(This article was updated on January 21, 2021).
It has begun.
Or, well, it’s basically continuing. Despite hopes that the mass delay of 2020 theatrical releases would stop with the new year (and the multiple coronavirus vaccines that came with it), that’s not how things are shaping up for Hollywood.
Morbius, the dark Spider-Verse spinoff from Sony Pictures (i.e. not Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe), has been officially pushed from March 19 to October 8 of 2021. Like so many blockbusters, it had been originally scheduled for 2020. (UPDATE: Moribus has been delayed yet again, now marked for January 21, 2022.)
Moribus stars Jared Leto as a biochemist who becomes a vampire. It’s directed by Daniel Espinosa, an emerging studio filmmaker who’s mostly known for his Alien-clone sci-fi thriller Life.
For an industry pinning its hopes on a spring theatrical revival, the Morbius delay is the first shoe to drop in 2021. It comes as winter’s COVID surge continues to sweep the United States and many parts of the world. In addition, vaccine rollouts haven’t gone nearly as fast (or been embraced by nearly as many people) as analysts had hoped.
Other spring releases are likely to follow, from mid-size offerings like Sony’s Cinderella (starring Cuban-American pop star Camila Cabello), set for February 5, and Disney/20th Century’s The King’s Men starring Ralph Feinnes, set for March 12.
But the biggest tentpole looming in the first quarter that’s now in danger is Daniel Craig‘s James Bond swan song No Time To Die.
Currently slated for April 2, chances are slim that Sony will have the confidence to invest in a global marketing rollout for Bond on that date; an ad campaign would need to start sometime in February.
The studio would also be hesitant to give Bond the burden of being the first blockbuster expected to woo mass audiences back to theaters. More likely, they will want to release No Time To Die with some sense of guarantees for audience turnout, not as a gamble. (UPDATE: MGM and Universal have announced that No Time To Die will open on October 8, 2021.)
Assuming that’s true, that would place Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II as the first major franchise to test theatrical waters on April 23. Other big titles scheduled for late spring and early summer include:
- Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon (March 12)
- Disney/Marvel’s Black Widow (May 7)
- Warner Bros. Godzilla vs Kong (May 21)
- Disney/20th Century Studios Free Guy (May 21)
- Paramount’s Infinite (May 28)
- Disney’s Cruella (May 28)
- Universal’s F9 (May 28)
My prediction: the Disney, Warners, and Universal titles will mostly stick to their release dates but the Paramount films will bump to the fall.
That said, locked dates won’t necessarily mean locked theatrical runs.
Warner Bros. and Universal are probably the only studios that will remain committed to a theatrical engagements on those dates.
With Warner Media’s announcement that all 2021 WB movie titles would be released simultaneously in theaters and on their HBO Max streamer, Godzilla vs Kong (and other, smaller films that WB has planned for spring) will simply go into as many theaters as conditions will allow on their current dates. That would be consistent with WB’s December release strategy for Wonder Woman 1984.
Similarly, Universal — which isn’t using a streaming platform to launch any of its titles (despite having corporate streamer cousin Peacock as an option) — will take advantage of the new deal it struck with multiplex giants AMC Theatres and Cinemark. That agreement permits Universal to reduce the theatrical-exclusive window to 17 days before it releases its movies on Premium VOD. The studio will share that PVOD revenue with AMC and Cinemark so as to maintain their working partnership.
So that leaves Disney.
Last fall, they announced that the release platforms for all future content would be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. What that effectively meant was that Disney was no longer exclusively committed to theatrical runs for their big movie titles. One of the primary reasons for that strategy is that it allows the studio to commit to predictable marketing campaign windows, something that remains a necessity for maintaining a manageable business model.
The first result of that new strategy was Pixar’s Soul, which debuted exclusively on streamer Disney Plus on December 25, 2020. This occurred despite previous public commitments from Disney to give Soul a theatrical run.
Currently, they remain committed to theatrical releases for Raya and the Last Dragon in March and Black Widow in May, but if Soul is any indication then the only thing the studio remains committed to is release dates. Therefore, if theatrical still isn’t viable in March or early May, expect most Disney-corporate movies to become Disney Plus exclusives.
The one exception: Marvel movie Black Widow.
Rumors are already swirling that the early May release for Scarlett Johansson‘s solo origin flick early is in jeopardy, essentially confirming that MCU blockbusters are too expensive to throw straight-to-streaming. Disney needs that box office for these global behemoths. Plus, they likely want the TV/streaming and theatrical properties within the brand to be kept distinct and separate from each other.