NEW YORK – A long time ago in a pre-COVID universe far, far away, blockbusters opened around the globe simultaneously or nearly so. In 1975, “Jaws” set the blueprint. Concentrate marketing. Open wide. Pack them in.
Since then, Hollywood has turned opening weekends into an all-out assault. Staggered rollouts still happen, of course, but the biggest films are dropped like carpet bombs. Anything less risks losing the attention of moviegoers. Global debuts north of $300 million became commonplace. Last year, “Avengers: Endgame” made well north of $1 billion in a couple of days.
Hollywood has now gone more than four months without a major theatrical release. While some films have found new streaming homes, the biggest upcoming ones — “Tenet,” “Mulan,” “A Quiet Place Part II” — remain idled like jumbo jets on the tarmac. The leading chains are still shuttered. Recent coronavirus spikes have forced release dates to shuffle and chains to postpone reopening to August.
Movie houses say that despite far from ideal circumstances, it’s time for new movies. Four months of near-zero revenue has brought the $50 billion business to its knees. While the beleaguered restaurant industry still has takeout and airlines continue to operate with masked fliers, the vast majority of U.S. movie theaters haven’t punched a single ticket since March. Some have turned to selling popcorn curbside.
“The problem is, we need their movies,” said John Fithian, president and chief executive of National Association of Theater Owners. “Distributors who want to play movies theatrically, they can’t wait until 100% of markets are allowed open because that’s not going to happen until there’s a vaccine widely available in the world.”
“The old distribution models of big blockbusters,” adds Fithian, “need to be rethought.”
That may mean returning to a more old-fashioned release pattern, opening films overseas first and, in the U.S., opening at different times in different areas. When Warner Bros. earlier this week announced it was delaying the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” because of the rise in cases, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich said the studio is “not treating ‘Tenet’ like a traditional global day-and-date release.”
Right now, the biggest movies are getting further away, not closer. AMC, the world’s largest circuit, on Thursday delayed its reopening from the end of July to mid-to-late August. After “Tenet” earlier this week postponed indefinitely, Disney’s “Mulan” followed suit Thursday. Disney also pushed back numerous releases, including films in the “Avatar” and “Star Wars” franchises, back by a year.
“A Quiet Place Part II” also joined the exodus, uprooting from Sept. 4 to April 23.
The coronavirus crisis has ushered in new chapter in the often symbiotic, occasionally quarrelsome relationship between distributors and exhibitors. Splitting ticket-sale revenue approximately in half, their fortunes have often been closely linked.
The largest studios — the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros., Universal — now all have streaming services of their own now, along with TV operations. So they have options. The on-demand release of “Trolls” caused a rift between Universal and AMC. But the two halves of theatrical moviegoing have worked largely in concert through the pandemic thus far.
It’s in their own self-interest. Studios have been loath to sacrifice billions in box office for their priciest and most popular releases. On Thursday, John Stankey, chief executive of Warner Bros. parent company AT&T said direct release to HBO Max could be option for some Warner Bros. movies but not the $200 million “Tenet.”