For months now, the summer release schedule has been a moving target. Anxious distributors have sent some of their titles straight to PVOD, day and date or streaming, convincing filmmakers from Judd Apatow (Universal’s well-reviewed “The King of Staten Island”) to Kenneth Branagh (Disney’s poorly reviewed “Artemis Fowl”) not to wait to play their movies in theaters.
Nobody knew whether the big theater chains around the country could get back up and running by July, given the hopscotch nature of the still-spreading virus, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo now imposing two-week quarantines on visitors from states with COVID spikes. Cuomo also revealed Thursday that theaters would not open in New York during phase four.
Over the past two weeks, the big three theater chains have revealed phased re-openings — Texas-based Cinemark (June 19), Regal (July 10, Knoxville, Tennessee), and AMC (July 15, Leawood, Kansas) — and a range of safety protocols. While AMC and Regal initially refused to enforce mask-wearing (after media backlash, both backed off), Cinemark set a high standard from the start, along with Austin-based indie Alamo Drafthouse. However, on Thursday, Texas hit the brakes on reopening the state any further due to an explosion of new COVID cases.
With theaters opening, the release grid started to solidify into something that might be real. Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” was going to be the first big-budget studio release on July 17, pushed by the studio’s in-house A-lister Christopher Nolan to support wobbly theaters with his $200-million tentpole, even at a possible financial cost. Amid weeks of rumors, the studio decided to give theaters two more weeks and declared a July 31 opening, thinking theaters would be ready. This time the studio has not only added that date to its posters and trailers, but started booking media and running pricey TV spots. But word is, even “Tenet” could move again.
That makes the new canary in the coal mine another $200-million movie, Disney’s live-action spectacle “Mulan,” which for the moment is out front on July 24 as the summer’s first wide studio release. (The studio screened the movie and did some early press back in March.) Why so tentative? No media yet. That’s when the clock starts. Regal’s website posts “Mulan” as “coming soon.” Rumors are swirling of another date change.
On Monday, Paramount dealt a blow to exhibitors when the studio called to let them know it was moving its August 7 family sequel “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” to give priority to parent Viacom’s streaming platform CBS All Access, which is hungry for non-“Star Trek” content. That leaves a convenient opening for “Mulan.” Hollywood is speculating that’s where the movie will go, as a crucial market for the movie, China, is still up in the air. “That buys them two more weeks,” said one distributor.
Another less lucrative option for “Mulan” is Disney+, which is opening Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on July 3 (earlier than planned) in order to lure subscribers. But that worldwide pickup cost $75 million, not $200 million. If Disney moves “Mulan” back to August 7 or even later in the year, that puts “Tenet” back in the canary position.
As it turns out, the first summer release not opening mostly in drive-ins is Rod Lurie’s Afghanistan war movie “The Outpost,” starring Orlando Bloom and Scott Eastwood. The day-and-date launch from Screen Media (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”) will hit theaters and PVOD on July 3. “VOD is the new normal,” Lure said in a phone interview. “We got our first bruising when SXSW went down due to the virus. That was going to be our big opening. Then we were going to do the world premiere at West Point, but they sent the cadets home.”
Screen Media was planning to go day and date to VOD with a couple dozen screens, until they showed the film to Fathom Events, which saw an opportunity for a July 2 relaunch event (complete with the director and stars and a making-of documentary) on 500 screens around the country, one day ahead of hitting select theaters and VOD and the originally planned release of “Unhinged,” starring Russell Crowe.
But the major chains weren’t going to be ready that early. That’s why “Unhinged” moved back to July 10, and Sony’s indie pickup, romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” pushed to July 17 from from July 10. Screen Media insisted on a VOD release for its gung-ho action picture over the July 4th weekend. “If we decided to delay like ‘Unhinged,'” said Lurie, “we could get caught in a spiral; it could go on and on. At some point you have to make a command decision.”
Right now, a trickle of multiplexes will be open on July 3. “We’re looking for the safest theaters we can find,” said Lurie, weary from tracking COVID spikes from Arizona to Oklahoma. “In my dream world, we’d be on 2,000 screens, but that’s not the way to go for anything for a long time. It’s not going to be in Los Angeles or New York City, it just can’t. It’s a little nerve-wracking.”
Another person exhausted from riding the COVID waves is Mark Gill, the CEO of upstart indie Solstice, who swiftly moved the opening date for the new company’s first release “Unhinged” from July 3 to July 10, and not only that, convinced 32 distribution partners around the world (some had pre-bought the film, while others came on board) to go in July rather than wait until later. “Everything is much bumpier than usual,” said Gill on the phone. “So many moving pieces, so much uncertainty. It does require agility and adaptability. You don’t have theaters, you have to move, you have no choice.”
After Gill made a Zoom presentation to exhibitors of “Unhinged,” several small theater chains, including the Omaha-based Mainstream Theatres, decided to open earlier in order to book the movie. “They were trying to balance how big the crowds would be with paying people,” said Gill. “They were convinced we had a shot to deliver some patrons to their movie theaters.”
“Unhinged” will premiere on 2,000 American screens on July 10, even though some 400 AMC screens won’t light up until July 15. Some theaters in major cities will still be closed, along with parts of Latin America and the Middle East, while Europe and Asia are looking better, where Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” has proved a surprise smash, scoring over $100 million during its international run. “Things changed rapidly over time, twice the speed of normal,” said Gill. “All of a sudden Europe, even the UK, opened up. Tracking is surprisingly good, it’s easier when you’re not competing with 12 other movies.” (In the UK, Regal owner Cineworld is not demanding that customers wear masks.)
Also jumping into the fray is well-reviewed religious horror-thriller “Saint Maud,” from rookie filmmaker Rose Glass, which A24 originally scheduled for April 3 — and even considered taking the Easter weekend slot vacated by James Bond — but eventually grabbed the abandoned July 17 “Tenet” date, figuring their younger target audience might be willing to turn up for a quality genre flick in the “Midsommar” mold. A24 is aiming for a wide release, depending on how many theaters are actually available.
The mantra for these uncertain times seems to be: Stay flexible. As Gill says: “What’s the phrase? ‘People plan, God laughs.'”