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14 Predictions for Box Office 2021, Including Fewer Theaters, Smaller Grosses, and More VOD

In 2020, movies learned that they didn't depend on theaters. With that out of the way, here's what happens next.

Photo by: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 10/25/20 Movie Theaters in continue to suffer economic hardship during the Coronavirus Pandemic in New York City.

An AMC theater in New York City

STRF/STAR MAX/IPx

It would be foolish to expect the new year to bring return to box-office normalcy; much more likely that circumstances will continue evolving toward a new normal. Before we examine what that might include, let’s get the essential stats out of the way: Total 2020 domestic theatrical grosses ended up a bit over $2 billion. That’s under 250 million tickets sold, less than one ticket bought per U.S./Canada resident, for the lowest per-capita attendance in over a century.

The top-grossing domestic film was “Bad Boys for Life,” a January release that became the only title to reach $200 million. The only other film to pass $100 million was “Sonic the Hedgehog” which, released in February, approached $150 million. “Onward” and “The Invisible Man” were doing well in mid-March when theaters closed almost overnight.

Once (some) theaters reopened, the best gross was “Tenet,” just shy of $58 million. “Wonder Woman 1984,” which faced fewer available theaters and a worse COVID-19 situation than “Tenet,” will end up closer to $40 million. Given its availability on HBO Max, that may make it more impressive.

Worldwide, of the top 10 titles four were from China. The Eight Hundred” was the best with $461 million; “Bad Boys” was #3, just ahead of “My People, My Homeland.” Those three films were the sole releases that made over $400 million. In 2019, 21 titles reached that level.

In 2020, most people watched current movies at home, and that makes a true annual financial assessment impossible. We know almost nothing about platform revenues beyond charts that rank VOD and streaming sites, financial data revealed to investors, and judgments on how distributors choose to premiere their films (streaming platforms? PVOD? VOD? day-and-date?). The business models are so new that we can’t fully understand what drives those decisions; the decisionmakers may not fully know themselves.

However, there are a few things we know for sure, and a few more that are likely.

2020 means permanent change to the movie industry.

The last century of moviemaking saw seismic change in 1929 (transition to sound), 1949 (consent decree/threat of television), and 1979 (VCRs). Cable and other platforms also had a significant impact. However, the changes wrought by COVID may prove to be the biggest since “The Jazz Singer.”

Theatrical is no longer a given.

Streaming, VOD, or day-and-date premieres are now the domain for all kinds of movies, ranging from low-budget genre pieces to marquee productions.

The theatrical window is shattered.

The once-sacrosanct theatrical window of about 75 days for PVOD, 90 days before VOD/DVD/Blu-Ray, is done. It’s likely that a new standard will take its place, but expect it to be closer to 30 days — and, up for further negotiation.

Soul

“Soul”

Disney/Pixar

Studios have alternatives they may prefer.

The idea that studios and theaters are two equal halves of a whole is done. At this point, it appears that if studios could avoid theaters with no loss of profit, they would.

Release strategies will continue to diversify.

Before 2020, studios followed the same playbook with little variation. Going forward, each has its own strategy that may be impacted by homegrown streamers (or the lack thereof), licensing deals, and customized calculus. That’s not to say dominant patterns won’t evolve (they most likely will), but we’re unlikely to see monolithic approaches again.

Theaters will have smaller footprints.

All major circuits are in financial distress, and bankruptcy looms. The reduction in outlets may not phase much of the population, which has multiple options and ample capacity, but it may have greater impact on specialized theaters and the films they host.

Grosses will be smaller.

This will be true even for the biggest hits. More films will go directly to home devices; those that open exclusively in theaters will be available at home sooner. Confusion will abound, and many ticket buyers likely will reveal their preference for alternatives by just not going out to the movies.

Foreign markets will depend less on us.

China has been the biggest foreign market for studio titles; in 2020, with limited access to theatrical platforms, China embraced local titles in theaters. Expect that trend to accelerate not only in China but also in other territories. That could means reduced revenues that impact production budgets.

Expensive franchise titles will dominate theatrical releases.

They cost more, but their risks are easier to calculate. With high-end VFX and sound, they’ll also be deemed more appropriate for theaters. Expect the range in content to narrow even more.

No Time to Die

“No Time to Die”

MGM/screenshot

Reopened theaters and reliable release schedules remain TBD.

All parties have been burned by the whirling cycle of date changes, and exhibitors can’t add to their losses indefinitely. As COVID cases surge, there are few films scheduled until spring and no holiday boost ahead. Uncertainly breeds delay; expect to see studios — and closed theaters — continue to back away from opening.

Don’t expect directors’ protests to have real impact.

Directors like Christopher Nolan have said they don’t want to support studios that don’t support theaters, but too many top filmmakers already have taken the plunge. Besides, directors don’t finance their own films, especially not ones that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

2021 will be the year of M&As.

Mergers and acquisitions are likely to be on trend for studios and exhibitors alike (although, very unlikely that studios would  want to buy theaters). Some stronger circuits might pick off parts of existing ones; bankruptcies are also an option.

Theaters may try tiering.

Home platforms destroyed the notion of a set price for a film. New-release VODs have seen a range from $3.99 to $29.99. Theaters may try this, too.

Expect other major titles to skip theater exclusivity.

Key Marvel titles? “No Time to Die”? Probably not Universal’s “F9,” given its massive international appeal and the studio’s window deal with AMC and others — but if nothing else, 2020 taught us never to assume.

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