Looking Toward the Fall Movie Season

We should be more confident, but that’s not working out.

Last month’s grand reopening of movie theaters in many parts of the country did not turn out as expected, though that in and of itself should have been expected. Tenet, seen as the salvation for theaters that had been closed for months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, grossed an estimated $41 million in its first three weeks combined, and that was the best performing film since mid-September. Weekend box-office totals have fallen since its release without another major feature to attract audience interest.

Also falling in that time has been advertising spending by studios, largely because Tenet acted not as a savior but a warning signal to others, including Disney, which pushed just about everything on its release calendar – including Black Widow and West Side Story – by anywhere from six to 12 months down the road.

Key to all of this is that a handful of major markets including Los Angeles and New York City are still keeping theaters closed. San Francisco officials have given the greenlight for opening, but the recently-announced delay of both No Time To Die – pushed from November to April of next year – and Dune – pushed from December to October – has created even more chaos.

Looking at how things stand as of this moment, the biggest titles still on the 2020 calendar, all of which are slated for mid-November at the earliest, are:

  • 11-20-20: Soul
  • 12-11-20: Free Guy
  • 12-18-20: Coming 2 America
  • 12-18-20: Death on the Nile
  • 12-25-20: News of the World
  • 12-25-20: Respect
  • 12-25-20: Wonder Woman 1984

That list, which doesn’t include a handful of smaller titles with great word of mouth like Nomadland and Ammonite as well as streaming releases like The Prom, raises a number of questions and other points to consider.

What’s the Plan Until November 20th?

Between now and the middle of November, the major releases are all happening on Netflix while theaters only have a smattering of art-house titles to program. The Trial of The Chicago 7, Rebecca and others are all streaming, meaning unless The War With Grandpa unexpectedly breaks out into blockbuster territory theaters are going to have minimal new films to play and even fewer that benefit from any sort of mass advertising or marketing campaigns.

That landscape is why theaters are reducing hours or closing on select days in certain markets to reduce overhead during times when no one is coming to see any of the movies being shown. Regal even just announced it will be closing all theaters in the U.S. and U.K. It’s also why a coalition of The National Association of Theatre Owners, the Directors Guild of America, the Motion Picture Association and scores of high-profile filmmakers have once again petitioned congressional leaders for an industry bailout package, citing the monumental losses they’ve suffered.

Such a bailout seems unlikely, though. While the House of Representatives has unproductive talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on a stimulus bill that’s $1 billion less than what the House passed in May, the Senate is solely focused on rushing through a Supreme Court justice approval. And if the news that Disney Parks will be laying off 28,000 people in California and Florida or that airlines are on the verge of letting 50,000 employees go isn’t enough to spur significant action, it’s hard to imagine a strongly-worded letter will do the trick.

Some of Those Dates Are Sketchy At Best

If Disney were going to move Free Guy, which originated with Fox, it likely would have done so last week when it made other changes. And Sony seems to have revived the No Time To Die campaign in earnest, so the odds it’s released as scheduled are at least decent.

But it’s hard to believe Coming 2 America remains on that mid-December date for much longer. With October now begun, the campaign for a long-anticipated sequel starring the recently revived Eddie Murphy should have started by now. Instead there hasn’t even been a teaser trailer or announcement poster. The same goes for News of the World, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks Elizabeth Marvel.

Also, of the nine titles on that list, eight of them are bunched on just three dates: 11/20, 12/18 and 12/25. That’s literally putting all the eggs in a single basket and means studios are counting on people feeling like it’s simultaneously too dangerous to visit family and friends during the holidays but also safe enough to hang out in theaters. Those are both big assumptions or bets to make.

They also assume that the attention of the U.S. audience won’t be focused tightly on what’s shaping up to be a contested election cycle. With cries of hoaxes, frauds and conspiracies already abundant there’s a good chance the end of November will still find the country watching the legal battles being threatened by a certain incumbent president. Either that, or a clear defeat of that same individual will consume 40% of the nation in planning the armed rebellion he and others like him have been encouraging for months now should he lose.

The Question of The Audience Remains

NATO head John Fithian may find New York governor Andrew Cuomo to be an easy target to blame, citing Cuomo’s insistence on keeping NY theaters closed. Financial analysts may suggest studios take one for the team and keep putting movies in theaters to help exhibitors, who are seeing their stocks take a massive hit. It may be true that Tenet simply wasn’t the best movie to lead with last month.

Even if all those things are true, it remains unclear what percentage of the audience NATO, Wall Street or anyone else thinks is coming back to theaters any time soon for two reasons.

First is simply because of health concerns. The number of coronavirus cases are rising across almost the entire country, there’s massive uncertainty because not only does the president have Covid-19 but the information coming out of the White House – which is increasingly looking like a super-spreader hotspot – is unclear and inconsistent. A lot of people are either still taking the same precautions, for a variety of reasons, they have been for the last seven months or are newly concerned about potential exposure. As Lucas Shaw said on Twitter:

Second, the economic picture has not improved substantially for a good percentage of the U.S. population. While stock indexes continue to inexplicably rise:

  • 60% of U.S. households have reported the loss of all or some of their income in the last several months, with the impact falling disproportionally on non-white demographic groups and forcing many women out of the workforce because they’re now responsible for monitoring the at-home learning of their children.
  • The number of people who have been out of work for six months – the threshold for labeling those losses “permanent” – is growing, in part because companies aren’t filling open positions, asking those still at work to do more in a push for productivity.
  • Personal spending has dropped with the ending of enhanced unemployment benefits, or because people have dropped out of the workforce.

With that all in mind, it’s unclear what disposable income the analyst quoted in the THR piece linked above thinks people have to be spending on what is essentially an outing explicitly designed to give them Covid-19.

And, as I’ve said before, it’s unclear exactly what studios are supposed to do. Any option available to them at the moment may bring in only a percentage of what a movie was expected to given a fully functioning economy and box-office. So they must decide between honking off consumers and exhibitors by holding movies back from any kind of release or honking off only exhibitors and punting titles to streaming of PVOD. Only one of those comes without putting studios in the position of the bait that lures audiences into an infectious disease trap.

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