Daniel Craig as James Bond, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto (Courtesy of MGM/Marvel/Universal)
Here we go again. Late last year, Warner Bros. was skewered after announcing that all of its new movies in 2021 would debut simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters. Cinema operators, rival studios and even some of the filmmakers behind the movies wondered aloud why, with the prospect of coronavirus vaccines looming, Warner Bros. would make such a sweeping decision? It was a move that appeared to wave the white flag on moviegoing for the next 12 months.
Nobody expected mass immunization overnight, but with vaccinations being administered at a crawl in the U.S., it now looks like Warner Bros. may have been forward-thinking in acknowledging the box office’s slow return. Numerous films remain on the release calendar for early 2021, yet cases of the virus in many areas are higher than ever and approximately 65% of U.S. theaters — including those in popular markets like New York and Los Angeles — remain closed. Getting back to the movies in any normal fashion seems as unrealistic today as it did last March when cinemas across the nation were shuttered.
To be sure, the majority of potential blockbusters have already been postponed to mid-summer or later. But there are a handful of films scheduled for the first quarter of the year: Sony’s “Cinderella” starring Camila Cabello (Feb. 5), Disney and 20th Century’s “The King’s Man” (March 12) and Jared Leto’s superhero thriller “Morbius” also from Sony (March 19 - now postponed to October 8th), to name a few. These seem very unlikely to keep their theatrical release dates, at least without embracing some kind of hybrid digital or video-on-demand debut.
Even in traditional times, the stretch between January and March is kind of a cinematic dumping ground. So it’s not entirely unexpected that the current release calendar doesn’t pick up in a meaningful way until May, with the debuts of Disney and Marvel’s “Black Widow” (May 7), Warner Bros. and Legendary’s “Godzilla vs Kong” (May 21), Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy” from 20th Century Studios (May 21), Paramount’s “Infinite” starring Mark Wahlberg (May 28), Disney’s “Cruella” with Emma Stone (May 28) and Universal’s “F9” (May 28). But many of these titles are expected to shift as well if conditions don’t drastically improve in the next month or so.
Hollywood players will continue to take different approaches to operating and finding the best way to reach audiences during the pandemic. Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal appear more primed to ride out the next few months, with contingency plans that range from day-and-date releases on streaming services to accelerated premium video-on-demand windows. Neither Sony nor Paramount have a streaming service ready to offload titles, so those companies will probably continue to delay release dates or sell their movies to platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Paramount has auctioned off most of its upcoming movies and doesn’t have anything on the horizon until “A Quiet Place Part II” on April 23, which it has no plans to sell.
As it stands, “Cinderella” is slated as the first release of 2021 from a major studio. However, it’s hard to believe the Kay Cannon-directed fairy tale adaptation will keep its early February release date.
Sony declined to comment on the scheduling.
But it doesn’t take a detective to notice there’s been a conspicuous absence of marketing — no hint of first-look images, no scintilla of a teaser trailer, no evidence of Camila Cabello-inspired promotional toys — for movie that’s supposed to come out next month.
Most films start rolling out advertising efforts six weeks ahead of its release, oftentimes even earlier if it’s a sequel or spinoff in a popular franchise. Even if the release date wavers, sources at Sony emphasize the classic princess will get her due on the big screen. While the studio sent Seth Rogen’s “An American Pickle” to HBO Max and the Kristen Stewart rom-com “The Happiest Season” to Hulu last year, insiders say “Cinderella” won’t be sold to a streamer and Sony is committed to a theatrical release.
Disney has stayed similarly mum on “The King’s Man,” a oft-delayed prequel in the “Kingsman” series, which is set for early March. There’s slightly more time before the studio would traditionally start showcasing trailers and other promotional materials, but if ads don’t begin materializing within the next few weeks it may be fair to assume that director Matthew Vaughn’s latest installment in the spy comedy franchise is being held up again. There have been rumors that a major streaming service would like to take the film off Disney’s hands, but it’s unclear if the studio would ever sell the movie. Moreover, if it went that route, it could always debut “The King’s Man” on Hulu, which it owns.
There’s also been chatter that another Disney tentpole, the Scarlett Johansson-led Marvel adventure “Black Widow,” may follow in the steps of fellow studio release “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which is premiering concurrently in theaters and on Disney Plus for a premium price. Disney insiders continue to deny those whispers. Yet in the age of coronavirus, nothing is being considered — until it is. Sources at Disney disputed reports that Pixar’s “Soul” would premiere on Disney Plus, only to announce a month later that “Soul” would open on Disney Plus.
It’s true that for any movie, plans will be fluid as long as the pandemic remains rampant. What doesn’t change, however, is the fact that it’s insurmountably more challenging for a film the size and scale of “Black Widow” to become profitable without a traditional theatrical window. Many rival studios were gobsmacked at Warner Bros.’ decision to send “Wonder Woman 1984,” “The Suicide Squad,” “Dune” and other mega-budgeted films to HBO Max. In the case of “Wonder Woman 1984,” skipping a big debut in cinemas likely meant the film will lose over $100 million at the box office. It may boast subscriptions for HBO Max, but it’s ambiguous if additional revenue will paper over the loss of ticket sales. Other Warners titles slated for a hybrid release may similarly find themselves in the red.
Mid-budget movies can enjoy a more compelling return on investment through premium video-on-demand since they require transactions on individual titles and don’t need as many credit cards swipes to get in the black. And some studios may be willing to take the occasional write-down if it means boosting streaming subscribers, as was the case with “Hamilton” on Disney Plus. But it’s nearly impossible for movies that carry price tags around $200 million to turn a profit in the current film landscape. That means “Fast & Furious” sequel “F9” and James Bond entry “No Time to Die” (set for April 2) will likely vacate those release dates unless a whole lot more people get vaccinated.
MGM, the financial backers of the 007 franchise, and Universal, the studio behind the high-octane series, both declined to comment. Universal also has international rights on “No Time to Die.”
Universal has deployed its early premium video-on-demand pact with exhibitors such as AMC and Cinemark to modest success, with “Trolls World Tour” and “The King of Staten Island” among the titles that made money for the studio. But few anticipate that Universal will test its PVOD deal — which allows the studio to put new titles on digital rental services 17 days after their theatrical debuts — in an impaired marketplace with an all-important tentpole like “F9.” Recent installments in the Vin Diesel-led series have soared past the billion-dollar milestone with relative ease. Both “F9” and “No Time to Die” are reliant on worldwide grosses, particularly in Asia where action franchises are especially popular. Since their respective studios sink a dizzying number of marketing dollars into global promotional efforts, the companies will have to make a decision by the end of January to avoid dropping unnecessary expenses. Should those titles get postponed again, studios may eye the holiday 2021 corridor in hopes of steering away from the COVID-19 crisis once and for all.
For many studios, delay, delay, and delay again may be the best option — hopefully for the last time. But if the pandemic has proven anything, Hollywood may find itself repeating this song and dance in another six months.
Variety's Rebecca Rubin contributed to this post.