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For Theaters Seeking Normalcy, Adding ‘David Copperfield’ to August Means Almost as Much as ‘Tenet’

Armando Iannucci's Dickens adaptation will gross a fraction of Christopher Nolan's blockbuster, but the good news is worth its weight in gold.

Paul Whitehouse on the set of a new David Copperfield movie being shot in King's Lynn, Norfolk'The Personal History of David Copperfield' on set filming, King's Lynn, Norfolk, UK - 20 Jul 2018Paul Whitehouse (brown hat and jumper) on the set of a new David Copperfield movie being shot in King's Lynn, Norfolk today.Comedian Paul Whitehouse was spotted on the set of a new David Copperfield costume drama, as the docks at King's Lynn in Norfolk were transformed into a Victorian fish market today.The actor was seen dressed in a brown hat and top and white dungarees as he filmed scenes for The Personal History of David Copperfield. The drama, which is directed by Armando Lannucci, also stars Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi.

“The Personal History of David Copperfield”

Geoff Robinson Photography/REX/Shutterstock

In a slate of Disney release-date shifts — Peter Jackson documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” is now August 27, 2021, musical comedy “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” moved from October 23, 2020 to January 22, 2021, while “The One and Only Ivan” will now stream on Disney+ — the most significant change belongs to a smaller film. Searchlight’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” will debut as an initial limited release August 14.

The announcement comes on a day when Warner Bros. settled on July 31 – two weeks later than planned – for “Tenet.” Also just announced is that the thriller “Unhinged,” from new company Solstice with Russell Crowe, is moving from July 1 to July 10. And August 14 is the just-vacated date for “Wonder Woman 1984,” which Warners now has re-dated for October 2.

Searchight acquired Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel starring Dev Patel right before its 2019 world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was released in the U.K. last January, where it grossed about $8 million and became a BAFTA nominee. Its previous domestic date was May 8, which was postponed in the early stages of theater closures in mid-March.

On the surface, the “Copperfield” date doesn’t seem that noteworthy. It’s received positive though not rapturous initial critical response (an adequate 75 score on Metacritic), and as a high-end specialized release it’s not unlike other titles that debuted in August 2019, including “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Blinded by the Light,” and “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”

However, picking this date tells us that Searchlight plans a New York/Los Angeles initial limited release followed by gradual roll-out in other markets. It wouldn’t do that without near-100 percent confidence that key theaters in both cities will be open.

In Manhattan, that would likely include the AMC Lincoln Square and either the Regal Union Square or City Cinema’s Angelika; for Los Angeles, The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood. Per Searchlight, specific theaters still are to be determined.

"The French Dispatch"

“The French Dispatch”

Searchlight

August 14 looks like a solid date now that “Tenet” has been confirmed with a new date of July 31. It’s also is a safer film with which to take a chance. It’s not make-or-break film like Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” which Searchlight will release in October, — or like “Tenet” and “Mulan,” which each have production and marketing costs in excess of $300 million. Under normal conditions, either could gross $1 billion worldwide, which makes them attractive for exhibitors as they reopen. It’s also a risk; no one knows what the audience resistance may be in the face of COVID-19 news and social distancing restrictions.

Disney is still scheduled with “Mulan” for July 24. It is clear domestic theaters would have been devastated had “Tenet” been further delayed. This is by far the most significant step towards normalcy yet, and Searchlight appears to have been right in anticipating their choice of date.

But also notable is that this is recommitting to theatrical. “Copperfield” could have been a viable choice to stream at Disney+ or Hulu. As a PG-rated title, it could easily have played at either. Staying theatrical feels like a key sign of ongoing commitment from Searchlight — a key player in the Disney takeover of 20th Century Fox, and the only one distributing films outside the Disney framework — to theatrical. That might be the most important sign of all here.

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