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As cases of COVID-19 in the United States have seen a worrying increase in recent weeks, a film industry that was already experiencing a difficult year is facing the possibility of having to write off most of 2020. A number of major releases – Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984,” among them – have already been postponed multiple times.
For decades, Hollywood has been bolstered by big money making summer film releases, with Marvel and DC comic book adaptations routinely breaking box office records. But this year coronavirus-related lockdowns and social distancing rules have interrupted the most profitable months and may bleed into autumn, when studios traditionally release the prestige films that garner awards.
Studios postpone film releases
In March, when the US government was suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic was likely contained within the country, movie studios were more cautious.
Walt Disney Studios was one of the first to react, announcing in the second week of March that its live-action adaptation of “Mulan” would be postponed indefinitely from its original March 27 release date. A European red carpet event for the film’s release had already been canceled with the virus hitting a number of countries in the EU earlier than it did the US.
Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, then indefinitely postponed “Black Widow,” the first in what would have been the comic book company’s fourth phase of highly lucrative action/adventure films.
Other films indefinitely delayed at the time were Paramount Pictures’ “A Quiet Place 2,” a sequel to the surprise horror hit that pulled in nearly US$341 million at the worldwide box office in 2018. The latest entries in the James Bond and The Fast and the Furious series were also delayed by their respective studios.
Later in March, Warner Brothers, which operates DC Films, postponed “Wonder Woman 1984” from June 5 to August 14. The first “Wonder Woman” film was released in 2017 and made US$821 million in global ticket sales, making it one of the most successful films based on a DC Comics character.
Warner Brothers also indefinitely postponed “In the Heights,” a film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical, “Scoob!” (an animated Scooby-Doo movie) and the horror film, “Malignant,” by director James Wan.
In March, multiple studios opted to go with a digital release of some of their movie titles, including Pixar’s “Onward,” the Blumhouse update of “The Invisible Man” and Universal’s “Trolls World Tour.” The latter, a sequel to the brightly colored 2016 children’s film, “Trolls,” was one of the few films that found surprising success through skipping theaters for streaming and digital download.
The uncertain release dates of Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984
Initially, Warner Brothers did not push back the date of one of their biggest summer films.
“Tenet,” the new mind- and time-bending action film from “Inception” director Christopher Nolan, reportedly cost US$200 million to make and was expected to be one of the studio’s big summer hits.
In recent weeks, though, with the US seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases across the country, Warner Brothers blinked, twice. First, it postponed “Tenet” from its original July 17 release date to July 31. A couple weeks later, it pushed it back again to August 12.
Still, all movie release dates are considered tentative at this point. As one movie marketing boss recently told Deadline, “These release dates are as firm as Jell-O.”
The postponed release dates were partially a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding the unknown trajectory of the disease. On a more practical level, the studios didn’t have much of a choice: movie theaters across the country were closing.
First, Regal, Landmark and Alamo Drafthouse chose to close all their locations in response to the pandemic. AMC Theaters, the largest movie theater chain in the US, initially intended to keep their locations running at 50% capacity, but they reconsidered and closed all locations. In mid-March, they said they expected the closures to last for six to 12 weeks.
Now, 15 weeks later, movie theaters across the US remain closed. In late June, AMC announced it would delay the opening of its approximately 450 locations until July 31, partially in response to the release delays of the movie studios.
AMC was briefly at the center of a storm related to the use of face masks. Initially, the company said face masks would be optional so as not to be “drawn into a political controversy.” However, after a backlash, the company changed its policy so that face masks are now required for all employees and patrons.
Another US-based theater chain, Cinemark Theaters, also recently changed their face mask policy, now requiring all guests to wear them once their locations reopen on July 24. Initially, the chain was only going to require them to be used in areas where they were required by local ordinances.
Regal also delayed the reopening dates of its theaters to the end of July, following in the footsteps of its UK-based parent company, Cineworld, which cited the postponed movie release dates for the decision.
Ripple effects in the film industry
As movies push back their release dates, other films that were initially set to open after the summer are experiencing delays.
The Conjuring 3, the second sequel in the highly profitable horror franchise, is expected to be pushed back from its post-Labor Day release date due to the other tentpole films being moved closer to its release.
It’s unclear at this point if similar ripple effects will delay the typical autumn slate of awards-friendly prestige films, though it’s a distinct possibility. After all, multiple films slated for 2021 release dates, including “The Batman” and the next installment in the “Mission Impossible” series, have had their expected release dates delayed.
Additionally, The Academy Awards (or Oscars), which was originally set to occur on February 28, has been postponed for only the fourth time in the ceremony’s 92-year history. The ceremony will now be on April 25. Additionally, films will have until February 28, 2021 to have a qualified release date, as opposed to the usual December 31 deadline for consideration.
Another Oscar rule change this year will allow films released exclusively on streaming platforms or through digital release to be considered for nomination. In the past, films had to have at least a minimal theatrical release to be considered. Online-exclusive films will only be eligible if they originally had a theatrical release date scheduled.
The financial effects
Like most other industries, movie studios are facing major financial losses in 2020. Even if they are better positioned to weather this storm than independent filmmakers, they are still likely to take a considerable financial hit. How bad a hit will depend on whether movie theaters are able to open and people choose to show up, none of which is certain now.
Halfway through the year, the current total US domestic box office, as reported by Box Office Mojo, is just shy of US$1.8 billion. For all of 2019, the domestic gross was US$11.3 million, down from an all-time high in 2018 of US$11.8 billion.
Without a massive blockbuster like Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Endgame,” which was released in 2019 and broke records with nearly US$2.8 billion in worldwide ticket sales, 2020 will likely have the lowest box office returns in decades.
Currently, the highest grossing film of 2020 is the Will Smith-starring action sequel, “Bad Boys for Life.” Its total domestic gross is US$204 million, whereas worldwide it has made US$419 million. The last year in which the highest grossing film in the US failed to surpass US$300 million was 2000, when “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” brought in US$260 million.
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