Like “Tenet” before it, “A Quiet Place Part II” (dated for September 4, after delaying its March release) and “Top Gun: Maverick” (dated for December 23) have been pushed back by Paramount Pictures to 2021. Likewise, Sony has set a new date for its “Spider-Man: Far From Home” sequel in December 2021. And “Mulan” has also joined the land of the undated blockbuster. So has Wes Anderson’s would-be Oscar title, “The French Dispatch, and the long-delayed “Woman In the Window,” while all of the upcoming installments of “Star Wars” and “Avatar” will see their releases delayed by a year.
Disney dropped its long list of changes today at 5pm Eastern, after stock markets closed, and for good reason. These new dates — or the lack thereof — are unsettling, like most paradigm shifts. And while Warners’ “Tenet” announcement came with plenty of context from the corporate office, along with a heartfelt quote from its motion picture chairman reaffirming its theatrical commitment, Disney didn’t bother. The release was a list of titles and dates, over and out.
That’s not to suggest that Disney doesn’t need theaters. At this writing, much of the Disney 2020 schedule remains intact including “Black Widow” (November 6), “Soul” (November 20), and “West Side Story” (December 18).
“Mulan” may well join them. Or, it’s possible that none of these films will be released in theaters this year. It’s like no one wants to be first — and that alone speaks to how worried studios are about committing to theaters. The industry is in an unprecedented state of fragility. At this point, predictions have the quality of horoscopes: Premises may sound plausible, but could just as easily be otherwise.
When it comes to the health of their audiences, foreign theaters are in better shape than their domestic counterparts; they’re opening or well on the way. However, the lack of major movies to show in them is reaching a crisis point. As the last four months have shown, studios are resilient when it comes to seeking alternatives. Exhibitors — both individual companies, and as a class — are edging closer to panic. And while studios value theaters, are they first among their own list of impending priorities? Probably not.
Economics aside, these seismic date changes are devastating for investor confidence. Even before Disney made its announcement, AMC spent the day contending with a revolt by its primary lenders who alleged debt default after the theater chain took out an additional loan for up to $500 million. AMC stock prices remained steady today, which suggested saber rattling by the group, but they represent $2 billion to AMC. This is not the time for more bad news.
China announced the release dates for “1917” (August 7) and “Bad Boys for Life” (August 14); the last two weeks saw “Dolittle,” “Bloodshot,” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.” The central government agency seems to be treating foreign films as tests for normalization before announcing the country’s most important homegrown titles.
China will next announce the titles for the week of August 21, the date that “Mulan” was set to go worldwide. There is still a backlog of studio titles including “Little Women,” “Trolls World Tour,” and “Onward” that might see placement.
Also of note: “Harry Potter and the Potter’s Stone” is set for an August 14 reissue. That’s interesting, since the film runs 169 minutes long, well over the two-hour limit supposedly installed for safety concerns. That’s good news for “Tenet.” Warners has suggested U.S. theaters might have to wait for Christopher Nolan’s film, but the foreign date ideally includes China. It’s hard to imagine that domestic release would soon follow.
On today’s earnings call, AT&T CEO John Stankey said “Tenet” will be theatrical everywhere. He also mentioned “Wonder Woman 1984,” now set for October 2, as the kind of high-budget film he would “be surprised” if it went that route. But at the same time, his statement that “he loves the option to release films on HBO Max” puts Warner Bros. in line with Comcast’s Jeff Shell: VOD is quickly becoming a part of the menu.
Orion Pictures confirmed that its highly anticipated three-quel “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (United Artists) has moved from a August 28 theatrical release to Premium VOD with theatrical availability on Tuesday, September 1. Theaters can still show it, but it would defy policies of top chains to do so. The Tuesday date reinforces the idea that VOD is the play: That’s the weekday favored for new releases. It also means print reviews (to the extent that they matter) will appear during the week. Finally, the length is disquieting at a slim 78 minutes.
This is the fifth month of closure for top theaters; a sixth is near certain. AMC and Regal have pushed their domestic openings from late July; now it’s mid-to-late August. (Regal parent company Cineworld will continue with early home-base U.K. restarts). Cinemark has yet to weigh in.
“Tenet” will get there someday. As of now, no signs that “Mulan” won’t. Studios are clear that they don’t want all films moving toward VOD; their big movies want theaters. However, therein lies the problem: For exhibitors, top films alone can’t save the day. The domestic gross last year was over $11 billion, and it came from a wide assortment of titles. The top 20 of 2019, which were mostly franchise titles, made up about half of the total. But the rest came primarily from standalone releases. Some of the top ones, like “Knives Out,” today might be considered too risky by studios for theaters.
What is the theatrical future, even when people feel safe to return — whenever that may be? Do studios make the commitment, or do they rethink their strategies with the presumption that theaters may not be there? The strongest argument for a theatrical future lies outside the U.S.: Foreign revenues supply anywhere from 66 percent to 75 percent of the gross. Those countries also don’t have same level of nontheatrical options — yet.
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