Even under the best circumstances, Hollywood studios and exhibitors were concerned about how the 2020 box office would stack up in a year with decidedly less sure-fire hits. But now that movie theaters across the country have begun dimming their marquee lights for an indefinite period of time to help contain the spread of coronavirus, the industry is left with a confusing picture of when — and at what scale — Americans will return to multiplexes again.
Already, Disney’s “Black Widow,” “Mulan” and “The New Mutants,” as well as Universal’s “Fast & Furious” installment “F9,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place” sequel and MGM’s James Bond adventure “No Time to Die” have been postponed. More movies could be affected if theaters are closed longer than expected. But there are looming concerns about where to move these films without impacting fall and winter release schedules.
After the world emerges from this unprecedented crisis and theaters slowly reopen, the studios executives tasked with deciding when movies hit the big screen will have to navigate a calendar minefield.
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“Setting release dates and moving movies around is a very difficult task,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “There’s a think tank for each one to capitalize on the right time.”
For now, wondering when theaters will be back in business remains a question without an answer. AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, the nation’s three biggest circuits, shuttered nationwide. AMC estimates its venues will be closed for six to 12 weeks, though other chains didn’t offer up a time frame. Best case, theaters will reopen in mid-May. Worst case, they remain closed through May and into summer, a time of year that usually fields some of the biggest blockbusters.
Only two movies that vacated their release dates — “No Time to Die” (shifting from its original April 3 debut to Nov. 25) and “F9” (moving from May 22 to April 2, 2021 in the slot once occupied by the franchise’s 10th installment) — have planted flags back in the calendar, so far. For the remaining tentpoles that were pulled, it’ll be a puzzle that requires cautious and strategic planning. These movies carry outsized budgets and are vital to companies’ bottom lines.
Studios carefully plot these dates sometimes years in advance to have enough space from rivals’ major films, as well as their own movies. There are 52 weeks in a year, as executives responsible for playing this unique game of chess often say, but the amount of available weekends to claim could shrink if quarantine efforts could extend through July or August. The rest of the year has the potential to become more crowded with each delay, and if marquees overflow with options, it could in turn, reduce the appetite for individual movies.
“Studios spend a lot of time picking release dates for their films,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at Comscore. “That’s why you see big blockbuster tentpoles planting a flag on a date two years in advance.”
Having to rearrange the box office calendar could create a domino effect, since the rest of 2020 is already slated with other blockbuster hopefuls. It’s not just finding the right time to reschedule individual movies; studios also have to make sure they don’t end up cannibalizing other films they’re planning to release. Adding to anxieties for other companies, Disney’s chokehold over the marketplace means the Magic Kingdom has most of the power when it comes to setting the cultural agenda.
But even Disney has its own dilemmas. The studio’s schedule is cleared through Memorial Day, and it has three major movies — “Mulan,” “Black Widow” and “The New Mutants” — without release dates. By dropping one of those films in summer, it could take audiences away from Pixar’s “Soul” (June 19) or “Jungle Cruise” with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt (July 24), two other films in which Disney has invested heavily. And at this point, there’s no guarantee theaters will be open for those films to debut.
Around the holidays, Disney has to avoid competing with Marvel’s “The Eternals” (Nov. 6) and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (Dec. 18), another pair of high-profile, upcoming releases. That’s to say nothing of having to weave around other big titles like Warner Bros. musical adaptation of “In the Heights” (June 26), “No Time to Die” (Nov. 25), Sony’s “Venom 2” (Oct. 2) and Paramount’s “Top Gun Maverick” (June 24).
Universal opted to forgo a traditional theatrical release for “Trolls World Tour,” an animated sequel to 2016’s “Trolls,” which grossed $346 million at the global box office. Instead, the studio will put the family film on home entertainment on April 10, the same day it was supposed to hit theaters. But experts, for now, think that example will be the exception, not the rule. That’s mostly because exhibitors have been vehemently against any attempts from studios to shorten the amount of time that films are exclusively available in cinemas. It came as a sign of comfort to theater owners when John Krasinski pledged loyalty to the big-screen experience after Paramount pushed “A Quiet Place Part II.”
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that people have said our movie is one you have to see all together,” Krasinski said at the time. “I’m gonna wait to release the film till we CAN all see it together!”
Analysts suggest the release calendar might have some wiggle room — particularly in the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, an already busy time for moviegoing. Labor Day could be similarly opportune since typically few major films are released that weekend. This December also seems to have more space than usual, since Disney won’t be releasing a “Star Wars” chapter for the first time in years.
“We’ve always been a couple films short in the holiday corridor,” Bock said. “People have a lot of time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s certainly room to add big Hollywood films in that time.”
He adds, “If things get better by summer, studios can rewrite the box office record books in doing so. There are a lot of opportunity here.”
Christmastime is one period that could use a boost from blockbusters. Though it leaves limited time in the calendar year to bolster overall box office earnings, it’s one of the most popular frames to gather the family and see a movie on the silver screen. Universal’s Western drama “News of the World” with Tom Hanks is currently set to open that weekend alongside Paramount’s sci-fi fantasy film “The Tomorrow World” and Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (in limited release). While those could end up being beloved movies, they aren’t expected to sell the same amount of tickets as last year’s top December earners, “Rise of Skywalker” ($1.07 billion) or Sony’s “Jumanji” follow-up ($795 million globally). There’s certainly capacity for theatrical draws that could appeal to other demographics.
Nearly all tentpoles presently in production — including Warner Bros. “The Batman” with Robert Pattinson, Universal’s “Jurassic World: Dominion,” Paramount’s next “Mission: Impossible” sequel and Sony’s “Uncharted” with Tom Holland — have shut down as coronavirus spreads, meaning some could end up being postponed if they’re not completed in time. If that’s the case, studios could push some movies to 2021 in spots once held by its own titles.
“Studios are going to have to recalibrate and do things differently,” Bock said. “Innovation is one of the hallmarks of the industry, and if Hollywood is going to continue to make strides when all this blows over, they are going to have to change things.”