On July 31, Lionsgate moved “Antebellum” to TBD from August 21, a date when it likely would have likely been not only the top grosser but would also see the best return in the last five months. Produced by Sean McKittrick (“Get Out,” BlackKklansman,” “Us”), the horror/thriller stars Janelle Monae as a modern-day Black author transported to the pre-Civil War South.
“Antebellum” is no “Tenet,” but even Christopher Nolan is not enough to save theaters. With audiences now unaccustomed to the idea that theaters are open, and safe, his film needs a runway of titles to precede it. And of the films set for August 21 — the date that theater chains target for their reopening — “Antebellum” looked like the best chance to drive audiences. Unlike “Unhinged” (Solstice), “Words on Bathroom Walls” (Roadside Attractions), and Warner Bros.’ IMAX-highlighted reissue of “Inception,” Monae’s film chose this date long ago, after its initial April opening became impossible. It wasn’t trying to be first.
The announcement came three weeks’ out — the time when distributors finalize major marketing commitments. Sources indicate that the push stems from the surge in domestic COVID-19 cases and a climbing death toll. That’s a scary message for fragile theaters and the larger theatrical release ecosystem.
At a time when good news is critical, this is a vote of no confidence. Many theaters now open charge reduced prices, a practice that exhibitors and distributors would like to discontinue; a decision like this may mean the audiences will continue to need the encouragement. Nolan is willing to risk not playing in key markets like New York and Los Angeles, but most films can’t afford that generosity.
Given the controversial plot of “Antebellum,” would a release like “Get Out” make sense right now? It’s a difficult time for any film, much less for one that risks courting dissension. On all sides, the biggest problem facing the industry is reviving the theatrical release model. As individual decisions are made, more microissues will arise. In this case, Lionsgate opted to wait and see. Theaters can take heart that it didn’t decide to move to PVOD.