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What a Summer Season Without Big Blockbusters Means for Movie Lovers

With most theaters closed (and likely not opening any time soon), the usually tentpole-filled summer season is taking a different shape this year. For IndieWire's critics, that means many things.



Warner Bros.

With most theaters closed (and likely not opening any time soon), the usually tentpole-filled summer season is taking a different shape this year. For IndieWire’s critics, that means many things, from cinematic silver linings to questions about the future of the blockbuster landscape. Ahead, Eric Kohn, Kate Erbland, and David Ehrlich discuss a new kind of season (and the films they still think might find success).

ERIC KOHN: With everything happening in the world today, the disruption to the summer movie season may sound like a relatively minor deal. “Black Widow” and “Wonder Woman 1984” will find their way to hungry superhero fans at some point, while “Mulan” certainly won’t lose its currency any more than the property has in the 22 years since the last “Mulan” came out. Everyone has heard wonderful things about Pixar’s “Soul,” but it’s safe to say that it will hold plenty of intrigue whenever it lands.

However, I’m fascinated by what all this potential absence means for the months ahead: a summer movie season devoid of preexisting IP. We still don’t know if Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” will be able to pull off its July release date, but if it does, it may wind up as the only big event movie of the season — and it’s a heady auteur-driven sci-fi project not tied (as far as we know) to any established cinematic universe. I’ve been using the term “silver lining” a lot these past few weeks, and it certainly seems to apply here. Take out the easily packaged commercial product, and we’re left with more original movies than we usually have to juggle at this time of the year, no matter where people see them.

We’ve become so conditioned to the ginormous tentpoles over the years that it’s easy forget that it wasn’t always this way. Only 45 years ago, “Jaws” made it clear to studios that they didn’t need to bother with small, weird director-driven storytelling if they could deliver one huge blockbuster at a time.




Now, I love “Jaws,” but from a cultural standpoint this realization has been one of the biggest threats to film culture over the decades — the implication that moviegoing has less to do with a process of discovery and instead means giving people what they want. This summer, it’s going to be all about the art of the surprise. OK, so I’m a perennial optimist, but is there really a downside to losing the monster truck movies of the summer?

KATE ERBLAND: There are a handful of downsides that I can think of right off the bat, from the (hopefully temporary) loss of communal movie-going to something that would have proven itself out more acutely this season: more tentpoles directed by women than ever before.

The summer of 2020 was shaping up to be a banner season for big-budget blockbusters helmed by women, including “Mulan” (directed Niki Caro) and “Wonder Woman 1984” (directed by Patty Jenkins) — both of which, I must note, do technically still have theatrical release dates this summer, at least for now — and Cathy Yan’s “Black Widow,” which is now currently expected in November. Those films will still come out, but likely without all the splashiness of a summer berth, and that’s a bummer, especially for film fans eager to see more diversity behind the camera, an area that is still ailing in the industry.

But, yes, I’m willing to go for a silver lining of my own: When those movies do hit theaters (and I am still betting that they do indeed arrive in theatrical style), they’ll be even more hotly anticipated, both for fans of the franchises and everyone else just itching to see a new movie in a theater (a novelty, again!). They may even get more attention than they would have in “normal” times, and hell, that’s a good thing, too.

Also good: the many smaller films from lesser-known directors that will now instantly jump to the top of plenty of people’s in-home viewing queues, the kind of discovery you’re referring to, Eric. Movies that might not have gotten so much attention in the face of a stacked theatrical season are now very, very appealing because they are very, very available. Festival hits that didn’t quite break through, first-time features, even older offerings suddenly getting a release, and many of them from underrepresented filmmakers.

"Wonder Woman 1984"

“Wonder Woman 1984”

Warner Bros.

My one big hope for this season is that film fans suddenly find a new filmmaker (or two) that they love and can keep chatting about all the way until they (the audience, the filmmakers) are in theaters again.

DAVID EHRLICH: I’m not gonna lie — I’m really bummed there’s not going to be a proper summer movie season, and I suspect the sting will only grow stronger as the temperature starts to rise. I’ve been as critical as anyone of the half-baked schlock that studios have released during the lucrative blockbuster corridor, and I’ve even made the case that the “summer movie season” as we’ve known it over the last 30 years or so is dead now that mega-budget franchise titles are being released 12 months a year.

But the first weekend of May thru the last weekend of August is where this stuff truly belongs (miss me with that April nonsense!), and the ability to enjoy pure escapism in a crowded room that’s still colder than an industrial meat locker and filled with the stench of zombified butter… well, it’s our right as Americans.

I suppose it’s something of a silver lining that smaller films will receive more attention this summer, and that casual but content-starved movie fans might be compelled to check out the likes of “Babyteeth” or “The Truth” because there isn’t a new “Minions” sequel to tide them over (“Minions” fans are just Kore-eda obsessives waiting to happen). But the fact of the matter is that summer had already become a boom time for indies even before the pandemic, as the post-Tribeca, pre-Telluride months revealed themselves to be a natural home for the year’s hottest Sundance debuts. And the chance to watch Dave Franco’s directorial debut in the comfort of my own home — a prospect I am genuinely excited about! — doesn’t really compensate for the transportive bliss of discovering a “Jurassic Park,” a “Fury Road,” or even a “Deep Blue Sea.”


IFC Films

And if I think I speak for everyone who’s ever posted a trailer reaction video on YouTube when I say that a Christopher Nolan year is not the summer movie season I want to miss. “Tenet” is going to be a galvanizing pop culture event whenever it comes out, but it won’t be the same in the fall or winter. The summer movie season is a magical time when spectacle feels sacred, and people of all ages pack in under the same roof in the shared hopes of seeing something that makes them all feel like a kid again.

I think we’re going to miss this wonderful and often deeply stupid ritual more than we realize, and that the world will have to wait until next May for another opportunity to come together in quite the same way. Lucky for us, “In the Heights” will be waiting.

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