After Paramount pushed its Tom Cruise tentpole “Top Gun: Maverick” into 2022, movie theater owners are growing anxious, concerned the move could inspire a stampede of film delays. With the theatrical business stuck in a variant-induced limbo, Hollywood is reexamining the distribution strategies for upcoming films like MGM’s Bond sequel “No Time to Die,” Marvel’s “Eternals” and Sony’s “Venom: Let There be Carnage.”
Will those movies, all of which plan to have exclusive theatrical releases, debut in cinemas as expected, or will their respective studios again push them further into the future? As the delta variant continues to spread, the potential domino effect from “Top Gun: Maverick” feels familiar. After all, many of these films have been delayed several times as COVID-19 continues to ravage many parts of the world. Yet the latest retreat may derail any hope the movie theater industry would recover by the year’s end.
Though representatives for Sony, MGM, Disney, Universal and Warner Bros. either declined to comment or denied any more delays on the release calendar, box office experts predict “Top Gun: Maverick” may not be the only film to relinquish its spot in 2021.
“I don’t think you can be surprised with any movement these days,” says Eric Handler, an exhibition industry analyst with MKM Partners. “It’s a challenging environment to put out a $200 million-budgeted film.”
For now, several high-profile films remain on schedule through 2021, including Universal’s musical adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen” (Sept. 24), the Warner Bros. “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” (Oct. 1), “No Time to Die” (Oct. 8), Sony’s comic book sequel “Venom: Let There be Carnage” and Universal’s slasher “Halloween Kills” (Oct. 15), Warner Bros. reimagining of “Dune” (Oct. 22), Marvel’s superhero adventure “Eternals” (Nov. 5), Sony’s supernatural comedy “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (Nov. 19), Disney’s “West Side Story” remake (Dec. 10), Sony’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (Dec. 17) and Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Resurrections” (Dec. 22).
One ironic bright spot for cinema operators: Since Warner Bros. is putting its entire 2021 slate simultaneously on HBO Max, the studio is unlikely to shift around release dates its upcoming films. The studio’s sports drama “King Richard” with Will Smith (Nov. 19), as well as Clint Eastwood’s Western drama “Cry Macho” (Sept. 17) will also be in theaters and on HBO Max.
Unless movie theaters witness a notable boost in attendance, insiders believe “No Time to Die” may have no choice but to move. That’s because veteran producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who have unprecedented control over the venerable film franchise, are unlikely to allow the 007 adventure to debut simultaneously on streaming platforms, which would cushion the blow from depressed ticket sales. Keeping the 25th installment in the long-running British spy series in theaters, at least at a time when audiences have expressed increased apprehension about going to the movies, remains risky because Bond entries are enormously expensive undertakings and need to generate hundreds of millions in the hopes of breaking even.
Star Daniel Craig’s last big-screen outing in 2015’s “Spectre” grossed $880 million globally, while 2012’s “Skyfall” made $1.1 billion. So far, only one Hollywood movie — Universal’s “F9: The Fast Saga” ($704 million) — has been able to clear the $500 million mark at the global box office amid the pandemic. For “No Time to Die,” that would be a catastrophic result. MGM, however, remains adamant the film will keep its Oct. 8 release date.
“How can MGM not be worried? So much of its profit is tied to Bond,” Handler says. “They can’t afford for it not to do well.”
Sony’s slate, particularly its “Venom” sequel in October, appears to be equally unstable. Sony is the only major studio that doesn’t have its own streaming service, so it has spent much of the pandemic licensing its movies to digital players like Netflix and Amazon. The first “Venom,” starring Tom Hardy as the journalist turned alien symbiote, in 2018 made a killing overseas, with nearly $650 million of its $856 million global tally coming from the international box office. Today, Hardy’s mumbling antihero would struggle to replicate those ticket sales, especially since most Hollywood movies haven’t been granted release dates in China. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which comes three decades after the original, could likewise be relocated from late November into next year with little impact. The hope is that by late December, when Tom Holland is set to reprise his role in “Spider Man: No Way Home,” the box office will be more stable and parents will feel comfortable taking the family to the local multiplex.
When it comes to the year’s other big comic book property, sources say Disney has two to three weeks to make a decision about plans for “Eternals,” the upcoming Marvel movie directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao and starring Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kit Harington, Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani. The studio has been curiously vague about whether or not the comic book adaptation will play exclusively in theaters, like “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” or have a hybrid release on Disney Plus, like “Black Widow.” Across the industry, “Shang-Chi” will be closely examined this weekend to see how the blockbuster hopeful performs on the big screen.
Early tracking indicates a start around $45 million to $55 million in its first three days of release, which would set a Labor Day weekend record but would rank as the lowest debut ever for a Marvel movie. But, putting “Black Widow” concurrently on Disney Plus caused plenty of drama (and resulted in a steep second-weekend decline) that could be avoided with an exclusive theatrical window for “Eternals.” Is that enough for the studio to forgo the potential millions in digital downloads and new subscribers?
With “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jackass Forever,” the latest installment in the shock comedy franchise starring Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O, pushed into next year, Paramount doesn’t have any movies coming out until “Scream” opens Jan. 14, 2022 — leaving its recently released kid’s movie “PAW Patrol” to do the heavy lifting.
That leaves Universal, the studio that forged a deal with movie theater owners last year to shorten the theatrical window and bring movies more quickly to the home. One of its upcoming films, which includes “Sing 2” in addition to “Halloween Kills” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” may follow the release pattern of “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” the animated sequel that premiered simultaneously in theaters and on Peacock, the streaming service owned by NBCUniversal. But for the most part, Universal’s pact with chains, such as AMC and Cinemark, have given it enough of a cushion if box office revenues fall short.
For many cinema operators, the prolonged sense of uncertainty about where and when new movies will be released is nothing new. But that doesn’t make the reality any less devastating.