It is time to stop living in denial: We should all brace for a 2020 without movie theatres.
On Thursday, movie-lovers, critics and anyone who was holding out hope that they might be able to see a film outside the confines of their own living room this calendar year were given a triple dose of bad news.
First: Disney announced that it was pulling the release of its live-action Mulan reboot from it summer schedule, which in turn caused a domino effect on the rest of its 2020-21 slate (James Cameron’s four Avatar sequels, which I assume are highly anticipated by somebody out there, were each bumped a year, as was a new in-the-works Star Wars trilogy). A few hours later, Paramount revealed that it was pushing its biggest 2020 releases, A Quiet Place Part II and Top Gun: Maverick, into 2021. And to boot: producers of Bill & Ted Face the Music announced that their Keanu Reeves comedy would be opening both in theatres and on premium video-on-demand Sept. 1.
While that last item might sound like good news – now everybody gets to watch Bill and Ted’s excellent new adventure, no matter if theatres in their area are open or not, hooray! – it’s also a tacit admission of defeat on the part of Hollywood that most cinemas aren’t going to be opening any time soon. Might as well get the relatively low-budget film out there in the digital world while there’s a captive audience at home – and hope that the loss of revenue typically provided by theatrical exhibition isn’t too big to swallow.
All of this was predictable, especially following news earlier this week that Warner Bros. was indefinitely delaying Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the sci-fi head-trip that has been touted as the gotta-see big-screen blockbuster to welcome audiences back to the multiplex since the pandemic began. That film was supposed to be released July 17, then July 31, then Aug. 12 ... until Warner Bros. gave up and realized that, in most major American markets, movie theatres won’t be able to open. But just because we could have seen these problems coming as soon as California’s COVID-19 infection numbers started to climb back up doesn’t make the news any less depressing.
Which all leads to, essentially, a year without movie theatres. Even in regions where public-health officials have given the go-ahead for cinemas to restart business, it doesn’t much matter – audiences are only going to want to risk going out if there are new, big-screen-ready films to see. Catalogue titles such as Ghostbusters and spring holdovers such as The Invisible Man are good for temporary pandemic programming, but not for a business dependent on the new and novel, each and every week.
At the beginning of March, there were 50 titles from major Hollywood studios that were dated for release in 2020. As of Friday morning, it was down to 19. We can only expect that number to shrink as studios take a hard look at the reality on the ground and decide on the few strategies available to them.
They could hold their films for whenever the COVID-19 situation might feel more manageable; release their films on VOD and hope that not having to split the box-office share with exhibitors will be enough for producers to break even; send their higher-profile films for international release before opening in America, with the hope that piracy doesn’t cannibalize their biggest market; or dump their weaker-looking films to ever-hungry streaming platforms. (On Thursday, Paramount did the latter, selling its fall 2020 Michael B. Jordan military thriller Without Remorse to Amazon Prime Video.)
Canada doesn’t have anything to crow about here, either. While our COVID-19 numbers are far lower than our neighbours to the south, our theatres are just as dependent on Hollywood product to operate. Sure, we could show Canadian cinema and the many French-language films coming out of Quebec, but let’s also be honest with ourselves: that’s not enticing enough product to fuel an entire nation of multiplexes.
Much consternation was had this week when Cineplex urged Ontario to adjust the number of people it could have in its cinemas as part of the province’s Stage 3 reopening plan. (The current rule is that a building can have no more than 50 customers inside, no matter how many auditoriums a single building has. Which means that a typical 10-screen multiplex could have only five customers in each auditorium.)
Canadian moviegoers, who love to dunk on Cineplex due to its 75 per cent grip on the domestic marketplace, were quick to criticize the exhibition giant for placing profits over public health. Besides that being a silly and nonsensical point – properly spaced out, movie-going looks like one of the safest out-of-home activities available – it is a moot argument, too.
Until Hollywood figures out what it wants to do with its now many unscheduled movies, nobody is going to see anything on a screen bigger than the one in their home for a long time. Maybe for the rest of the year. Maybe even longer.
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