Movie delays are stacking up. Where does Hollywood go from here?

July 27, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

Things were supposed to be better by now. When Hollywood’s major movie studios started delaying blockbuster releases in the spring, there was hope among the industry’s decision-makers that the coronavirus pandemic would subside enough for theater chains to welcome back moviegoers in the summer. In April, much of the U.S. was in the grips of strict stay-at-home orders—but by implementing them, the rate of infection would curve downward, allowing businesses like theaters to operate with some degree of normalcy. Or so the film industry hoped.

In some states, that has happened. But in the majority of others, case counts have risen over the past two weeks, sending the U.S. past the unwanted milestone of 4 million total cases. The situation has left many industries reeling, and Hollywood is no exception. With the ebb and flow nature of American case rates, studios are finding it impossible to plan guaranteed release dates.

Last week, Warner Bros. announced the upcoming blockbuster Tenet, from director Christopher Nolan, would be delayed for the third time—without specifying a date. Disney’s live-action Mulan remake suffered the same fate on its fourth delay, following Disney’s previous three attempts to set concrete dates. It was originally slated to release in March.

In some cases, studios have opted to delay films until next year. Paramount’s highly anticipated sequels A Quiet Place Part II and Top Gun: Maverick were pushed, as well as Universal’s Fast & Furious 9, while Sony delayed almost its entire movie slate until 2021. At this rate, there is not a single major Hollywood release set for August, meaning it’s looking increasingly likely that there won’t be a summer box office season. And there’s no end in sight.

“The uncertainty is the most certain thing we have,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for media analytics firm Comscore. “If we were to talk in a few days, the dynamic could be different. It’s really like trying to crystal ball things, because this is an ever-changing situation.”

Dergarabedian says studios’ hands are tied when it comes to releasing their biggest blockbusters, because those movies are made with huge budgets that can only be recouped—yet alone profitable—with theatrical sales. For some smaller-scale, midsize-budget movies, studios have experimented with releasing directly to streaming on demand. In the case of Universal’s Trolls World Tour such a release was highly successful—though it prompted a furious reaction from AMC, the nation’s largest theater chain. NBCUniversal was quick to follow up that any digital release would be complementary rather than a replacement for the theater experience.

Attendees wait for the start of a movie at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa on its first day of reopening, July 17. Some Canadian theaters are starting to resume business, but most in the U.S. remain closed.
Justin Tang—Bloomberg/Getty Images

As AMC would argue, the theater-studio relationship is symbiotic, and that’s evident from the enormous revenues tentpole films have made at the global box office. Avengers: Endgame made nearly $3 billion worldwide, with a staggering $1.9 billion, or almost 70%, coming from international cinemas. With that much money flowing from outside the U.S., there’s an argument to be made that studios should consider premiering their finished-but-unreleased vault of movies in foreign countries.

“Every studio is asking themselves about international right now,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst of Boxoffice Pro, the trade publication of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “We’ve been talking for years about how important the overseas market has become to the box office. This could be the shining example of how important they could be now. With multiple countries, especially China, signaling they might be ready to open, then I’m sure the studios are considering [this market].”

China is the world’s second-largest box office, projected to soon overtake the U.S. The country has dramatically reduced new COVID-19 infections, with daily life somewhat returning to normalcy—including the opening of theaters. Other prominent movie markets in Europe such as Germany and Italy have quelled the virus as well. But the threat of pirated titles leaking to North America makes the decision less clear cut. “It might lessen the demand [in the U.S.]; there are those inherent risk factors,” Robbins says, while adding: “We’ll probably start to see movies come out internationally first. It’s just a matter of who’s going to move first.”

On Monday, Warner Bros. officially announced Tenet would open in more than 70 countries Aug. 26, while opening in select U.S. cities Sept. 3, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It’s still far from a traditional release strategy, and it’s not immediately clear how many films will follow.

Beyond revenue, the success of international markets is a silver lining even for U.S. theaters that may lose out on ticket sales if initial global releases leak. In that case, it would be more about encouraging signs of consumer behavior. This past weekend was the second in a row where IMAX reported $1 million box office weekends for the first time since March. During the first weekend, South Korea’s Peninsula garnered $750,000 in sales from just 45 screens in five different Asian markets. Of that, $365,000 came from South Korea, representing the fourth best debut ever of a local language release in IMAX despite limited seating capacity. That’s encouraging not only for the prospect of anticipated American movies doing well overseas, but the willingness of moviegoers in the U.S. to return to theaters once the pandemic declines.

Dergarabedian also pointed to the resurgence of drive-in theaters as an uplifting trend for the film industry. Once considered a near-obsolete venue of entertainment, drive-ins have flourished as an option for audiences to enjoy a communal big-screen experience while maintaining social distance. Walmart recently announced it was getting in on the act, with plans to convert 160 of its U.S store parking lots into pop-up drive-ins.

“The outpouring of support for drive-ins despite the fact that there’s so much content at home on streaming shows there’s a desire for people to go back to brick-and-mortar theaters,” Dergarabedian says. While the relatively small number of drive-ins around the country almost certainly means studios won’t premiere major blockbusters in them, the appetite for the big screen looks poised to rebound.

Update: This article has been updated to include the rolled-out release for Tenet, which was announced shortly after this piece initially published.

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