The 2020 domestic theatrical calendar couldn’t have been any more chaotic to track throughout the first year of the pandemic.
But just three weeks into 2021, the new year could prove just as challenging given the new calendar delays, shifts and removals alongside VOD and streaming pivots that have yet to slow down.
Just last week, Warner Bros. moved big-budget monster tentpole “Godzilla vs. Kong” up two months from May to the last weekend in March after delaying “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” from March to September.
With “Wonder Woman 1984” nearing the end of its run as the first film in WarnerMedia’s year-long experiment to release studio titles in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time, the company now has an initial sense of how big releases can fare across separate but simultaneous distribution methods.
Moving “Godzilla” up two months is a likely sign Warners wants to test how a tentpole from a less popular franchise performs in this new distribution scheme, long before another DC title like “The Suicide Squad” opens in theaters and begins streaming.
Still, the company’s approach to releasing films in 2021 is set in stone, at least for the time being. What can we expect from the other major theatrical players this year?
Disney’s main slate didn’t release a single title in theaters during the pandemic in 2020 after the early March release of “Onward” was cut short by nationwide theater closures. Instead, the company utilized its Disney+ streamer, ultimately releasing five of its titles directly to the service now boasting nearly 87 million subscribers.
“Raya and the Last Dragon,” the first Disney title in 2021, will shake things up a bit in March, as Disney is taking a cue from Warner Bros. by giving it a day-and-date release in theaters and on streaming.
With the same payment scheme in place for Disney+ subscribers as when it released “Mulan” last September, the results of “Raya” will have a huge impact on the rest of the Disney slate. The next film from the studio, “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” won’t be out for another seven weeks after, granting Disney time to figure out if other films should follow the same pattern.
Given how well Pixar’s “Soul” did on the service over the holidays, it’s a no-brainer Disney is willing to give the animated “Ron” (a pre-acquisition 20th title) as well as Pixar’s “Luca” similar treatments.
As for “Black Widow,” expect the 2020 delay treatment should the theater situation not improve over the spring. Since it’s the first 2020s film from the franchise that propelled the studio to a now fictional-seeming $11 billion global gross in 2019, another delay before a last-ditch Disney+ release is more likely to occur.
Over at 20th Century, Disney is still managing a so-so slate of features since the first of four “Avatar” sequels won’t hit theaters until the end of 2022. “The King’s Man” is the likeliest delay, as its March release is a bit too close to what’s been referred to as the “dark winter” of the pandemic in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Searchlight’s awards-contender “Nomadland” is already set to stream on Hulu as soon as it hits theaters, so it’s possible other small fare like thriller “Deep Water,” monster film “Antlers” and West End adaptation “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” will end up filling out Hulu’s growing film slate. “Bob’s Burgers” would also fit there, as it’s already known by most as a TV series.
The decision to enter into agreements with several top exhibitors to shorten their theatrical windows of exclusivity has already panned out for Universal, as they were able to rake in significant gross during the pandemic while releasing the same films quickly to captive viewers at home.
As such, expect only the tentpoles to shift dates this year. The ninth “Fast & Furious” movie is bound to see at least one more delay, likely to later in the summer. Should that happen, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old” would be the ideal film to bump and replace with “F9.”
Sci-fi film “Bios” with Tom Hanks in the lead is also a likely bump given the release date’s proximity to the current wave of COVID. It would be safer to move it to an early August date.
Even if COVID takes a turn for the worse again, Focus Features can fill the void. While Focus accounted for about 14% of Universal’s total domestic gross in 2019, it ended up comprising close to 29% of Universal’s 2020 gross after the March lockdowns (per Box Office Mojo and VIP analysis).
As such, expect a robust Focus slate throughout the year as the division picks up more independent films from mostly virtual festivals.
While Sony did sell Tom Hanks’ WWII actioner “Greyhound” to Apple TV+ and Seth Rogen comedy “An American Pickle” to HBO Max in 2020, its film studio has been relatively quiet, its only major release being the Screen Gems videogame adaptation “Monster Hunter” at the end of the year.
“Monster Hunter” did not gross much and failed to break $10 million domestically, so it’s unlikely Sony will go through the 2021 slate without making changes to at least the first half of its calendar, although it does appear the studio still intends to release its modern take on “Cinderella” in just over a week.
Should Sony shift titles like “Fatherhood” and “Vivo” to later dates, it would be best to move up a less substantial title, or take currently unscheduled films like the “Escape Room” sequel or “Rise” from its Christian label Affirm and plop those in spring dates.
A rebranding of its CBS All Access streaming service, ViacomCBS confirmed this week that Paramount+ is set to launch March 4.
If you’ve been following the recent shifts in the Paramount studio slate, it’s hard to tell if the company wants to replicate what Disney and Warner have been doing with their film studios.
Last week, it was reported that Amazon is closing a deal to nab sci-fi Christ Pratt starrer “The Tomorrow War.” Previously scheduled for July, and before that the December holiday, it’s clear Paramount had high hopes for this film.
But if the studio is negotiating the film’s sale to a separate entity this close to the launch of Paramount+, it doesn’t seem likely that there are immediate plans to divert anything else from its slate to the new streamer.
It would be near-sighted of ViacomCBS to not consider following WarnerMedia’s lead on HBO Max with regard to Paramount+. “A Quiet Place Part II” is the first Paramount release of the year and is scheduled for April, when the theater situation will still be in a state of volatility.
Given the attention received by the first film that led to high expectations for the sequel, arranging a joint theatrical/Paramount+ release would be an obvious way to boost interest in the new service at a time when the streaming space is as crowded as it’s ever been.
Plus, the 2021 slate has not one, but two big films from Tom Cruise via sequels to “Top Gun” and “Mission: Impossible,” so it’s not like “A Quiet Place” is the sole beacon of hope for the studio right now.
However this year plays out, there will still be some kind of return to cinemas. But at this point, people have had nearly a year to grow accustomed to watching new films at home, and now multiple streamers have capitalized on this phenomenon.
By year’s end, which releases fill physical seats and which ones play to empty crowds will be clearer than ever. The next (and possibly final) era of theatrical exhibition starts now.
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