For months, potential blockbusters like “No Time to Die,” “Black Widow” and “Fast & Furious 9” have abandoned their planned theatrical release dates — then abandoned them again, and again.
There’s been nary a week in 2020 that hasn’t seen the delay of at least one major film. And in most instances, postponing a tentpole can set off a chain reaction, as was the case when the latest Bond sequel moved to the date previously occupied by “F9” — and “Dune,” in an effort to get away from “Wonder Woman 1984” around Christmas, relocated to next October and caused “The Batman” to bump back to 2022. Yet the pandemic persists in many places, and after the lackluster results for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the prospect of returning to the movies in a sustained way seems nearly as distant as it did when coronavirus first started to spread in March. Studios have already pushed the debuts of individual movies numerous times, a trend that could continue into the new year — especially as potential vaccines make their way through the approval process.
“That’s the frustration of a pandemic, nature is in control in a lot of ways,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro.
That’s left studios scrambling, trying to find a way to outrun a pandemic that could last for months, even years. And Hollywood companies are fearful of opening hugely expensive movies when it’s unclear if major markets, from Europe to Asia to even parts of the United States that seem to have the virus under control today, could see a surge in the weeks before they’re finally ready to release a movie. It’s a problem that’s vexed everything from “Tenet” to “Mulan,” films that were initially supposed to usher in a return to moviegoing, but either failed to reignite the box office or were relegated to streaming services when coronavirus showed no signs of abetting. This is the new reality that studios and exhibitors are waking up to — coronavirus is a fact of life for the indefinite future — and that’s making planning very difficult indeed.
“Just because 2020 ends doesn’t mean the problems we’re facing now will go away,” said Robbins. “They have to keep moving the goal post because of that lack of predictability.”
When exactly these movies will premiere is still a question without a satisfying answer. In an effort to get ahead of the virus, studios continue to claim seemingly arbitrary times on the release calendar in hopes that the pandemic will soon disappear. The holiday season looks light: “Wonder Woman 1984” on Christmas Day is the lone remaining possible blockbuster scheduled for 2020, and there’s a chance that could soon change. But early 2021 looks curiously stacked, with “The King’s Men,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” Camila Cabello’s “Cinderella” and “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” among the buzzy titles set for the first quarter of the year. “No Time to Die” is slated to open in April, and “F9” is scheduled to drop over Memorial Day weekend in May.
But there’s no sense of when the box office will return to normal, and it’s hard to imagine, given the current state of the pandemic, that many movies will keep their hastily selected “new” release dates. Moreover, health experts aren’t clear about when an effective vaccine will be widely available — it could be late 2021 before most of the country is vaccinated, and some customers may be wary of returning to movie theaters until that milestone is reached.
Maintaining release dates, even ones that likely won’t stick, is “an important message for studios to send and say: ‘We’re committed to putting movies in theaters,” Robbins said.
Beyond showing solidarity with theaters, who rely on fresh and exciting product from studios to survive, it’s critical for Hollywood players to plant flags in the calendar. Studios, in any climate, have to make some hard decisions about when to launch their films. Finding the perfect release date for a movie — especially ones with budgets over $100 million that need massive ticket sales to turn a profit — requires an extra level of sorcery during a pandemic. Distribution chiefs, those responsible for the theatrical rollout of a film, are staying optimistic that moviegoing will resume in a significant way by the second quarter of 2021.
Some box office analysts are skeptical about the possibility of a grand return to the movies by next spring.
“There’s a lot of planning involved for major marketing campaigns, and the pandemic isn’t going to magically change on Jan. 1,” said Peter Csathy, chairman of Creatv Media, a media and entertainment advisory company. “People are thinking that 2022 is more realistic.”
Major studios, particularly Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal, have more clout in setting the cultural agenda. Few would want to compete against behemoth franchises like Jurassic World, Marvel or James Bond. That leaves smaller studios to bob and weave around the calendar for openings. But no distributor is immune to the carnage; everyone is finding out together when rivals shift around their entire film lineup. The planning can feel like a high-stakes game of musical chairs. When the music stops — or a studio makes another massive overhaul to their upcoming slate — rivals are left trying to find a chair, or risk having to go back to the drawing board.
For theaters, the never-ending wave of delays only further upends their plans to welcome back patrons. Without blockbuster-level films to offer, exhibitors are struggling to sell tickets. But until major U.S. markets including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco reopen theaters, it’s unlikely studios will feel confident to unveil high profile films — even ones with seemingly firm release dates.
“The studios are planting dates just to stake a claim, but they’re staking a claim at a time when theaters wonder if they have any future at all,” Csathy said. “It’s not intentional false hope, but it’s certainly wishful thinking and Hollywood optimism.”