Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Wipe Out All of Summer Blockbuster Season?

Wonder Woman 1984
Courtesy of Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures

Say goodbye to blockbuster season — at least for this year.

After would-be summer hits from Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal already vacated their release dates, Sony Pictures announced Monday that its comic book adventure “Morbius,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and virtually all of its upcoming tentpoles were being moved into the fall or beyond. It was an acknowledgment that the coronavirus pandemic is not expected to vanish anytime soon — a grim reality that likely means that movie theaters will remain closed for the near future.

“When Sony pulled the plug on their films, that signaled the end of any hope of a summer movie season,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If magically a vaccine comes out in June, then maybe that won’t be the case, but I don’t really expect that to happen.”

Historically, summer movie season has been the most profitable stretch for the film business. The industry makes roughly 40% of its annual revenues between May and August, a period of time in which studios are likely to debut new installments in their biggest properties. The four-month frame brings in roughly $4 billion each year, according to Comscore.

The public health crisis — one that is estimated to result in hundreds of thousands of deaths — is of paramount concern. However, the likely postponement of several major releases will put a further financial strain on an already imperiled entertainment industry.

On paper, this summer looked like a solid one, with the likes of Disney’s “Black Widow,” Universal’s “Fast 9,” and Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” all slated to open. Each of those films have subsequently been shifted. “Fast 9” opted to move out of 2020 entirely, planting its flag in May 2021, while “Wonder Woman 1984” optimistically pushed from June to August, a date that some insiders suspect may be premature.

A few stragglers, such as the Christopher Nolan sci-fi adventure “Tenet” and Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” have yet to postpone their June or July releases, but it seems unlikely they will hit theaters as scheduled.

For now, Hollywood studios are scrambling to figure out when to debut other major movies that vacated their opening weekends — a group that includes Warner Bros.’ musical “In the Heights,” Disney’s “Mulan” and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place 2.”

“There are lot of moving parts,” said Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution. “It’s not about just dating a movie and we’re done. You’ll see titles moving around to accommodate all kinds of things — production delays, financing. We’re still trying to figure out what the domestic film landscape will look like. But it’s very doable.”

Analysts and studio executives note that once life begins to return to normal and people stop self-quarantining in their homes, they may not instantly rush back into crowded public spaces like theaters.

“People are going to err on side of caution,” said Eric Handler, an exhibition industry analyst with MKM Partners. “Maybe theaters only fill every other seat at first. It’s going to be a gradual ramp-up, but we don’t know what the world is going to like like when we start venturing back outside and into our old lives.”

It could also be a process that unspools in fits and starts. China briefly re-opened its theaters in March after the virus appeared to be under control, only to abruptly change course and shut them down again without any explanation. Even before the decision was made to turn off the marquee lights, Chinese audiences were hesitant about going to theaters. In the U.S., exhibitors think that it’s possible that movie theaters in less impacted regions will slowly open their doors. But that also means studios could be wary of releasing their major films with a limited number of screens available.

“Theaters may come back at different rates around the country, so you’re not going to get those wide releases until all theaters nationwide are back,” predicts Patrick Corcoran, VP and chief communications officer at the National Association of Theatre Owners, the exhibition industry trade group. “There’s so much we don’t know yet — when the peak is going to come and how long after that it’s going to be safe and smart to open theaters.”

Even if theaters nationwide are able to open by late summer, the importance of global revenues means studios will have to take into consideration how the rest of the world is recovering from the health crisis before setting new launch dates. It won’t make much sense to unveil a film like Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt or “Top Gun Maverick” if a majority of theaters in Asia and Europe — where action stars are a huge theatrical draw — are closed.

There’s been speculation that studios desperate for revenues may forgo a traditional theatrical rollout and release their summer movies on demand. That’s resulted in a few experiments, the boldest being Universal’s decision to unfurl “Trolls World Tour” on home entertainment the same day it was scheduled to hit the big screen. Most industry sages, however, don’t expect that to become the new normal. They note that these movies typically carry budgets that are north of $100 million and require tens of millions more in distribution and advertising costs. The economics don’t work out for them to turn up their noses at millions of dollars in box office ticket sales.

However, it may become more tempting for companies to release mid-budget or modestly priced movies such as Universal’s “The Invisible Man” or STX’s “The Gentleman” after a few weeks in theaters. Analysts believe that many of the films that debuted on-demand early due to cinemas closures did robust business. That could be welcome news for studios, which have long wanted to shorten the window of exclusivity in which films screen in multiplexes.

“The windows have been closed and may stay closed even after the industry gets started again,” said Peter Csathy, founder of Creatv Media. “This is something a lot of people in the industry have wanted to do for a long time, and now they’ve had an excuse to do it.”

Studios aren’t just stuck in a holding pattern because they’re waiting for multiplexes to re-open. Like many businesses, they’ve been forced to work remotely to help with social distancing. As a result, many films that were in post-production won’t be done in time for their previously scheduled release dates. There’s still scores to compose, visual effects to finalize and edits to make.

“It’s going to vary picture by picture depending on where they are in post-production,” said Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution at Paramount. “That will dictate where and when they can be dated. That’s the biggest issue.”

In the meantime, the theater business has been hit hard by the closures. Executives hope the loan guarantees that are included in President Donald Trump’s $2 trillion relief bill will be enough to keep them solvent and out of bankruptcy. When health officials ultimately give the all clear, cinema owners believe that their cash registers will ring again.

“There’s going to be so much pent-up demand,” predicts Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst with ComScore. “People are going stir crazy in their houses. They can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”