Back in March when the coronavirus pandemic first caused all sorts of closures in the United States, I wrote a story about how the pandemic would affect the film industry. Well, it’s been six months since that article was published and I think it’s time to revisit that conversation.
As I said before, there are more important things going on in the world right now than movies. Some rich studio executives missing out on their usual gobs of money isn’t the most pressing issue in the United States or the world as a whole. With that said, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the effects of the pandemic on the film industry will not be contained to 2020 or maybe even 2021. Rather, it’s going to be a long road back to relative normalcy.
In terms of movie releases, the industry was pretty much dead all summer. A few smaller movies meant for theatrical release, such as “Scoob!” and “Palm Springs,” found their way onto various streaming services, but with cinemas closed for safety, there were no major movie releases. As the summer continued and it became more apparent that the pandemic wouldn’t be ending anytime soon, more movies were further delayed and pushed back. One good example of this is “Wonder Woman 1984.” The sequel to 2017’s massively successful “Wonder Woman” film was supposed to open in early June, but was quickly delayed until August, and then October, and now it’s tentatively sitting on a Christmas release date.
The film industry is currently in a weird state of limbo, as not much can be done right now for a specific reason: audiences just aren’t comfortable going to the movies yet.
By now, most cinemas across the country have opened back up, with the notable exceptions of many in New York and California. Despite theaters reopening, many new movies are not coming out. In fact, the opposite is occurring; studios are still delaying their movies into 2021.
When theaters began opening toward the end of the summer, studios were understandably hesitant to open any major flicks. The waters of audience interest had not been tested yet, and nobody wanted to be the first to jump in. Ultimately, it was Warner Bros. that decided to step up to the plate. The studio released the latest big-budget Christopher Nolan film “Tenet” globally on a somewhat staggered release around the beginning of September.
Since we’re living in unprecedented times, it’s difficult to truly gauge what kind of business any movie release right now can garner. But from the information that’s been gathered as a result of the “Tenet” release, it appears that there is very little business to be had.
I give props to Warner Bros. for being brave enough to try and release “Tenet” right now, but that move will likely lose the studio hundreds of millions of dollars, as the film has been failing to pull in the kind of money the studio surely hoped for.
As of writing this, “Tenet” just passed the $250 million mark with its worldwide gross, according to Box Office Mojo. That may sound great, as $250 million is undoubtedly a ton of money. However, when speaking in terms of a film industry that regularly gambles with massive budgets, “Tenet” is actually severely underperforming. Domestically, the film has only managed to pull in just under $40 million over the course of three weeks. And it’s reported that, after considering the massive advertising campaign and $200 million production budget, the total gross for the movie needs to be closer to $500 million just to break even.
The release of “Tenet” does not paint a pretty picture for the box office right now, and in the aftermath, studios, including Warner Bros. themselves, have been scrambling to delay their movies again. Though there were no specific reasons announced for the delays, “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Candyman” were both pushed back immediately following the lackluster release of “Tenet,” likely because the studios would like to hold off until they can see better box office receipts.
There are likely even more announcements of delays to come. Warner Bros. moved its “Wonder Woman 1984” film onto a Christmas release, which is only a week after another major film from the studio, Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” is scheduled to open. A studio opening two of its major films back to back, especially in a pandemic, is likely not a smart move, so industry analysts expect for “Dune” to be delayed to 2021 as well.
Additionally, Disney is looking to move “Black Widow” off its current November release date, and they’re considering moving the new Pixar film “Soul” out of a theatrical release altogether in favor of a release on Disney+.
That brings us to one of the most interesting parts of this conversation: big budget movies being released directly to streaming services.
There’s only one real example of this happening as of yet: “Mulan,” which coincidentally was released the same weekend as “Tenet.” Though “Mulan” did get a theatrical release in China, where, similarly to “Tenet” here, it is severely underperforming, the film was released directly to Disney+ subscribers at an additional single $30 charge. While Disney hasn’t released any of the official financial numbers from this release — it doesn’t have to since the film was released to its own service — it’s being reported that the movie earned Disney around $33 million in digital purchases and increased Disney+ downloads by nearly 70%.
That sounds fairly successful, especially when considering that Disney doesn’t have to split that income with any theaters. However, like “Tenet,” “Mulan” has a production budget of around $200 million, so it’s still uncertain if the film will make enough money to break even.
It should also be noted that Disney CEO Bob Chapek stated that this release of “Mulan” was a “one-off,” which means it’s likely that Disney will be hesitant to release more films in this fashion moving forward.
In large part, film productions are getting back up and running around the globe, though this isn’t without a hiccup or two.
“The Batman,” which had to shut down production only a few weeks after they began earlier in the year, is the best example of this. The film recently booted up production again, but only a few days later shut down as the star of the film, Robert Pattinson, tested positive for the coronavirus. While the film is now back to shooting and Pattinson is healthy again, this serves as a good example of how unpredictable the circumstances of shooting a movie are right now. While major films such as “Jurassic World: Dominion” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” are back to filming for the first time since their coronavirus-related shutdowns in March. It’s important to keep in mind that anything can happen, and it’s not off the table that productions like this will have to halt again.
The movie industry, like most industries right now, is slowly starting to work out the kinks of getting back to normal.
It may not be as quickly as some had hoped, but there’s only so much that can be done during an international pandemic. As evidenced by “Tenet’s” failure to be the big box office kickstart many were looking for, getting cinema back to normal is going to be a marathon. We likely won’t have a reliable film release schedule until 2021 assuming the coronavirus is under control sooner rather than later. Only time will tell.
If there is an optimistic note to end on here, it’s that theaters are open. So, if you’re someone that’s itching to get back to seeing movies, there are socially-distant and safe options to do so.