Now that 2020 is over, and a number of blockbuster films have released post-pandemic such as; TENET, MULAN, and Wonder Woman, we can evaluate.* There’s no speculation. This year was terrible for movies. I am finding it hard to scrape together a top 10 list, I think I will bunch with TV and Video Games. However, crucially Warner Brothers was satisfied this week with the performance of Wonder Woman 1984 enough to fast track a sequel. So where in the Hollywood economy, mid-pandemic does this leave movie goers wondering when they and the rest of Hollywood will get back to the theater.
A lot of films were held back for 2021. Most of them delayed by a full year. James Bond, A Quiet Place Part II, Fast & Furious 9. Many of these films are distributed by major labels with their own streaming services: Paramount (A Quiet Place Part II) has Paramount+ starting up next month. Universal (Bond, F9) has Peacock. Disney has Disney+ and Hulu, although they’ve saved their biggest ticket items like Marvel’s Black Widow for a post-pandemic release [Tentatively May 1st]. Will that happen?
Who is to say for sure? But something has to happen in the meantime. Universal Pictures, who was the first company to piss off theater owners last April with the straight to Premium Video On Demand release of Trolls World Tour which netted them an easy $100 million without having to share with theater owners. The two groups have since struck a lightning 17-day deal with cinema exhibitors to allow have movies arrive on demand shortly after they appear in theaters. A big drop from the pre-pandemic 90 day window. But since then, Universal through their independent label Focus Features has fed theaters well since October with films like Come Play, Let Him Go, Freaky and The Croods: A New Age. They released a new film this week News of the World starring Tom Hanks their biggest release yet and through their major channels. COVID-19 Case Numbers might be climbing, but the Box Office and market bottomed out quickly in March and has been slowly adjusting. As a result Universal now has 8 of its own movies occupying the current top 20 at the North American Domestic Box-Office.
How are the major studios coping? Sony released Monster Hunter to a soft number one debut and unfortunately and maybe partly due to a careless joke had it bomb in the film’s most important market, the economically booming yet incredibly sensitive China. It’s a swing for Sony Pictures at least. A bigger gamble than they had in July releasing the romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Gallery. They have found more success like Paramount offloading their slate to streaming services. They did that with the Tom Hanks movie Greyhound in June where Apple TV picked up the $70 million cheque. Streaming services like Netflix have also picked up the cheque for Paramount projects like The Irishman last year and other past projects like The Cloverfield Paradox. I suspect the theater market will make a strong recovery by summer to 70% capacity, but the distribution landscape by then will no doubt have shifted permanently.
It’d be hard to write this article without talking about Warner Brothers decision to launch all of their films on slate for 2021 simultaneously onto their own streaming service HBO Max. To their partners like Legendary Pictures its self-dealing. And the second biggest movie studio [WB, Disney is considered the biggest] paid the price when they turned down a $250 million offer from Netflix to have exclusive rights to the Godzilla Versus King Kong movie. They are now paying that price to their producing partner Legendary Pictures who footed 75% of the production bill. Will most people stay home and stream instead of venturing out to theaters. They will as long as its safer, and its a decision I’d recommend. After all, WB’s biggest film of 2020 I actually enjoyed more at home than in the theater. But will theaters be gone for good?
No. People like going out as a social activity. The social experience post-pandemic will have to improve, but I feel the theaters, however they survive the next few months, (probably by being swallowed up by bigger fish) will mostly go back to a normal. If only a slightly different, and dare I say possibly improved normal. Be sure to look at how The Little Things (a Denzel Washington crime thriller) performs next month at the end of January to get a good measure at how the industry is coping. By then many communities with good luck and responsible government will be exiting lockdown. For now we’re still stuck seeing 2020 and dealing with its awful hangover.
*A blockbuster film is defined as a film released by a major label with a 100 million dollar plus production and advertising budget.