Is The Box-Office Actually Warming Up?

Maybe, but let’s see if it lasts.

A significant – and significantly delayed – milestone was marked last week when Tenet, initially released last September, finally opened in New York City theaters. Unlike when it played in a handful of theaters elsewhere in the country several months ago, this time the opening was not marked by director Christopher Nolan openly decrying Warner Bros. executives, but the larger narrative in the movie industry couldn’t have made him very pleased given his dislike of anything less than 100% theatrical distribution.

See over the last week or so several studio heads and others have weighed in with their own prognostications on the future of movie release patterns given we’re now a year past when most theaters shut down for most of the rest of 2020.

Jim Gianopulos, Paramount Pictures

Exclaimed Gianopulos at Viacom’s Paramount+ Day today, “We believe in the power of theatrical releases and we have faith that after things get back to normal, audiences will enthusiastically return to theaters. At the same time, consumers have increasingly embraced streaming as another way to enjoy films,” said Gianopulos, “our strategy accounts for both.”

Bob Chapek, Walt Disney Company

“I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” said Chapek. “Particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back, but we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”

Jason Kilar, WarnerMedia

“It sure feels like it’s not going to go back to 2015,” Kilar said, adding, “I can only speak for ourselves.”

Bob Bakish, ViacomCBS

“If you look at the curve, the degradations on most film titles, they do very little business on post-Day 30 and certainly post-Day 45,” Bakish, who was the morning’s keynote speaker at the (virtual) 2021 Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, continued. “So moving to an in-house streaming window at that part we think works, certainly for us, but also for constituents, including consumers.”

Tenet finally coming to New York theaters happened at about the same time San Francisco announced bars, theaters and other public spaces could reopen, though still at reduced capacity. That’s also good news for the movie industry as it is another major market that, with vaccination rates rising due to increased supply and Covid-19 cases dropping, is allowing businesses to get back to business.

If things continue to improve, it should mean that Disney’s decision to keep Black Widow’s May release date makes sense. And we might even see titles like No Time To Die and others this year. Indeed studios are feeling positive, with Paramount recently announcing a Memorial Day release date for The Quiet Place Part II.

[record scratch]

Of course there are still potential monsters lurking around a number of corners.

The CDC reported last week that areas where mask mandates and in-person dining restrictions were lifted wholesale have seen fresh increases in Covid-19 infections.

Over 745,000 Americans signed up for unemployment assistance last week and there are 10 million fewer jobs than there were a year ago. 10% of Americans are estimated to have given up on the job market completely, much more than the official 6.4% unemployment rate.

So not only are there still public health concerns that will impact people’s decisions whether or not to head to a movie theater (assuming one near them is open yet), but there is still the very real situation of tens of millions of people not working and therefore not having disposable income to spend on something as inessential as a movie ticket.

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All that is on top of the year of being solidly in the habit of watching new releases via streaming or PVOD.

That’s why it’s likely most, if not all, the studios will adopt some form of hybrid or mix-and-match release strategy for their lineups.

It may not be as ad-hoc as Disney’s approach, where some films are held back entirely while others get full-on Disney+ releases while others are “Premier Access” titles requiring additional payments. Or as one-size-fits-all as WarnerMedia’s day-and-date theatrical/HBO Max releases.

Something fundamental has shifted, though, and it may not be possible to shift it back. While Kilar and others still see a place for theatrical releases, Paramount announcing major title will come to the newly-rebranded Paramount+ just 45 days after they hit theaters shows theaters are no longer the powerhouses they were just a few years ago. Even at the height of DVD sales in the 2000s, studios would never have dared anything less than at least a 90 day window, with 120+ being the tightest it ever really got.

Some theater chains are still trying to exercise some power, though, with Cinemark’s decision to not play Raya and the Last Dragon because of it’s Disney+ availability playing a large role in that movie’s lackluster box-office.

How the theatrical box-office continues to improve after losing essentially an entire 12 month period remains to be seen given how many states are still enacting stricter guidelines and we’re nowhere near “herd immunity” vaccination levels. Adding to the uncertainty is how studios have taken to just not reporting box-office results, afraid those numbers will be taken out of the context of a global pandemic.

That means it could be even longer before we see dollar amounts reflecting wide release patterns. And when those numbers are available, they may not look like what we would expect to see a few years ago because, quite frankly, the results don’t include the number of people who opted to stream it at home now or 45 days in the future.

Marvel Phase Four: Sure, Let’s Do That?

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the movie news and trailers that came out of San Diego Comic-Con were lackluster at best. Sure, a few surprises were dropped like the Walking Dead movie announcement, but in general there weren’t too many jaw-dropping headlines generated. That’s not surprising given Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney (with a notable exception) all sat out the convention.

An exception to that rule was Saturday night’s Marvel Studios panel in Hall H. It was there that the studio finally provided a number of insights into what they have in store now that Avengers: Endgame has put a cap on the first 11 years of stories that have spanned two dozen films. In addition to a number of series for the Disney+ streaming service, those plans include the following films:

  • Black Widow (2020)
  • The Eternals (2020)
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
  • Thor: Love and Thunder (2021)
  • Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021)
  • Blade

marvel studios comic con 2019 thor doctor strange black widow shang chi eternals blade

Unlike announcements from other comics publishers/movie studios, this lineup will likely turn out to be entirely legit and be close to what actually hits theaters. Something may slip by a week or two here or there, but with full casts and creative teams largely locked in it would be a safe bet that all five of these movies come out in the next 30 months.

Of course there are a few notable things about that lineup that need to be considered.

It’s So Weird

Like really weird.

Doctor Strange dealing in some manner with the Multiverse isn’t actually the weirdest of the bunch. That honor goes to The Eternals, a mysterious ancient race created by Jack Kirby after he returned to Marvel following his sting at DC, where he created The New Gods (also being developed for an upcoming film). Some recent stories have tried to retcon aspects of the characters through memory issues and other tricks, but the premise of them being hundreds of thousands or millions of years old and having incredible powers seems to remain largely intact.

Even the titles seem more playful and eccentric than what we’ve seen in the past. Not how Doctor Strange and Shang-Chi don’t actually have subtitles but instead have long, crazy titles that serve as plot summaries. They both sound like the kinds of titles given to film serials in the 40s. And Thor’s subtitle along with the supporting title treatment look like either a PC video game from 1986 or a hard rock album from the same year.

It’s Diverse

It’s great that Natalie Portman is finally getting her own Black Widow movie 10 years after Natasha was introduced in Iron Man 2. That’s a win.

Also good is that Marvel cast an inclusive group of actors for The Eternals. And Shang-Chi features an ethnically appropriate cast, perhaps in part because of the blowback the studio encountered when it cast Vague White Guy #4,382 in the lead role on “Iron Fist” for Netflix and didn’t want to replicate that mistake.

Of course what got the most headlines was that Tessa Thompson hinted – and Kevin Feige later confirmed – that her Valkyrie character was actually LGBTQ and would be more explicitly so in the upcoming Thor movie.

It’s all a far cry from the “Oh look, another white dude named ‘Chris’” approach taken in the casting for the first decade of films.

It’s Got Natalie Portman

Portman hasn’t been seen in the MCU since the second Thor movie, at least in part because she reportedly wasn’t thrilled with how little her character Jane Foster was being given to do. Her not being in Ragnarok was explained away by Feige when he pointed out the movie’s cosmic setting wouldn’t allow Foster to be part of the story but Portman has made other comments about being done.

You have to think, though, that she watched Ragnarok and, like the rest of us, thought that looked like a lot more fun than the previous Thor movies. The prospect of working with director Taika Waititi combined with the story seemingly being inspired by Jason Aaron’s recent comics run that had Foster taking up the mantle of Thor and it’s easy to see why she would make a much heralded return.

It’s Got An Easy Out

What jumps out from the lineup of films here is the lack of connective tissue. There’s no Avengers-like central point that everything seems naturally inclined to come back to and connect with. While there are two sequels and one character spinoff, the rest are essentially one-offs that, to my knowledge, haven’t been setup in previous stories.

That means that if any of these experiments with the absurd don’t pan out, it’s easy for Marvel Studios to say “Well that didn’t work out. We’re going back to the drawing board.” before Phase 5 – which could include the not-announced Fantastic Four, “Mutants” or other sequels for Captain Marvel and Black Panther – kicks off.