The onset of March lockdowns in the U.S. cast an immediate shadow over the 2020 theatrical film release calendar, with the delay of “No Time to Die” kicking off a wave of releases shifting to fall or 2021.
Nine months later, 2020 is as barren as ever, with just a smattering of releases playing to a diminished pool of theaters as COVID-19 cases reach their worst levels yet across the U.S.
Now, it’s the 2021 slate’s turn.
Over half of the films first scheduled for 2021 have already seen their initial releases impacted.
This was expected, as poor box office returns for tentpoles such as “Tenet” that did hit theaters further discouraged studios from sticking to their fall releases as key markets like New York City and Los Angeles failed to open in time while Cineworld abandoned its reopening plans altogether, indefinitely closing its Regal Cinemas locations.
In order to make room for the 2020 diaspora, nearly a third of films in the 2021 slate have moved to later dates as studios assess the likelihood of films that paused or postponed production in the spring making their dates on time.
Some shoots did resume in the second half of 2020, but incidents of positive COVID-19 cases on sets have led to further production shutdowns.
This was notably the case when 2020 sci-fi drama “Dune,” originally set for December, took over the October 2021 slot for “The Batman” following star Robert Pattinson’s positive COVID test, which forced Warner Bros. to cease production for two weeks after having already spent months on hiatus.
“The Batman” is now one of many 2021 tentpoles set for 2022, alongside “Jurassic World: Dominion,” which also saw COVID-19 cases on set, Dwayne Johnson starrer “Black Adam” as well as the first of four sequels to James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
Still, with over 40% of the revised 2021 calendar consisting of 2020 delays, lines need to be drawn.
This is where streaming comes into play.
Premium VOD and an expanded SVOD market have granted studios more opportunity to make some money back on releases, rather than letting them play to limited numbers of socially-distanced audiences.
Or, in Disney’s case, simply sell its films back to itself for Disney Plus.
Starting with “Artemis Fowl,” Disney has moved six theatrical films to its streaming service, notably enacting an additional rental fee for “Mulan.” As for 20th Century, it’s arranging for “The Woman in the Window” to go to Netflix.
Following its own claims “Trolls World Tour” was a financial success after its day-and-date PVOD release in April, Universal grew comfortable moving more films to digital retailers and has since struck several deals with top exhibitors to move its theatrical titles straight to digital in as little as 17 days in cinemas.
Despite the launch of its own streaming service in May, WarnerMedia has been hesitant to pivot Warner Bros. releases to digital, instead buying films from Sony to populate HBO Max with as it pushed its releases further down the calendar.
Warner is now taking a cue from Disney, as it plans to make “Wonder Woman 1984” available on HBO Max the same day as its Christmas theatrical date.
Given that only two films originally scheduled for 2021 have been switched to OTT (Disney’s live “Hamilton” taping and Paramount’s “Love and Monsters”), expect to see further digital craziness come to define at least the first half of 2021 as various vaccine developments offer some hope for a proper end to COVID-19’s disruption of film releases.