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Studios and Movie Theaters Want to Reopen, but Coronavirus May Still Scramble Plans

Tenet Christopher Nolan
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

From delaying “Tenet” by two weeks to pushing the Oscars by two months, Hollywood is scrambling to adjust to a new reality. In the coronavirus era, it’s nearly impossible to predict what the world will look like next week, much less for the rest of the year and even into 2021. Because of this persistent fluidity, studios have been gripped by a new and growing sense of uncertainty.

In recent days, as cases have begun to rise again in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Houston, and new outbreaks have seized global metropolises such as Beijing, the movie business has tried to figure out how it can go back to the business of making movies, celebrating the films that are produced, and selling tickets to those movies it would like to present to a quarantine-fatigued general public.

“What we’ve all learned from this is that this coastline is rapidly changing,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “[Release dates] could change one week out. There’s always going to be an asterisk as long as we’re in the pandemic. As new news comes out, that’ll change things in a domino effect.”

That domino effect was on full display last Friday when Warner Bros. announced that it was moving “Tenet” back — from July 17 to July 31 — because it hoped more theaters would be open by the new release date. Even so, there’s a chance that cinemas in New York City could still remain closed, which would deprive the big-budget action epic of one of the most profitable moviegoing markets.

“The movement of ‘Tenet’ buys additional valuable time for the theater industry to acclimate to this new health-conscious, safety-driven dynamic that will be essential to build back consumer confidence,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “Of course, with major release dates changes, there will likely be a ripple effect on other high-profile films as each is dependent upon the other to either set the stage for, or ride a wave of popularity.”

In short order, the studio also shifted “Wonder Woman 1984” from August to October, pushed “Godzilla vs. Kong” from November to May of 2021, and moved “Matrix 4” into 2022, by which point, for civilization’s sake, let there be a vaccine.

Other studios quickly joined in the game of release-date musical chairs. MGM moved “No Time to Die” forward by five days, sliding the James Bond sequel into the Nov. 20 date vacated by “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Solstice Studios delayed “Unhinged” — the Russell Crowe thriller that it hoped would be the first nationwide release post-coronavirus — from July 1 to July 10. It will now debut on the same day as Sony’s romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery.” And many industry observers expect that Disney, which still has “Mulan” scheduled to come out on July 24, will also opt to premiere the movie at a later date.

“Most of these movies are really expensive,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “You can’t open them if major markets are closed and right now there’s a lot of uncertainty about which markets will be open. You have to hope for the best, but adjust as things change.”

But looming in the distance is one giant unknowable: Even if cinemas reopen, audiences might not feel safe going back to theaters while the disease is still spreading. Trying to predict consumer behavior has been a tricky task for studios. They can spend millions on marketing and publicity, but these efforts could be futile if patrons aren’t eager to return.

Exhibitors, for their part, have eagerly implemented precautionary measures like increased sanitation and extra cleaning between showtimes. They are expected to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, which will require locations to operate between 25%-50% capacity.

There’s also concern that a second wave could flare up and put major metropolises back at risk. Movie theaters in Beijing were expected to reopen this week, but were forced to remain shuttered after three new cases of coronavirus were discovered there.

“It’s a delicate balance that is in play right now,” Dergarabedian said. “A myriad of factors — including shifting release dates, ever changing health concerns, local ordinances and social distancing protocols — continue to change on an almost daily basis.”

Those variables have put Warner Bros. in a delicate position. Nolan, a fierce advocate of the big-screen experience, had hoped to usher in a new era of moviegoing with “Tenet,” providing a populist platform for exhibitors to unveil their new COVID-19 safety measures and cleaning procedures. But the studio has been worried that they were risking their $200 million investment by debuting “Tenet” at a time when public health concerns made audiences wary of returning to cinemas. Keeping Nolan happy, while keeping its investment safe, has required a deft balancing act.

Rival studios, such as Paramount and Universal, have taken another route and instead pushed most of their movies into the fall or even into next year. That may be the right play, Bock argues.

“You can always move them back, but to get ahead of science and health regulations — they can’t possibly know that or understand everything that’s going to happen in a few weeks,” he said. “There’s no sense launching in the middle of the biggest s—storm cinema has ever seen.”

Others see opportunity in the tumult. Solstice Studios, a newcomer in Hollywood, is looking to bow “Unhinged” at a time when the public is desperate for something to do and there’s little competition from major studio releases. Because the film cost a relatively economical $33 million, Solstice is betting that it can turn a profit even if major cities such as New York or San Francisco keep their theaters closed.

“There are so many unknowns. There’s no way to know if it’s going to work or not, but we decided to take the risk anyway,” said Solstice Studios president Mark Gill. “It’s not like we’re fighting for box office with 12 other movies. … Someone has to go first to get it started. Let it be us.”