “Mulan” and other movies hoping to be among the first to greet moviegoers when cinemas reopen, for now, have some flexibility since release calendars are wide open. However, if movies that have already been moved multiple times keep shuffling around, studios eventually run the risk of burning through marketing dollars.
“Everyone is playing a waiting game,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “With blockbuster films, the budgets are substantial. To recoup those budgets, they need theaters. But there’s no visibility of when they are going to reopen, so it’s sort of a chicken and egg situation.”
Should “Tenet” and “Mulan” be able to hold onto their latest scheduled debuts — on Aug. 12 and Aug. 21, respectively — executives and analysts say there won’t be much of a economic loss. Marketing funds might be stretched thinner to accommodate for the extra weeks here and there, but in all they won’t be strained. But that equation changes if the delays keep coming. At some point, studios will have to decide between extending marketing campaigns for longer than expected, or stopping and restarting them when it gets closer to the release date.
Film executives privately estimate that pushing “Mulan” or “Tenet” a few weeks at a time could amount to losing $200,000 to $400,000 in marketing fees — essentially negligible costs for a major studio in the grand scheme of unveiling a new movie. Depending on various factors, that number could increase to just under $5 million if they are delayed again without sufficient notice. That’s because the bulk of a film’s promotional and advertising efforts run in the two weeks prior to its release. So far, the release date changes have fallen outside that window.
Marketing a tentpole movie, which often carry production budgets between $100 million to $200 million, is an expensive proposition in any climate. It includes everything from 30-second TV commercials and billboards to splashy, star-studded premieres that routinely shut down Hollywood Boulevard. Studios begin executing those endeavors around six weeks before a movie is set to release — sometimes earlier during a competitive time of year like summer moviegoing season.
But that was then. Since multiplexes are closed and most in-person plans are still paused, studios have pivoted from traditional methods like playing trailers in theaters or organizing press tours with casts. Live events, such as the NBA championships or MLB regular season games, are among the most reliable ways to ensure eyeballs on the latest movie advertisements. But with most sports on hold for now, that option isn’t available either.
“It makes it impossible to build marketing plans,” LightShed analyst Rich Greenfield said. “Why even bother securing ad time if the NBA or MLB gets delayed?”
Despite the deviation in strategy, marketing budgets aren’t getting smaller — they’re just recalibrating. There’s been a greater emphasis on digital media to target audiences at home, such as TikTok trends and releasing new trailers on Fortnite. At least one benefit of this bizarre time where everyone is stuck indoors is that addicting apps and popular video games are attracting more attention than ever before.
“You’re seeing studios try something different — the new trailer for ‘Tenet’ launched on Fortnite,” Handler said. “There’s concern about how soon older adults will come back to theaters, so you have to market heavily to millennials.”
Since “Tenet” wasn’t initially scheduled to hit theaters until July, Warner Bros.’ only recently began committing major marketing resources. With or without a pandemic, the film has the added challenge of being original IP. Marketers have to work in overdrive to not just introduce, but hook audiences on the cerebral thriller that’s set in the world of international espionage.
That’s less of a concern for “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of Disney’s classic animated tale. Most moviegoers are already familiar with the fearless Chinese warrior. But “Mulan” has to worry about more than Northern invaders. Since its theatrical release was scrapped two weeks before its targeted U.S. launch, Disney already shelled out around half-a-million for a glitzy Los Angeles premiere in March — one of the last Hollywood events before everything shut down because of public health concerns.
It’s not just studios with money on the table. Theaters can’t successfully reopen until there is new product to show on the big screen. Date postponements, along with rising virus levels, are causing exhibitors to amend their plans as well. AMC, the biggest theater chain in the country, pushed back its plans to resume business by two weeks. The exhibitor, and its rival circuits, now plans to resume business at the end of July and hopes to be fully operational by August.
“We’re in a big holding pattern right now,” Handler said. “The industry is at the mercy of the municipalities of the biggest U.S. markets. The problem is in a number of markets, there are rising levels of Covid-19 cases. It’s causing municipalities to pump the brakes. Hopefully in these markets we will see things level off and that will give the government a little bit of comfort. It’s going to take time.”
There’s a saying, uncertainty is the only certainty. That’s doubly true in a pandemic. Even if theaters are able to reopen in the coming weeks — something that looks increasingly unlikely as each day passes — there’s no telling if people will show.
“Who wants to go first and light $200 million on fire? You take a massive write-down if the movie makes only a few million. That’s the risk,” Greenfield said. “It’s a race where winning is losing. Winning has a far greater risk of losing than ever before.”