For a while, the question of when movie theaters would re-open was defined by a capitalist conundrum that no one wanted to talk about much, because its implications were too depressing. It went like this: Hollywood movies are staggeringly expensive. To have any hope of success, they need to open on a vast number of screens — not just in America, but worldwide. If they open on only a fraction of that number of screens, they’ll have no chance of recouping their budgets, let alone of making a profit. So until those screens (not some of them but all of them) are up and running, the idea of opening a major Hollywood movie in the midst of the coronavirus would be tantamount to consigning it to failure.
That’s why the studios, in their first wave of response to the pandemic, bumped so many of their new releases, from “Fast 9” to “In the Heights,” from “The Eternals” to “The Many Saints of Newark,” to 2021. And why even the films still scheduled for 2020, like “No Time to Die” and “Black Widow” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” have been moved to near the end of the year. In an obvious way, even those release dates now feel hypothetical. “Top Gun: Maverick” may be officially scheduled for Dec. 23, but if a vast number of theaters aren’t up and running by then, it’s fair to ask whether that release will really stand.
America is now trying to re-open, one small step at a time, and movie theaters, like any other business, will do the same. But if the theater chains open with baby steps, which is inevitable, then how can the product they sell — high-cost, high-profile Hollywood movies — be part of the process?
Viewed in that light, the announcements, made by Warner Bros. and Disney, that those studios are sticking to relatively early releases dates for two major films, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (still scheduled for July 17) and Niki Caro’s live-action remake of “Mulan” (now set for July 24), amounts to a revolution, a kind of declaration of war against the conundrum. “Tenet” has a reported budget of $205 million; “Mulan,” a budget of at least $200 million. According to the profit model I’ve just described, these movies will have an uphill battle at the box office, to put it mildly.
So why are they opening? It’s likely that their respective studios have outlined a radically revamped model for profitability — one based not on the mythic blast-off of a record-setting opening weekend (which isn’t close to possible), but one that’s much longer term, based on the idea that the films will play on a platform release schedule over a slowly unfolding period, and will possibly collect a greater percentage of their revenue than usual from the ancillary markets (VOD, DVD, etc.).
Yet it’s not just about the money. According to reports, while Warner Bros. made the corporate decision to release “Tenet,” the company did so after the passionate lobbying of Nolan, who in recent years has become the film industry’s most dynamic public advocate for the movie-theater experience. In the war that’s now taking place between studios and exhibitors, Nolan has made himself the bard of theatrical. And since “Tenet,” a sci-fi thriller about a secret agent, played by John David Washington, who travels through time to prevent World War III, is the kind of movie that carries event status, its release on July 17 now symbolizes something. It says to the world: On that day, the dream of movies lives.
The opening of “Mulan” says that, too. The live-action remakes of Disney animated films have, for the most part, been monumental successes, and “Mulan,” a remake of an animated film just old enough that when it came out, in 1998, it was described with phrases like “girl power,” has the potential to be a major pop-cultural event. Let’s pretend that we were talking about its box-office possibilities before the coronavirus hit; I’d put it in the camp of movies with the potential to gross $200 to $300 million. Could it do that kind of business now? Maybe not. So is Disney, like Warner Bros. with “Tenet,” leaving money on the table? Arguably a great deal of it.
Which is to say: They’re doing something good, doing something for the sake of it — but also, in doing so, maybe not leaving money on the table.
At the present moment, the movie industry needs to be guarded, fostered, enhanced. It needs to be saved. I believe that it will be, yet too many shaky variables now pose an existential threat to it — the rise of streaming, the already rickety financial shape of the exhibition business, and the monkey wrench that the pandemic has thrown into the middle of all this.
As theaters begin to re-open, in piecemeal fashion, many of them in the middle of the country (who knows when theaters will get to re-open in New York City, where they account for a major slice of the national-revenue pie), what, exactly, are they going to play? If they play “The Hunt” and “The Invisible Man” and “Bloodshot,” the films that were showing when the coronavirus first hit, few viewers will care. If they feature “special showings” of old favorites like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Shawshank Redemption,” few viewers will care. And it they program some of the worthy but small-scale independent films that have already been struggling to hold onto their audience … sorry, but few viewers will care.
For viewers to care, the films that need to open in theaters must represent the seductive religious compulsion of moviegoing. The beautiful oversize dream of it. And that’s what “Tenet” and “Mulan” do. Their studios know this. In a sense, you could say that on the bottom-line level the two studios are taking a hit for the team — taking a hit for the dream. They’re putting these movies out there, ahead of everyone else, to jump-start the act of moviegoing. To say to American viewers, “Come on in, the water’s fine.” Even though you have to wear a mask and sit a seat or two away from others and wait, longer than you would have before, for the picture to show up at a theater near you.
And maybe, as a result, “Tenet” and “Mulan” won’t even make their money back. (Or maybe they will; we don’t know.) The ritual of the socko opening-weekend box-office tally that has driven this industry since the days of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” is not going to be part of it. The studio executives aren’t going to be able to experience that high.
But in choosing to jump-start the industry, they are, in a way, investing in their financial futures. That’s true even if “Tenet” and “Mulan” don’t make as much money as they would have otherwise. Warner Bros., as of now, is also sticking to its Aug. 14 release date for “Wonder Woman 1984.” If that happens, it will be the third example of a mega summer blockbuster — this one, I would say, with even greater commercial potential than “Tenet” or “Mulan” — that gets a more scattered release.
So let’s applaud what these studios are doing. But let’s also consider what it will feel like for those of us in the audience. The movies, big as they are, will play in a limited number of theaters, because by the middle of July there aren’t going to be that many movie theaters open across America. The films will play there, without much competition, for weeks and weeks, maybe months. They’ll accrue their revenues slowly, without too many breathless headlines. And word of mouth will have a lot more time to get around.
It will be, a little bit (or maybe a lot), the way it used to be — back in the 1970s, when movies felt more like organic events than they do now, in part because people got to them more slowly. And since the experience of going to a movie theater is suddenly going to be exotic again, maybe there will now be a greater sense of discovery. Every time I write a column on this subject, it inevitably gets reader comments along the lines of, “Get over it! I’d rather stay home! The age of movie theaters is finished!” But is it? If you’d rather stay home, then maybe the last two months of lockdown has been a gift to you. Yet I’m someone whose very DNA is entwined with the experience of going to movie theaters. If that experience now comes back, for a while, with a different vibe, a slower vibe, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Starting with “Tenet” and “Mulan,” we can re-embrace what movies are. And appreciate, all over again, how much we need them.