The theatrical exhibition world is upside down.
It was just a few days ago that the biggest announcements coming out of Hollywood were a handful of release date changes, with major titles being pushed back by several weeks if not several months.
Since last Friday, though, we have already gone through approximately 762 news cycles, each bringing with it a handful of changes and updates, all of which were more groundbreaking and largely unprecedented than what came before.
Studios have not only punted even more major releases – including Black Widow, which had previously been the sole holdout to Disney’s other changes – but have halted production on projects like The Matrix 4, the Avatar sequels, the third Jurassic World movie and countless others.
The combination of big titles being pulled from the release schedule and guidelines from the CDC as well as many state, county and city agencies to avoid gatherings, practice social distancing, isolate at home if possible and more lead theater owners to make a sequence of decisions. First it was to limit seating at shows. Then it was to shut down some locations in select cities, usually following mayors or governors ordering such measures. Finally, AMC, Regal, Cinemark and most all others have closed all their U.S. theaters.
Also contributing to that incredibly difficult and highly unusual decision is that not only was the Covid-19 coronavirus not showing any signs of slowing down in the U.S. but last weekend’s box-office was the worst such period in 20 years. That’s good news for public health as it eliminates at least one place where people can ignore the recommendations being offered, but it means those theaters aren’t making any money, with the workers there – often among those making somewhere around minimum wage – likely suffering the brunt of the consequences given the lack of social safety net programs.
One movie that hasn’t been rescheduled is Universal’s Trolls: World Tour, which the studio announced will be available via VOD rental platforms for a 48-hour period the same weekend it was meant to hit theaters. Other recent titles like The Hunt and The Invisible Man will also come to digital home video early, following a trend begun by Disney when it released Frozen 2 to Disney+ streaming three months ahead of its planned debut. The Rise of Skywalker is also out on digital now, a few weeks ahead of time, and Warner Bros. says Birds of Prey and other recent titles will follow suit.
That’s good news for people who are exercising common sense and staying home if they’re able to, especially if they have kids home for extended periods because of school closures. For theater owners it may not be quite as sunny a picture.
Commentary over the last few days has included how Disney’s moves could lead to an even further collapsed theatrical release window and how Universal shifting Trolls from theaters to on-demand hints at the kind of business model studios likely prefer, especially given the higher profit margins and reduced costs.
How the theaters themselves will emerge from this is the big question mark hanging over the situation at the moment. Studios do indeed have the flexibility to alter a movie’s release pattern and platforms because they control the product and can choose a different supply chain when one unexpectedly closes.
Theaters are less nimble and rely on the studios to use them as the distribution venue of choice. Box office receipts are already down six percent in 2020 from last year, and now are faced with the combination of no revenue whatsoever for anywhere from six weeks or so to three months or more and massive debt loads that make their financial situation precarious and subject to sharp downward turns given the slightest marketplace hiccup.
Just today, the National Association of Theater Owners finally put out a statement in response to all the developments of the last week, making it clear they see any deviations from the minimum 90 day theatrical release window as an aberration to be at best overlooked and they they are certain people will return to theaters once they reopen.
The question remaining, though, is this: What will they be reopening with? Studios are pushing their entire calendars out, so if things level out and real life commences in June it’s unclear what movies will even be available at that point. And what kind of marketing campaigns will they be supported with? So many movies have already been significant advertising and publicity pushes in support of release dates that are no longer happening or feasible, and new dates will have to keep in mind both overcoming audience hesitancy to come back out into the world and allow for enough time to make the public aware of the new date.
Both those issues are troublesome on their own. Put together they are even more problematic.