The movie business is ready to shake off 2020 and the world-shattering pandemic that fundamentally altered the way films are made, distributed and enjoyed. But before the box office can roar back to life, there are still major issues that Hollywood is grappling with, involving everything from cinemas’ red-ink-filled balance sheets to the evolution of studios’ comic book universes.
Here are five big questions facing the film industry in 2021 as it looks to turn the page on an annus horribilis.
Can movie theaters stay solvent?
AMC, Cineworld and, to a lesser extent, Cinemark, piled on the debt in recent years as they acquired competitors and tore up theaters to replace old seats with luxury recliners. That left them with a smaller rainy day fund when the deluge of misfortune that was coronavirus hit last spring. AMC has already warned investors that it needed an additional $750 million to avoid filing for bankruptcy this year, while Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas in the U.S., shut down locations in the Europe and North America as a way of staving off insolvency. Smaller, independently owned theaters that aren’t publicly traded are also facing closure, though they may get some federal help from Save Our Stages, which the big chains won’t be eligible to receive. With the vaccine rollout so far going slower than expected, can movie theaters keep afloat until moviegoing comes back in a big way? The smart money is that at least one of these chains will find themselves in Chapter 11 unless the situation starts improving fast.
Will China still be a big source of box office?
In a twist straight out of a Hollywood movie, China mounted a mid-summer box office revival without much help from Tinseltown at all. To be sure, “Mulan,” “Tenet” and “Wonder Woman 1984” all played in Chinese movie theaters, but local titles like war epic “The Eight Hundred,” an animated film “Jiang Ziya: The Legend of Deification” and the patriotic anthology “My People, My Homeland” largely drove ticket sales and propelled the country’s box office revenues above those in North America for the first time in history. (Of course, it’s hard to directly compare the two markets because the U.S. has yet to control coronavirus, stifling a national return to moviegoing). However, the question of whether China will maintain its box office dominance in 2021 lingers. Plus, in case you haven’t been watching the news, tensions between America and China are at an all-time high, which could mean that Hollywood fare isn’t as passionately embraced by audiences in the People’s Republic.
Will there be a summer movie season?
There’s no telling when moviegoing will return to normal, or what “normal” even means in a post-pandemic world. Presently, only 35% of North American movie theaters are open and ticket sales have been hovering at an all-time low. That puts the future of summer movie season, the stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day that typically drives 40% of the yearly box office, in jeopardy. Normally, new blockbusters debut nearly every weekend of the summer. But given the constantly fluid release calendar, it’s unclear if prime summer premiere dates — including “F9” on May 28, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” on June 11, “Top Gun Maverick” on July 2 or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” on July 9 — will stick. Studios may have to spread the wealth throughout the year in months removed from popcorn season to avoid a pileup as patrons start to feel comfortable returning to theaters.
Will coronavirus change the kinds of movies that are popular?
Big blockbusters and franchise titles are largely what makes Hollywood go ’round — that won’t change anytime soon. Yet the financials of producing a $200 million-budgeted film (as potential blockbusters such as “No Time to Die,” “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Black Widow” regularly cost) don’t exactly add up if traditional studios entirely skip the big screen in favor of streaming services or digital rental platforms. Beyond time-tested superhero adventures and animated family flicks, it remains to be seen what kinds of movies will be in high demand. Will people be hungry for feel-good films? Will coronavirus-induced storylines and with it, the mere sight of characters who are wearing masks and social distancing, throw people back into an existential tailspin? Possibly!
Will moviegoers embrace the comic-book multiverse?
Rivals Marvel Studios and DC Films are both leaning hard on multiverses, the geeky concept of a constellation of parallel fictional worlds that still occasionally intersect. It’s a narratively complex gamble, one that was introduced to the mainstream in Sony’s animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and will be teased out in such upcoming live-action movies as “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “The Flash,” and the next Spider-Man sequel, as well as on streaming shows on Disney Plus and HBO Max. But what works in Hall H of Comic Con doesn’t always play with John and Jane Q. Public. And after sitting in relative isolation for months, audiences might be looking more for escapism than they are for mind-bending storylines. Marvel, as it looks to chart a new post-Iron Man phase, has proven with Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy that it can make blockbusters out less familiar characters. But DC has struggled to achieve some consistency with its cinematic output. Are most moviegoers ready to venture into the multiverse or would they rather just see Batman beat up the Joker again?