The 2020 Movie Calendar Is About To Go Through Another Major Upheaval (ANALYSIS)

Tenet is scheduled to open nationwide on August 12.

That’s in one month.

There’s no way that’s happening.

The rest of 2020? A month ago things looked promising, especially for the holiday season. Even bullish. Now, in mid-July, it’s time to resign ourselves to a bleak outlook for the rest of the year.

Here are two things that seem all-but-guaranteed at this point, if also contradictory at first blush:

  • As currently slated, the 2020 movie calendar — starting with Tenet opening on August 12 — will not hold. Moreover, by the time it’s all said and done, 2020 will look dramatically different than it does now. Major releases are likely to be scarce. In fact, the 2020 movie calendar may change so dramatically that the effects will be felt well into 2021 and beyond.
  • Despite that inevitability, movie theaters will open as soon as they possibly can.

There’s a lot to unpack here, first regarding the release schedule and then, at the end, why movie theaters will (and must) open ASAP.

With COVID-19 spiking to dangerously high (even record-breaking) levels in states of both Red and Blue political stripes, most movie theaters remain closed. To the extent some indoor theaters continue to operate, attendance remains tepid at best. (Many of the classics I’ve attended have amounted to private screenings, by default, as I’ve been the only ticket-buying patron.)

Granted, showcasing old blockbusters will only get movie theaters so far. Nevertheless, at discount ticket rates of $4 and $5 one would expect much higher attendance if people were genuinely ready to come back to movie theaters in large numbers.

But they’re not. And it’s just getting worse.

Now, with many states going back to stricter Phase 1 protocols and shutdowns in which venues like restaurants and movie theaters must be closed — including California, the most important state to track in terms of whether studios will launch new movies or not (see this report from today) — it’s all but certain that reopening theaters is going to be a much longer process than studios and theater owners had been hoping for.

(FWIW, big Far East markets such as China and Hong Kong are also in the process of re-closing their theaters indefinitely, and Japan is looking more and more likely to do the same.)

Indeed, studios are already showing signs that they’re ready to designate Fall 2020 as a lost cause.

Case in point: Universal Studios delayed its upcoming horror sequel Halloween Kills a full year from October 2020 to 2021 (and the sequel after that to 2022). In a bit of a “fingers-crossed” shift, Universal is filling that 2020 gap with the Jordan Peele produced horror remake Candyman, bumping it from a current September slot to late October, but even that may be wishful thinking.

Tenet and Disney’s Mulan are still scheduled for mid and late August, but expect those to change soon, and substantially. Given Nolan’s insistence to have Tenet reopen theaters (and Warner Bros.’ desire to keep him appeased), my hunch is that the best compromise Nolan and WB will be able to reach right now is to shift Tenet to the first weekend of October 2020.

Warner Bros. would likely prefer to delay Tenet even more, and yet the bump remains notable considering Nolan’s current unwillingness to cede anything more than a two-week delay. And since there’s no way Nolan will allow another movie to beat Tenet to the reopen punch, a delay until October assumes that A Quiet Place II will also move off of its current September 4 date. (It will, but I’ll get to that movie in a bit.)

That 1-2 combo punch of Tenet and A Quiet Place II moving (and Mulan along with them) will trigger a much more significant industry-wide ripple effect across the entire Hollywood calendar.

Here’s what I predict the best-case scenario will look like. (It probably has a 50/50 chance of even happening, with the alternatives being even more austere.):

  • Wonder Woman 1984, currently slated for that October 2 slot and also distributed by Warners, will be delayed all the way to June of 2021, a full year after it was originally scheduled to open.
  • Disney will delay Mulan to November 6 and, accordingly, shift Marvel’s Black Widow from that date to February 2021.
  • Other MCU entries will bump accordingly: The Eternals from February to May and Shang-Chi from May to July. The MCU will then get back on track by keeping Spider-Man 3 in November of 2021 as well as other MCU films scheduled to follow.
  • Disney will keep Pixar’s Soul as its 2020 Thanksgiving holiday tentpole for now, unless events warrant otherwise.

That’s just 4 wide releases from 3 major studios by Thanksgiving.

And honestly, even that’s starting to sound like a pipe dream.

One big rumor suggests that Sony execs are likely to bump No Time To Die from its holiday perch. Now set for November 20, 2020, Daniel Craig‘s final mission as James Bond appears to be moving to sometime in 2021.

Assuming that comes to pass, it’s yet another sign of just how shaky the rest of 2020 is looking, likely substantiated by internal studio polling that shows just how reluctant audiences are about returning to theaters anytime soon, at least at levels that studios need to pull a profit for major blockbusters.

Recent poll data reported by the Los Angeles Times shows that only 13% of frequent moviegoers feel ready to come back to theaters unequivocally when they reopen. When you consider that “frequent” means going to the theater 6 times a year or more, and that the average person only goes to a theater once or twice a year, that data reveals just how trepidatious people overall remain.

Delays for early-fall titles like A Quiet Place II and Bill & Ted Face The Music also appear inevitable. My hunch is that those two movies will go to 2021, as will others currently slated for August, September, and (in most cases) October. The few exceptions could be smaller films that indie distributors may attempt to platform, plus the two studio guinea pigs Tenet and Candyman.

Here’s why the dramatic shifting will soon begin.

Incremental bumping of two-week or one-month intervals is a horrible business plan. Significant lead time is needed for marketing, press tours, and the like. Right now, the best way to create certainty and structure for that kind of roll-out is to claim a date in 2021 as soon as possible.

There’s another reason why making a dramatic shift to the current overall schedule is in every studio’s interest: current film production in L.A. is at a record low, global production is barely better, and most movies that remain unfinished still don’t have a clear path to ramping back up, a secure protocol that insures productions can safely resume shooting (or even begin, in some cases), let alone be wrapped and ready for release.

Budgets are a concern, too, as implementing COVID protocols will, on average, raise a film’s budget 15 to 20 percent.

Given that, the content that was expected to be ready for 2021 likely won’t be, leaving more open dates throughout all of next year. As a result, studios will need content for those dates, and the only product they’ll have to work with is what’s currently slated for 2020.

In short, current COVID trends suggest that everything in the movie industry — from completed films still waiting for release to films still in production that are waiting to be completed — will need to shift. By the time 2020 is all said and done, this likelihood will almost certainly be a reality.

Tenet in October will be the big test, with Universal’s Candyman also a possible case study, assuming it still opens. With those two October movies, the industry will hope to dip its toe back into the theatrical waters. If that goes well, then the November schedule I’m expecting will hold.

If it does, then hope also springs for big holiday offerings (like Top Gun Maverick) and awards season hopefuls (Dune, West Side Story, and others).

Simply put, if October and November go as I laid out above then the December releases will likely stay, too. At worst, some may shift slightly into January and February so as to take advantage of the Academy’s Oscar-eligibility extension, now moved from the end of December to the end of February. (The Academy Awards are currently delayed until the end of April.) Even so, studios will maximize the holiday corridor if at all possible.

However, if events don’t allow for that and the rest of 2020 is essentially lost, then the Academy will have an interesting decision to make: either go ahead with an Academy Awards ceremony where the nominee options look dramatically different than they have historically, or cancel the Oscars altogether for the first time in their history. In the event that this decision is forced, I hope they choose the former. Let the Oscars reflect 2020, regardless of what the year ends up looking like.

That said, if it does come to that, then we’ll have a much bigger problem on our hands than what few decent Oscar-eligible movies remain.

The bigger problem: the theater industry itself.

Studios may have to wait until 2021 before audiences are ready to show up en masse and make tentpoles profitable. Movie theaters, however, can’t wait that long. For them, a debt crisis is looming.

Regardless of how far into the future blockbusters may be delayed, movie theaters need to reopen as soon as is possible in their local cities and regions. Their very existence depends on it. They have to, or else they’re dooming themselves to permanent closure.

The nations three biggest multiplex chains — AMC, Regal, and Cinemark — are slated to reopen at the end of July. I believe they still will, to the extent that state and local laws allow, even if Tenet and others bump to October and beyond.

Granted, showing classic blockbusters for the foreseeable future does not bring comfort or security to movie theater operators; it’s treading water at best. Even so, anything is better than nothing, especially if a theater can leverage attendance into high-profit concession sales. It’s also the only way to effectively gauge when audiences are actually ready to show up for new releases again.

Along with classic movies, expect theaters to get creative with special event screenings like videotaped live theatre productions, recorded and/or live-streamed concerts, possibly broadcast sporting events (assuming they resume), and so on. With live theatre and concert venues effectively closed until 2021, and major league sports likely playing to empty stadiums, multiplexes and indie cinemas may be able to provide a “bigger than my living room” outlet for those experiences that people are hungering for, but do so in a way where social distancing can be more easily partitioned and regulated, and audience size limited.

Even with all of that, the theater industry will likely need to do more in order to lure people back. Specifically, they must do a better job at convincing the public that the new safety protocols they’re implementing are indeed safe, and that these procedures actually do reduce the risk of virus spread significantly and verifiably.

Selling that point may require a concerted, strategic effort unlike any we’ve seen before, i.e. an extensive public awareness campaign that theater owners and studios collaborate on, one that is driven by real data garnered by scientific testing in actual theater-going scenarios. (This may be necessary even if a vaccine is available by year’s end.) Right now, press statements and email blasts that announce and delineate those procedures simply aren’t cutting it.

Another approach to ensuring and communicating safety would be for the National Association of Theater Owners to form a rigorous, official set of protocols that could make up a “seal of approval”. A theater that meets or exceeds all of those standards could post that seal on their website, their venue doors, advertise it, and so on. Simply seeing that universally-accepted seal could give people much more confidence to return to theaters.

Those wish-list suggestions aside, expect all of the calendar changes to begin very soon, possibly this week, and then gradually snowball. I’d say check back in December with this piece to see how much of it came true but, given the dire state of things, we may know that answer by August.

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