Even a dumpster fire can yield some interesting results.
If compiled, the articles, think-pieces and hot takes written between March and December of 2020 on the present and future of movies and theater-going would fill volumes rivaling the collected works of Marcel Proust, though they would be far easier to summarize.
A year unlike any other certainly proved even more disruptive to aspects of the film industry – production, distribution and exhibition alike – than anything like MoviePass or other threats once held to be dire could have dreamed. No one could have engineered a scenario where over 90 percent of the nation’s movie theaters would close for months at a time, studios would shut down filming on major motion pictures and so on ad infinitum because of a virus outbreak around the globe.
All of that, as well as the pivot by studios and media owners to streaming, upended, delayed or otherwise altered a great many movie marketing efforts. That doesn’t mean 2020 didn’t have plenty of interesting campaigns, though. It just means in some cases what made them “interesting” or otherwise notable was a little different than what would have qualified in prior years.
More than anything else, 2020 was a year of unexpected firsts. WarnerMedia finally launched HBO Max and offered a number of original films before announcing it would be home to its entire 2021 theatrical release slate. Disney rushed Onward over to Disney+ before later using it for titles like Hamilton and Soul that otherwise would have gone to theaters and for Mulan as a test for a new pricing model. Paramount sold off many of its titles to Netflix or Amazon. Apple released a handful of original features while trying to provide Apple TV+ with some momentum. Universal essentially reinvented and reinvigorated PVOD.
So, with all that said, these are some of the most intriguing movie marketing campaigns of a year for which “intriguing” is such an understatement as to almost be irresponsible.
Why It Made The Cut: Many campaigns for period films include some element or another meant to evoke the era the story takes place in. No movie takes that as far as Netflix’s Mank, where the whole campaign was designed to seem as if the film were being released in the late 1930s/early 1940s, just like Citizen Kane. Trailers were cut and narrated in the style of that period, posters were designed to look similar to the kinds of one-sheets seen then and more. It shows something unique can be created if the marketing team goes all-in on a concept.
Why It Made The Cut: The campaigns for many movies that had their release plans changed dramatically saw subsequent alterations made to their marketing campaigns. Few were as innovative as Disney’s shift of Mulan. Not only was the film sent directly to Disney+ (as well as limited theaters), but the introduction of a “Premier Access” PVOD tier to that streaming platform set this one apart from the others. By all accounts this experiment was a success, one that may be replicated with other titles in the future. It also essentially set the stage for what Warner Bros. would wind up doing with HBO Max beginning with Wonder Woman 1984, though Disney remains committed to sending its Marvel Studios titles exclusively to theaters.
Why It Made The Cut: Few films felt as timely as The Assistant, which came out at the same time Hollywood was dealing with not only the continued fallout of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace due to sexual harassment and assault but also the burgeoning protests by assistants in the industry over lack of adequate pays and other mistreatment. While other campaigns made big, flashy statements to audiences, this one played it so quiet and understated it sometimes fell off the radar, but kept coming back to show how powerful the story and performances were.
Why It Made The Cut: Before May of last year, Warner Bros. and DC Films seemed to be actively apologizing for the dark, dystopian tone (not to mention storytelling shortcomings) of earlier films from Zack Snyder and David Ayer. The campaign for Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was part of that, presenting a new take on the best character to come out of Suicide Squad that freed Harley Quinn from the male gaze and other traps. In contrast to some of those earlier movies, this campaign was funny, bright and full of women taking their power back. It was also one of the last major fully-theatrical campaigns of the year before things got weird.
Why It Made The Cut: Universal’s unsuccessful effort to launch its Dark Universe film franchise on the back of 2017’s The Mummy is legendary as a case study in corporate hubris. That made the campaign for The Invisible Man so notable as it not only looked like a powerful and compelling story in its own right but also was the first example of the studio’s new approach of making smaller movies driven by creative filmmakers, not the dictates of a shared cinematic universe.
Why It Made The Cut: These two kid-targeted movies were some of the earliest efforts by their respective studios into the burgeoning world of premium video-on-demand, an avenue theater owners had kept off-limits for a decade. Most notably, each represented early adoption of the studio-hosted watch party, encouraging fans to engage in a communal but remote viewing experience anchored by Twitter chats. While Trolls World Tour was a first-mover, Scoob! in particular went all-out for its watch party with downloadable party packs, recipes and other items for those at home to use as part of the event.
Why It Made The Cut: The New Mutants is included here simply because it actually came out after years of delays, rumors of extensive reshoots and other issues. Not only was it finally released – after a campaign that shifted over time from a horror-centric push to one that was more of a conventional super hero message – but it came out theatrically instead of, as many expected, via streaming.
Why It Made The Cut: With so many movies coming out on PVOD or streaming, Tenet’s theatrical release is a bright shining example of a powerful stakeholder intentionally not reading the room. The film’s massively disappointing box-office performance shows there was no audience in September willing to brave theater-going in sufficient numbers, a lesson so well-learned by Warner Bros. it’s cited as being a major reason for the studio’s decision to send #WW84 and eventually all its 2021 releases to HBO Max. It would rather anger directors, agents, production partners and others than go through that again, and with good reason.
Why It Made The Cut: Few films of late have tried so hard – and to a great extent so successfully – to redefine an entire genre as The Happiest Season. Its holiday-centric campaign was perfectly in keeping with the movie’s story, and the emphasis on providing a new take on the Christmas movie category was felt throughout the marketing by Hulu.
Political ads will prop up a market with few movies coming to theaters.
Last week a report was released predicting the U.S. advertising market, in free fall since much of the economy shut down in March and April, should wind up relatively stable for 2020, buoyed in large part by heavy spending from various political campaigns. While still down from its 2019 level, the report forecasts that decline only being around two percent.
That’s not too bad but assumes that more local and state economies will continue to reopen from their pandemic-related closures and that another Covid-19 wave – potentially in conjunction with flu season – won’t cause further restrictions. The report doesn’t go into detail, but it’s safe to assume 60+ percent of that will go to the duopoly of Facebook and Google, with Amazon getting a share of that as well while media companies continue to fall by the wayside.
Among the businesses reopening as states and cities loosen their guidelines for operation are, of course, movie theaters, who have been counting on such easing along with a slate of high-profile releases from Hollywood to bring people back. For months theater owners and other interested parties have been counting down the days until Tenet, Mulan and other titles finally came out.
But Mulan was shifted to Disney+, where it reportedly was viewed by 29 percent of U.S. subscribers to that service during its first weekend. Given the “Premier Access” fee of $30 attached to the movie, that comes out to roughly $260 million. And Tenet’s domestic performance has been very weak, though it’s done pretty well overseas. And it needs to be noted that many of these numbers are estimates given studios are under no obligation to share VOD revenue and WB is holding back official box office reporting.
Since then, Wonder Woman 1984 has moved from October to December and there’s rumors Black Widow may also be delayed while Soul could follow Hamilton! and other recent movies to go straight to Disney+. Theatrical releases are, in the last few months of the year, a risky bet to make, one that studios aren’t willing to make on expensive productions that require the economics of theaters to turn a profit.
Given that’s the majority of what studios are producing these days, that means theaters are now in the position of being open for business but unsure of what movies are going to be available to put on screens for the next several months. It seems like every media outlet has now run a variation on the “The TenetExperimentFailed and The Fate of Fall is Unknown” story in the last week.
There have also been additional comments from others like the CEO of IMAX, who dismisses the PVOD “experiment” Hollywood has engaged in as “failed.”
While the economics of all this are still largely up in the air and open for interpretation, the repeated delays for some movies like WW84 and others that studios seem insistent on bringing to theaters at some point are causing massive audience confusion. That’s in large part because the advertising and marketing keeps shifting and changing, in some cases multiple times. In the case of WW84, branded products from promotional partner companies have hit store shelves with dates that quickly turned out to be inaccurate. Ads have been placed – including some on DC comics – with revised released dates that also were incorrect even before people retrieved them from their pull list boxes.
So audiences don’t have any idea when the movies they might be interested in are coming out because release dates keep changing. Such changes used to be relatively uncommon and only happened for major titles, often months in advance. Now they’re happening with almost every title save for those always intended for streaming and sometimes are announced just weeks before a target date.
Setting an accurate release date and sticking with it requires studios to select one of two options. They can either:
Set a streaming/PVOD release, deciding that getting some revenue from subscriptions/downloads is better than holding the film back and earning nothing, even if that revenue is less than what it was anticipating from a theatrical release
Maintaining a theatrical release date and counting on a combination of 1) health realities being such that theaters and other businesses are still fully open, 2) audience willingness to venture out to mass gatherings, and 3) the movie being attractive enough to a critical mass of people.
Neither, of course, is ideal and is definitely not a sure thing. While Covid-19 cases in the U.S. are falling (despite inaction and misinformation from the Federal government), there’s no guarantee that trend will continue as the weather in much of the country turns colder. Cases have begun rising in many states, which may lead governors and health officials to impose additional restrictions. That could lead to a chain reaction where such orders lead to theaters having to close or further restrict attendance levels, which in turn leads studios to rethink theatrical release dates for major movies, which means fewer options for the theaters that still open.
On top of the coronavirus, the western part of the U.S. is basically one massive wildfire, disrupting life there and causing many to evacuate or make substantive changes to how or when they venture outside due to unhealthy air quality. On the other side of the country, the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard keeps getting hammered by a string of hurricanes that similarly upend normal life and cause property damage or loss.
So who, then, is able to go to the movies either because of time or financial reasons?
If people don’t know when a movie is going to come out, how they’ll be able to afford tickets or how safe it will be to go to theaters, it’s unclear what exactly the core value proposition of a traditional movie marketing campaign is, exactly.
Those who question studios’ commitment to theatrical release models would do well to consider those points. Streaming’s lower price point makes the per-view cost almost zero, and even pricey PVOD titles eliminate the health and time points from the decision matrix. That makes running a marketing campaign a lot easier because, quite simply, there are fewer variables to balance and fewer potential potholes to avoid in running that campaign.
How Disney is selling its delayed live-action adaptation of an animated favorite.
Like many movies of late, Disney’s Mulan should have come out much earlier this year were it not for the Covid-19-related theater closures. Now the movie, the latest in the studio’s series of live-action remakes of its animated catalog and the first one to receive a PG-13 rating, is finally coming not to theaters but to Disney+, albeit with a twist.
The story of the film is similar to that of the 1998 movie as well as the Chinese ballad it’s based on. Yifei Liu stars as Mulan, a young woman living with her family in a small village. When the emperor issues a decree that all households must send a son to join the army in order to defend against an invading force. With no brothers, Mulan disguises herself as a man so that her aging father doesn’t have to sign up himself. That begins an epic adventure for Mulan, one that requires her to be more than she ever believed she could be.
Back in March, when its release was originally scheduled, tracking estimated an $85 million plus opening weekend. Now, many months later, it’s about to debut on Disney+, but not as part of the normal streaming subscription plan. Instead a new “Premier Access” tier has been introduced that requires an additional $30 payment. That roughly mirrors the PVOD model established by other studios during the pandemic, but with the addition that subscribers are essentially purchasing early access, which they retain as long as they don’t cancel their Disney+ account. Those subscribers who choose not to will get access to the movie at no additional charge in December.
First reactions to the film, directed by Niki Caro, have been very positive, especially for the performances from Liu as well as costars Donnie Yen and others. Those reviews have earned it an 81 percent “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s look at how the film has been marketed, including the big shift a month or so ago.
Mulan holds her sword up in front of her face on the first teaser poster from July. While the main photo shows her in her civilian clothes, the image that appears in the reflection of the sword is that of her in full battle armor, showing the warrior that lies within her waiting to be set free.
On the second poster (by marketing agency Art Machine) released in December, Mulan is put in an action pose, leaping through the battle raging around her while looking confident and deadly.
A series of character posters (by marketing agency Ignition) came out in late January, all of which feature Mulan reflected in the sword or other weapon, continuing the theme of reflection and forming your identity based on who you could become.
As it did for many other upcoming releases, Disney put out a poster tied to the Chinese New Year and designed in the style of a Chinese tapestry.
The RealD 3D poster also takes an artistic approach, showing Mulan in the middle of her training with foggy Chinese hilltops in the background. The same shot of Mulan in the middle of a battle seen elsewhere is used on the IMAX poster. The “Reflection” idea comes back on the Dolby Cinemas poster, which has Mulan in full battle regalia on top while she’s in her standard village garb in the reflection of the lake she’s standing alongside. She stands triumphantly on the battlefield on the ScreenX poster and is guiding her horse into battle on the one-sheet for 4DX showings. All those came out earlier this year when it was still believed the movie would come to theaters.
In August a new poster came out specifically for Disney+ showing Mulan walking up what look like temple or fortress stairs, the shadow of a massive dragon also visible next to. Another has a thin, paper-like dragon form coming out from the background as Mulan holds her sword. Just earlier this week one more poster was released that shows Mulan riding her horse into battle, an image that mimics one of the posters used for the 1998 version’s theatrical release. That batch of posters included reworkings of some of the earlier one-sheets but with new dates and the Disney+ messaging instead of “in theaters.”
The teaser trailer (29.2 million views on YouTube) released in July has Mulan being told a husband has been arranged for her, a situation she seems resigned to but not happy with. We’re then shown images of her practicing moves more martial than marital. She puts those skills to use on the battlefield as she fights with an army and on her own to defend against invaders threatening her country.
Mulan’s job is to bring honor to her family she’s told by her father as the second trailer (18.3 million views on YouTube), released in early December, opens. When an invading army threatens her homeland, Mulan steps up to take her father’s place in the battle to fend them off. Hiding her identity means holding back her true potential, though, and only when she unleashes that can she fight the way she was meant to.
The final trailer (4 million views on YouTube), released in early February, mostly sticks to what’s been seen before, but adds some details on the struggle Mulan’s family faces as she goes to war and more.
Online and Social
Disney’s website for the film (likely a holdover from when it was intended for theaters as it hasn’t created sites for other Disney+ releases) has the standard marketing materials along with family activities like movie-themed snack recipes and a PDF activity packet to download.
Advertising and Publicity
Liu landed in some controversy in August of 2019 when, in the midst of months-long pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong she made comments in support of the region’s police force, the same group that had been cracking down on those protesters. That lead to the grassroots “#BoycottMulan” campaign among Hong Kong residents and others.
Things only got worse, with Disney finding itself in an untenable position – support democracy or the massive Chinese market the studio depends on – as the problems around the protests grew. The controversy lead Liu to skip a planned appearance at the D23 event in August.
TV advertising began in early January with a commercial that recaps the story in condensed form, showing Mulan stepping in to fight in her father’s place and bring honor to her family. Another extended spot came out a bit later that takes a similar approach, only with more footage. It was also among the movies with a commercial airing during the Super Bowl broadcast, but it didn’t offer much in the way of new footage or story elements.
Costar Utkarsh Ambudkar was among those presenting at the recent Oscars ceremony.
An additional wave of TV commercials began in late February with spots that highlighted the secret training Mulan is doing, her power as a warrior and defender of her people, how her gracefulness is part of who she is and more.
How the stunts were choreographed and filmed was covered in a featurette released at the end of February that showed the training Liu underwent to take on the title role and how it all goes into telling the story. A second featurette focused more on the story and how it and the characters represent important elements of Chinese culture.
The movie’s Los Angeles premiere went off as planned, but many of those involved addressed the reality of releasing a movie amid the expanding Covid-19 outbreak, something that first led to the news Disney was scaling back the European premiere.
It wasn’t long after that, though, that the film was delayed, first indefinitely than to July and then to mid-August. In July Disney pulled it from the theatrical release calendar entirely before announcing the new Disney+ plan in August. The decision was understandable given the unpredictable nature of the world around us, but it was still met with disapproval from exhibitors, who felt it was a disrespectful sign of things to come, taking away one of the key titles they were counting on to bring people back to theaters.
It was a few weeks after that a new phase of the publicity campaign began, starting with a spot that focused less on the “honor” elements shown off before and more on the action, including a specific call out that the movie would be available exclusively to “Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access,” the first time that had been specifically noted. Additional spots clarified that even further, saying the movie would be available to “Disney+ subscribers who unlock Premier Access.”
A short featurette from mid-August had Caro talking about the incredible cast she assembled and the physical workout they all got and how massive the scale of the story is. Another featurette included Caro talking about the continued relevance of the story and the effort put into casting just the right actress for the title role, with Liu adding her connection with the character as well.
Online ads using the key art of Mulan holding her sword began appearing in mid- to late-August, including the “Premier Access” language and linking to a Disney+ signup page. Similar promotions were run within Disney+ itself, encouraging current subscribers. Those promos added the caveat that Premier Access gave them early access to the film, before it was available to all subscribers, indicating a windowing strategy for the movie within the service itself.
The #GoldOpen organization/movement that has worked to rally support for films with Asian leads announced in late August it was putting its weight behind this movie, including hosting virtual viewing parties and providing discussion and other resources people could reference and use.
Additional featurettes focused on the stunt work, especially as it relates to the invading army of the general played by Jason Scott Lee, another conversation with Caro on bringing the story to life and her respect for the culture depicted, the look of the costumes each character wears,
A handful of athletes of all kinds appear in this video sharing how they embody Mulan’s attributes of being loyal, brave and true to excel in their sports and overcome adversity.
Beginning earlier this week Disney has released a number of promotional videos encouraging people to purchase/stream the movie. Some like this featured Aguilera’s “Reflection” prominently while showing the journey Mulan embarks on.
The first clip shows Mulan using her incredible skills to take on the warriors of the invading army while the second clip shows the training camp Mulan is part of and the kind of drills they engage in.
Media and Press
An extended feature on the production of the movie covered everything from Liu’s social media misstep to this being Disney’s most expensive live action remake to date to how the Covid-19 outbreak in China has impacted release strategies.
Aguilera appeared on “Kimmel” in March to perform her song from the soundtrack. Just recently she performed “Reflection” on Good Morning, America.
The press campaign took a breather along with everything else until a few weeks ago, when it ramped back up leading to release. That included interviews with the movie’s producer and cinematographer as well as Caro and others discussing the various delays and uncertainty along with the unusual distribution plan put in place. Brief biographies of the main cast were offered here for audiences who may not be familiar with many of them.
A number of news outlets have published comparisons between this movie and the 1998 animated version, especially about the absence of Mushu, the dragon sidekick from the first film.
This is, as stated here, a big experiment, one we may not know the full results of because Disney and other studios aren’t consistent in how they report VOD numbers or when they do so.
There’s been some understandable criticism that Disney is giving the movie short shrift with this experiment, not allowing a movie directed by a woman and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast – both things that are largely missing in the domestic theatrical market – the biggest platform available. Some of that is justified, but the reality is that this *is* the biggest platform available at the moment. At least it was when this plan was announced, a time when theaters might reopen and to what extent was still largely unknown.
Whatever those conversations and realities might be, it still comes down (at least here) to how effective the marketing campaign has been at selling the movie.
From that perspective, it’s a strong effort from Disney, one that remains laser-focused on a handful of themes, reinforcing them time and again across platforms to create a clear and recognizable brand identity for the movie. Those themes are largely pulled from the “loyal, brave, true” character attributes ascribed to Mulan herself as well as “reflection,” which is seen throughout the campaign.
The single misstep made involves the messaging around the Disney+ release. As stated before, it was surprising when new spots and ads weren’t immediately available when the new plans were announced in order to benefit from the coverage of those changed plans. And the messaging itself has evolved, with details coming out over the last month. That they were missing for some time, though, means there was a period of confusion or uncertainty around what Disney had in store.
Picking Up The Spare
Lots more coverage of the #BoycottMulan movement, which has gained steam amid the increased attention of release. There was even mention of it on the U.S. Senate floor. That criticism may have contributed to a media blackout in China that could harm the movie’s prospects there. The controversy was rounded up here.
The cast and filmmakers were interviewed about getting ready for such a massive production.
Dolby released a new featurette with Caro and others offering behind the scenes looks at the making of the film.
In response to the (largely indefinite) closure of movie theaters around the country because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, studios have generally taken one of three potential alternative paths:
Punt: Just keep kicking the release date down the road, hoping that the situation improves by then and the movie can be sent to theaters.
EX: Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet, Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow
PVOD: Accepting the reality that not everything can be held for a later date, some titles have been sent straight to VOD, with premium price points to make up for the loss of theatrical revenue.
EX: Scoob!, The High Note, Bill and Ted Face The Music
Streaming: Whether it’s an owned platform like Disney+ or a third party like Amazon or Netflix, some titles have been handed off to streaming because the economics make more sense or it fills in some other part of an overall strategy.
EX: Artemis Fowl, Without Remorse, Hamilton, The Lovebirds
With no end in sight for the Covid-19 outbreak it’s only logical studios would seek out some alternative release plan. They are in the production and release business and if they need to they will seek alternative distribution methods. That’s similar to how changes in the retail world as a whole has led to the rise in direct-to-consumer businesses and more.
The reaction from theaters has been predictable, beginning with AMC Theaters’ promise to never play future films from Universal after it sent Trolls World Tour to PVOD in April. Most recently, those two parties announced a new deal wherein future films would have shorter theatrical-to-home windows. Smaller theater owners have also had time to express their displeasure while other large chains like Cinemark and Regal have offered their own skeptical takes.
While certainly unprecedented, the deal between Universal and AMC – which has reportedly been offered to other studios – doesn’t break many existing distribution norms in function, even if the details are largely new. The “home” release will still take advantage of the platform infrastructure developed and offered by established players like Apple, Amazon and others.
Still, exhibitors kept holding out hope that one or both of two titles – Tenet and Mulan – would provide the light at the end of the tunnel they needed, offering an attractive film that audiences would, however reluctantly, come back to theaters to see after months at home.
Those hopes faded a bit when Warner Bros. announced a unique release plan for Tenet that involved the movie coming out overseas in late August and then in whatever U.S. theaters are available over the Labor Day weekend in early September. That’s bad news for domestic audiences and exhibitors (but great news for Torrent software providers) who are essentially being pushed down the priority list and who may have one of the year’s most secretive plots spoiled for them.
They diminished almost entirely last week when Disney revealed it was creating its own fourth option for the September 4th release of Mulan on Disney+. The release is notable for at least two reasons:
First, it mashes up a couple of the existing paths to create something wholly new. While many media companies have worked to create their own streaming platforms in the last year, those have largely been subscription services, and once you subscribed you had access to everything. Even tiered services like Peacock didn’t charge you extra for one specific title, you might just have to upgrade to the next membership level.
This works differently, essentially creating a PVOD service within the existing subscription framework. If you’re not a member, you don’t have access to the PVOD content, meaning the true cost of the rental is the $29.99 list price plus at least the $6.99 monthly fee. In other words, the cover charge you paid at the door doesn’t grant you entrance to the Champagne Room.
Existing platforms like iTunes, Amazon and others should be watching this as closely as theater owners have been over the last several months. If Disney – or any other company – can find some success in this way they no longer become the one-stop, producer-agnostic shop they’ve been to date.
Second, it creates a whole new marketing paradigm. The campaigns for movies like The Lovebirds, Scoob! and others have changed, often mid-stream, when their release futures were altered, with the call-to-action shifting from “In theaters on…” to “Watch it at home on…” Even still, the expected action on the part of the consumer was only a single one. Instead of “buy a ticket” it was “subscribe” or “download.”
Whenever Disney launches a new phase of Mulan’s campaign, it will have to communicate a two step process: 1) Subscribe to Disney+, then 2) Pay $29.99 for this single movie. That will be a little harder to get through audiences and could create a fair amount of customer confusion when the movie launches as people are caught unaware they have to make an additional payment to watch the movie.
That the reoriented campaign for Mulan wasn’t ready at the same time the announcement was made is slightly surprising since Disney is masterful at coordinating initiatives to take advantage of a moment.
Warner Bros. not having a new phase of Tenet’s campaign is equally surprising, though a bit more understandable given how, at least for U.S. theaters, it’s still largely contingent on a best case scenario being available. It is, in other words, less concrete and so WB is likely holding its fire.
On top of those, there are still a number of high-profile titles that are supposedly coming to theaters later this year.
The New Mutants is, against all odds, still scheduled for late August.
Wonder Woman 1984 is still scheduled for late September, but at this point there’s almost no time to mount a campaign for the movie even if that date holds.
Black Widow and No Time To Die are still scheduled for early and mid-November, which is slightly more realistic but becomes less so with each passing day.
The campaigns for those last three have been paused for a number of months now, and would have to fight through the noise of the daily news cycle – a cycle that includes 1,000 or so Americans dying each day and a ramping up presidential election – to get people’s attention. That adds to the odds some alternative will be sought, as it may not be possible to get a critical mass of awareness that overlaps with the segment of the population willing to participate in mass entertainment without a Covid-19 vaccine, much less a cohesive testing and tracing strategy.
Which option is chosen will be determined by what each studio thinks it can manage as it seeks to make a wide range of stakeholders, each with competing priorities, happy with the proposal.
The latest delay – this one essentially indefinite – to Tenet seems to have unleashed a wave of pent up frustrations and other emotions.
That announcement was made by Warner Bros. earlier this week following news that governors in California and elsewhere were enacting new restrictions on public gatherings as Covid-19 cases in their states spiked yet again. Movie theaters not being allowed to reopen were among those restrictions as those governors tried to keep things from getting even worse, throwing out plans by those theaters to get people back in the door to see Tenet or Mulan, both of which were supposed to finally come out later this month after multiple delays.
Following WB’s update, NATO chief John Fithian has stated his opinion, on behalf of the theater owners he represents, that studios need to just pull the trigger already and start releasing movies again. Waiting for a vaccine to be available to the entire U.S. population is foolhardy, he says, so studios should focus on getting movies onto screens in parts of the country that aren’t on lockdown. That option allows the studios to make some fraction of the money they otherwise would have and supports the theaters that, like many businesses in the country, are struggling and face an uncertain future.
Still, Tenet seems to be the north star by which the entire film industry is being led at this point. While WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey has said that movie will definitely receive a theatrical release (of some kind), other films are going to be punted to premium VOD and other platforms. And AMC Theaters has delayed opening its locations until mid- to late-August, apparently now pinning its hopes to Mulan.
Fithian’s argument makes some amount of sense. There is no nationwide stay-at-home order in place, so theaters in some areas might be able to operate, though maybe still not at full capacity. And studios may begin to take his advice as we near what may be the tipping point where the complete erasure of the 2020 theatrical landscape shifts from possibility to probability.
Even if studios do capitulate and restart the exhibition industry, the question remains who among the audience population will want to run the risk of going to the theater in the middle of a pandemic that is speeding up its rates of serious infection, not slowing down. That reality has been at the core of the (sometimes heated) discussion around reopening schools across the country, something that seems to be up to the local officials and community. It has also led colleges to drastically alter the plans they had in place for fall semester, introducing more remote options and in some cases actively encouraging students to stay away from campus. The MLB and NBA are opening their abridged seasons either in a single location to reduce the risk of infection or play in empty stadiums.
On top of that, there’s the question of who can and will be able to afford to do so.
To put that in perspective, the U.S. minimum wage is $7.25/hour, meaning an adult in a family of four would have to work five hours just to afford taking everyone to the theater. Just under two percent of the U.S. population made the minimum wage or less in 2019, but those percentages go up for part-time workers as well as those in the hospitality and service industries.
More immediately relevant is the pandemic-influenced situation we find ourselves in. There are various numbers available as to the total number of people who are currently out of work, but it’s tens of millions. New unemployment assistance claims have topped 1 million for 17 straight weeks, an unheard of streak in recent history. And despite a new White House-backed ad campaign urging people to get out there and “Find Something New,” workers have made it clear the jobs aren’t even out there to be seized. So many companies have continued to lay off or furlough current employees, few are actually hiring. That’s reflected in the most recent figures showing new claims rose after a few weeks of slight declines.
To date those unemployed individuals have been able to rely on a weekly $600 assistance bonus, something that has helped prop up consumer spending over the last few months when combined with more stores reopening after closures in March and April. That runs out this week, though, and it’s uncertain if Congress – particularly the U.S. Senate – will renew it. Conservative influencers have been urging lawmakers not to do so, afraid it will take away any chance workers will return to their jobs and unaware that making the argument that unemployment assistance shouldn’t be more than their wages implies an understanding that those wages are below the level that would support a family in addition to not offering needed health care and other benefits.
Cutting off that additional $600/week in assistance would remove $19 billion per week from the economy. Things are even more dire for people’s personal financial situation because nationwide eviction moratoriums, intended to protect housing insecure parties from facing homelessness and falling even further behind, expire soon. Like the additional unemployment assistance bonus, there are proposals to extend this but those are bogged down at the moment.
So, basically, where does NATO or its member companies in the exhibition space think consumer money is going to come from?
Theaters can open, and studios can even supply new films for those theaters to play. People may even be willing to go see those movies in theaters. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to have the disposable income to make that choice from a practical perspective.
If anyone has already solved this problem, good for them. But at the moment it seems the stakeholders and interested parties seem to be only considering one part of the marketplace dynamic. There’s a much larger reality that this operates in, one that is about to get a whole lot more unsteady than it already is.
The announcements are coming fast and furious now.
It’s been just over a week since MGM announced it was delaying the release of the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die, in response to concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Moving it from April to November meant taking a financial hit of around $30 million, but that was seen as preferable to putting public health at risk.
Within the last 24 hours there have been a number of other such announcements. Paramount has pushed out the release of both The Lovebirds andA Quiet Place Part II to later this year. Universal has made an even bigger move, shifting the release of F9all the way to next year, while Disney finally broke its silence and announced Mulan and The New Mutants were being postponed, though Black Widow is still scheduled as planned.
The reasons why are understandable and rational. Many cities and states have begun not only canceling their own events but encouraging private organizations to shut down mass gatherings. The NBA, NHL and MLS have both suspended their seasons. All of this is to, as they say, flatten the curve of what’s now understood to be a pandemic and slow the infection rate.
It’s interesting that this is all happening at this moment given there have been two recent cases of movies coming out after long delays, though the reasons weren’t quite as severe as this. Sonic The Hedgehog was moved several months when the initial trailers were met with poor audience reactions resulting in reworked special effects. And this week The Hunt hits theaters after a controversy over its subject matter cased Universal to pull it from the schedule late last year, waiting until the fire had died down a bit.
In both cases, the marketing campaigns were restarted when the studio put new release dates in place, after the situations in question had been resolved in some manner. And so they provide some template as to what may happen when the Covid-19 situation infection rate slows in the U.S..
Given all of these were as little as a week and as much as a month out from release, their marketing campaigns were already well underway. TV spots were running, online ads were driving ticket sales, talk show appearances were booked and happening and other promotional events were being organized.
These campaigns are big trains that don’t just come to an immediate stop. No doubt there will be a few lingering commercials and ads seen in the next few days as programmatically-bought campaigns run out the clock.
What Comes Next
Given the examples offered by Sonic and The Hunt as well as X-Men: Dark Phoenix and other movies that have come out long after they were originally meant to, it’s reasonable to assume a few things about the campaigns that will need to be relaunched:
First, expect them to restart about a month out from release. That’s the period in which a movie’s standard marketing push shifts into high gear, looking to lock down moviegoer intent and capture the general audience’s attention.
Second, expect all new marketing assets. The relaunch of the campaign will likely kick off with a new trailer, or at least a reworked version of an existing one, and a new poster or two that feature the new release date. These will be essential to educating the audience about what to expect and drive renewed interest.
Third, expect a new round of press and publicity. Many of these movies, especially a tentpole like F9, have already been featured in cover stories and their stars profiled in various interviews. So while Vin Diesel, Emily Blunt and others have already made the talk show rounds they might have to do so again in the weeks leading up to release. Again, this is an essential part of generating awareness.
All of that being said, there are some moments that will be impossible to replicate. The Lovebirds was scheduled to screen at SXSW, as were scores of other films, until that event was canceled. And yesterday CinemaCon, which has frequently served as a platform for studios to roll out first-look footage and appearances from major stars, was ixnayed.
It may be that such big promotional moments have simply vanished and are no longer available, so the studios may have to create their own pop-ups or simply write them off.
No Time To Die and F9 were two of this spring’s biggest releases, but others remain (as of this writing) on the schedule, but there may not be enough product in the market for theaters to remain open even if they want to. More announcements could be imminent, with additional campaigns paused and restarted. Given the pace that’s emerged in sporting leagues suspending their seasons, nothing would be surprising at this point.
There are things the studio teams can do, but they all mean asking audiences to take a second bite at the apple, hoping their attention hasn’t moved on to other subjects at a later date. Also a concern now is if the infrequent ticketbuying that’s already become evident becomes even more common with so many streaming options available.
Whatever happens, we’re looking at marketing schedules that are timed with surgical precision be thrown into disarray that’s only moderately controlled.