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After ‘No Time to Die,’ Studio Release Dates Face Hard Decisions and New Opportunities

Disney says "Mulan" is still set, but it's scheduled to open at the end of March with the three biggest Asian markets closed to it.

Patrons watch a 3D IMAX movie at a theater of Wanda cinema run by Dalian Wanda Group Co. in Beijing, China, . The Chinese conglomerate, Dalian Wanda Group Co. announced Monday it will buy major U.S. cinema chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings, for $2.6 billion to create the world's biggest movie theater operatorChina US Cinema Chain, Beijing, China

Wanda cinema in China

Ng Han Guan/AP/Shutterstock

In the film industry’s fast-changing response to the coronavirus that’s now affected the entire planet, the decision by United Artists, Universal, and EON to shift “No Time to Die” to November from its April 10 domestic release date is the biggest news so far. And it won’t likely be alone. As always, the fates of distributors and theaters are intertwined. But even as all parties suffer losses, the impacts could be different.

“No Time to Die” producers announced a delay for their latest James Bond movie, which could cause major headaches for exhibitors who might find it difficult to fill the gaps. Disney has reconfirmed it is going forward with “Mulan” (domestic March 27, timed for maximum impact around school vacations and Easter), despite the complete closure of the China market during the crisis.

If any film was going to move, it was “No Time to Die.” The traditional Bond release pattern, which goes back decades, is to treat the film as an international event with simultaneous launches. April also placed “No Time to Die” outside the usual late-year, holiday, or summer playtimes that films of this size and scope generally prefer. Moving it to November is a return to normal, not a case of punting into the great unknown.

However, coronavirus is itself a great unknown, and there are many more studio blockbusters that could be affected. Top films are dependent on foreign results, and parallel releases are the norm.

In the U.S., so far it has been business as usual. When it comes to going to work, school, sporting events, shopping, church, and, yes, movies, the public doesn’t seem to be changing its behavior. In fact, with the potential of curtailing travel, it’s possible that outside activities near one’s home might see a short-term boost.

Elsewhere, the impact is already being felt. China, of course, has shut down cinemas for more than a month, upending a slew of local-holiday releases at what is usually the biggest time of its year. France, somewhat harder hit than the U.S. so far (for being much closer to the epicenter of northern Italy), has postponed at least two major March releases, “Miss” and “Bronx.” South Korea has seen the suspension of both major domestic and foreign titles. Japan is similar.

Before Disney’s “Mulan,” Paramount has “A Quiet Place Part II.” John Krasinski’s sequel to his 2018 sleeper ($188 million domestic/$341 million worldwide) opens in most territories the week of March 20. It is not a pricey film (the original was $17 million), but it has a strong profit potential and could be Paramount’s second big hit for early 2020: That’s a date the studio wants to keep. Assuming it still goes out as scheduled, it could be a test for the viability of staying the course.

As of now, the horror sequel is still set for France; Italy is now mid-April. And that might be where it stays. There is less risk involved, and its imminent date makes a shift more difficult — a factor that might argue for any studio filmgoing holds.

It gets dicier for the $200 million+ “Mulan.” Disney already has lost three top Asian territories for its planned worldwide release in late March, and its carefully planned global marketing would be tough to postpone.

But if theaters close in more places, postponing the release on a case-by-case basis could make sense. With some of its strongest dates most at risk, the temptation to do so might be stronger.

On the other hand: If top titles drop out, that could create opportunity for those that remain. Within hours of the Bond announcement, Universal moved DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour” up a week to April 10 worldwide.

Independent and specialized companies face a different challenge. They are largely dependent on domestic exhibition, and they are more vulnerable; some would sustain major losses if forced to pivot on marketing and theater bookings. However, they also could take advantage of more openings and demand for their films (that is, presuming theaters stay open).

But what about the theaters? A studio can delay an opening. But when that happens, exhibitors are left with barren shelf space and with losses that may be impossible to recoup.

The best short-term gauge as to how theaters will handle this is seen in Seattle, the site of several deaths and a higher number of virus cases. All national chains as well as independent theaters operate there and remain open, with no sign of pressure to shut down.

They aren’t oblivious to the threat. Exhibitor trade group NATO (which represent top chains and many other theaters, but provides information to all) put out a list of suggestions that emphasized employee issues (legal as well as heath and hygiene concerns), familiarity with local guidelines, and financial preparation.

In the meantime, they are at the mercy of their suppliers. Yes, top movies would come back. But it could start a domino effect of other dates changing, or top titles going head to head cutting into each other.

Unless an expanded outbreak occurs in some areas, figure that theaters will hold on, playing what they can. This weekend featured two outside-the-box titles in the box-office top 10 (Manga adaptation “My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising” and “Impractical Jokers”); these could offer an example of how alternatives could fill some of the gaps.

Ultimately, so much is out of their hands. The reality is that there is little they can do but react.

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