2020 — The Year without a Blockbuster

[Update, 6.12.20: A day after this piece posted, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Wonder Woman 1984 had moved its release date to October 2, and that Tenet had pushed back two weeks to a July 31 release date. This alters some of the context of this article—namely, that now (at least for the time being) Disney’s Mulan has the earliest release date of any major studio release, not Tenet. But these changes also reflect the main argument raised in this article: It is becoming increasingly uncertain whether any major release will see substantial theatrical exhibition for the remainder of 2020]

 

Marvel’s Black Widow was scheduled to release on May 1.

That was over a month ago. Now in mid-June, we have watched many high profile film releases slip away like sand between fingers. The decision in March to hold off on the release of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, was the first domino to fall. Since then, theaters have shuttered, and although cities across the United States have begun to re-open, most theaters’ doors remain closed.

The largest of these theater chains, AMC (which is owned by Dalian Wanda Group), have plans to reopen all of its U.S. theaters in July. This news comes just one week after the company revealed in public filings that there were “substantial doubts” that the chain could survive the fallout of COVID-19 without going into bankruptcy. The chain’s U.S. theaters have been closed since March 17—cinemas in China, one of the leading profit centers for the theatrical film market, closed in late January. The company, along with other major chains, have been at a profit standstill for months. The Hollywood Reporter reports the Q1 losses for AMC at $2.17 billion.

The major holdout from this shuttering and rescheduling has been Tenet, the new thriller from director Christopher Nolan starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson. While most other films have been given new strategies—day-and-date streaming releases or new theatrical release dates later in 2020 or in 2021—Tenet has remained steadfast, as if it were a symbol of solidarity saying, “if Chris Nolan cannot solve this theatrical crisis, no one can.”

Sitting in a June where nothing is certain—stability itself is not a given—this seems like a strange holdout. Of all movies to symbolize theatrical solidarity, is Nolan’s latest really going to be the blockbuster to save them all? His films are almost always profitable, and he makes films aimed for cinema spectatorship. But his are blockbusters from a bygone era. They are films not tied down by corporate superstructure or franchise narratives. They are auteur-driven passion projects, these days a rarity among tentpole releases.

A filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino may also be able to release an auteurist film in the summer, but Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood didn’t gross nearly as much as Nolan’s last film (and least profitable since 2006’s The Prestige), Dunkirk. Martin Scorsese struggled to get a theatrical release for his last film, The Irishman. Nolan stands in an auteur class of his own. It stands to reason, as his films do cater to a mainstream audience while also bringing in the consumer who wants counter-programming from the standard, franchise blockbuster.

All the same, if any major theatrical release were going to jumpstart and effectively save the theatrical market in 2020, few would have predicted that it would be Tenet. Poised as a summer blockbuster with a lengthy preview during the December release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the film is nevertheless not a tentpole at the same level of financial viability as a Marvel or DC release.

It is perhaps too obvious a fact to reiterate, but the comic book movie has dominated the global box office for the last decade, a reign that culminated in 2019 with the all-time record breaker Avengers: Endgame. High profile comic book movie releases in 2020 included Marvel’s follow-up to Endgame, the origin story Black Widow, as well as DC’s hotly anticipated Wonder Woman 1984. Black Widow has been pushed back to November 6, the original slated release date for their other 2020 release, Eternals (which has been pushed back to Q1 2021). Wonder Woman 1984 remains in the summer season for the time being, moving from a June release to an August 14 drop. Time will tell whether this release comes to pass.

It all depends, seemingly, on Tenet. An August release for DC’s latest allows the distributor, Warner Bros., to make a game-time decision based on how this planned July reopening of theaters plays out. If July does not go as planned, even if the reopen happens but audiences do not flock back to theaters (mind you, most likely at 25% capacity per screen), expect Warner Bros. to nix the release of Wonder Woman. With Marvel taking over November with the tentative release of Black Widow, Warner Bros. may need to re-calibrate unless they want to directly compete with one of the only tentpole films of 2020. All said, there is a scenario in which Black Widow becomes just the third comic book movie released in 2020 (the others being Warner Bros.’ Birds of Prey and Sony’s Bloodshot, both of which under-performed at the box office).

The fact of the matter is, releasing a film is only half the battle. Even before the pandemic, the blockbuster film was struggling. As Stephen Galloway reported in The Hollywood Reporter last year, the benchmark for success for tentpole films has changed, and the bottom line is that the hits need to hit bigger. Part of Galloway’s number play comes down to inflation and inflated budgets, but the general trend he isolates is demonstrative of a problem in Hollywood—a blockbuster problem.

With streaming VOD a real possibility (highlighted all the more by the Universal-AMC feud surrounding Trolls World Tour earlier this year), studios can diversify their revenue stream. Theoretically, this lessens the necessity of a theatrical release. But just as home video did not tank the theatrical market, as some speculated it would, streaming is not a replacement for cinemas. Studios rely on the global theatrical market for their biggest releases, and this market has grown more specialized over the last few years. The swings need to be bigger, so the budgets have to be bigger. The spectacle needs to sparkle more. Films need to cater to an international audience (particularly, they have to cater to a Chinese market that is quickly becoming the largest theatrical market in the world).

Studios have mitigated the risk-taking in these big swings by doubling down on franchise filmmaking, but many have struggled to keep up with the reigning champion in worldwide box office—Disney. For as fallacious as some of Galloway’s argumentation is (he focuses on domestic box office, for one), he is right about viewing Disney as a growing threat, a monopolistic presence in an already oligopolistic system. Disney, in recent years, has eaten up market share at the worldwide box office like a kid in a candy store, leaving other studios with a thin margin for error when it comes to their tentpole properties.

Flash forward to our present moment, and we see an industry with no easy solution to its current problems. Theaters want to open as soon as possible to avoid going under, and studios are waiting to see if they can avoid the VOD-only release for their biggest money makers. But it all hinges on the reliability of audiences. The idea that consumers will come back to the theaters in droves, because they have missed the experience and are in desperate need for social interaction, is something of a pipe dream. The rebounding of the market is not likely to be so strong. China attempted to re-open some of their theaters in late March, to little success. The theaters closed again after a spike in COVID-19 cases, and recent reports pessimistically forecast that up to 40% of all theaters in China could permanently close their doors. That 40% is roughly 5,000 cinemas (by comparison, Statista reported that there were a total of 5,869 cinemas in the U.S. in 2018).

Even if audiences do want to return to cinemas as soon as possible, the necessary precautions required to do so will limit the financial viability of cinemas for the foreseeable future. Social distancing precautions would require a limit to the number of tickets sold for any given showtime. Given how crucial opening weekend grosses are to theatrically released films, this limited capacity could significantly hinder any one film’s success. The most optimistic result from this limited capacity is that high demand would translate into a longer theatrical window for a given film, but, in the age of immediate online reception, a film would require a mammoth positive word of mouth to keep people coming out week after week in spite of COVID-19 concerns.

This all seems unlikely. In a non-precarious, non-pandemic world most movies suffer severe second weekend drop-offs in box office receipts. Sometimes, this is irrespective of critical reception. The theatrical market is high risk, and the added risk of infection spread will only add a hindrance in the form of consumer hesitation.

My honest prediction is that 2020 can only hope to be a wash at the box office. In the best case scenario, cinemas survive to recoup their losses in subsequent years. In the meantime, the only films that might fare well at the box office are the ones which have fared the best in the past decade. That is, if Disney is willing to take the losses of sold out showtimes being at 25% of the number a sold out show has historically represented. And, frankly, why would they be willing? Being at the top of the market, and with their new streaming service Disney+ holding down the fort in the meantime, there is little incentive to release Black Widow or Eternals to quarter-capacity crowds. If anything, waiting an extra six months to a year could build anticipation, anticipation that had likely waned slightly since the climactic saga-ender that was Avengers: Endgame. Marvel’s 2020 slate was never going to reach the zenith that was the financial success of Endgame. Biding their time may prove to lessen some of the franchise fatigue that has been hurting other studios.

We are living in a strange time (how many times have you heard that in the last three months?). As such, strange things could happen. Unforeseen things. Could Tenet prove to be a massive success in July? It’s possible. Could re-opening industry sectors in U.S. cities result in spikes in COVID-19 cases that could scare the cinema market back into dormancy? Also a distinct possibility. By November, cinemas could be thriving. Black Widow could come out with little impediment and quickly rise to be the biggest blockbuster of 2020. Or we could be looking at the cinematic year that time forgot. The year without a blockbuster.

 

 

—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan, Letterboxd)

 

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