On January 11, Dr. Anthony Fauci said theaters and music venues could safely reopen by this fall — some 18 months or more after COVID-19 forced their closure. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, his federal role is advisory but his timetable carries major weight in determining public attitudes toward when it’s safe to rejoin the masses in closed spaces. For theaters — and in turn, the studios — the bottom line is this: Not Summer.
This comes as reports circulate that “No Time to Die” (United Artists domestic, Universal international) could delay its rescheduled April 2 release. The newest James Bond film, with a reported budget of over $200 million, was the first title to shift in early March 2020. Unverified reports suggest it could be pushed back to September or later. (IndieWire has learned any decision to delay will not be made this week).
This raises a slew of questions and issues. Let’s parse these:
Top films may delay beyond summer
Among specialized distributors, the sense is that New York and Los Angeles — the cities that are essential to launch their films — should be open by May or June.
That’s good news, but for studios that assurance isn’t enough. The last year taught them, repeatedly, that date projections are far from certain; what’s more, they risk damaging films that have already been rescheduled once or twice already. Every delay costs more money and creates more complications.
There’s also the hard lessons learned via Warner Bros. with its global releases of “Tenet” ($363 million worldwide) and “Wonder Woman 1984” ($132 million to date, with concurrent HBO Max release in the U.S.). Maybe not disastrous, but only inspirational in that it provides good reason to hold back the biggest films until all theaters are open, at full capacity, and with enough vaccinations that COVID-19 no longer feels like a threat.
In other words, not by this summer.
Michael Buckner for Variety
The consequences for theaters
Exhibitors are bleeding money, with AMC and Regal particularly challenged: They provide 60 percent or more of the total gross, and will be hurt worse by any summertime shortages. They also are ineligible for any of the up to $5 billion aid package available for non-publicly traded theaters with smaller footprints.
Theater will continue to benefit from the near-certain release of scheduled films from Universal (which mostly have a three-week window before PVOD) and Warner Bros. (same day as HBO Max). For other distributors, it’s less clear — although there should be opportunities for smaller films to see elevated access like 2020 titles “Unhinged” (Solstice) and “The War With Grandpa” (101), particularly if most theaters are open by summer. In the meantime, theaters are likely to favor limited schedules to reduce expenses. While they need the return of big movies, what they don’t need is more examples of highly anticipated films falling flat.
For exhibition, and for studios, 2020 was the new 2025 in its accelerated push to decrease the windows between theatrical release and and home viewing. No matter when theaters return, the 2019 perspective on theatrical windows will not. This could lead to similar moves internationally, even though PVOD is not common and laws limit this in some places (particularly France, which forbids parallel releases). Still, the temptation to experiment will grow.
More top talent continues to sign on as Netflix assets, most recently with actor-comedian Kevin Hart who signed a massive four-picture deal. Stars are already in short supply, and stars at his level — a major brand name who makes mid-budget films — are essential to consistently attract a theatrical audience. Theaters can’t live on tentpoles alone.
The extended delays in reopening could cause permanent damage, but that doesn’t mean theaters won’t exist. It might mean there are far fewer of them, not as readily available, and show films that can also be seen at home. Nothing is certain, beyond knowing that things will never return to where they were a year ago.