Release Date Shuffle Shows Streaming Confidence

It’s all about what cards you’re holding.

The state of the theatrical feature film release seems rosier than it has in a good long while following two of the strongest weekends of the pandemic era thanks to Godzilla Vs. Kong. The gross domestic box-office for that movie is now $69.5 million, an impressive total, especially given the film is also available on HBO Max. Adding to that success is that downloads of the HBO Max app hit an all-time high in advance of its release.

It’s a validation, at least for the time being, of WarnerMedia’s 2021 strategy of day-and-date distribution to both theaters and streaming. Things will go back to relative normal in 2022, when big releases will head to theaters exclusively for at least 45 days before becoming available to streaming subscribers.

WarnerMedia’s strategy was uber-controversial several months ago but now seems common, so much so that it wasn’t surprising when Disney announced Black Widow would do likewise on Disney+ but via its Premier Access payment tier.

Some studios aren’t feeling quite as sure about things, though. Just recently Paramount announced a handful of release date changes, notably moving Top Gun: Maverick out to November from July. That has been seen as a sign the studio can’t afford to have a Tom Cruise blockbuster be anything but just that. (Though the shifting of Snake Eyes from October back to July then would say the opposite, right?)

Tom Cruise GIF by Top Gun - Find & Share on GIPHY

The difference in approaches – continuing to play the release date shuffle versus coming up with a streaming/theatrical hybrid model – indicates how good the respective studios are feeling about their streaming positioning.

Reading the tea leaves above, it would seem that:

  • Paramount doesn’t yet think the newly-rebranded and relaunched Paramount+ is a suitable outlet for new releases. That’s understandable given it doesn’t have the market penetration of some of the other players. Still, the studio announced in February that a number of upcoming films will be available there 45 days after theatrical release, so it’s getting there.
  • NBCUniversal doesn’t have a dog in this fight. Peacock is an entirely adequate streaming service, but if there’s a strategy it’s unclear what it might be. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be factoring into conversations about new releases or anything else.
  • Sony knows it hasn’t even anted up. That’s why it just signed a deal that replaced Starz with Netflix as the studio’s first post-theatrical streaming outlet.

Warner and Disney are out in front of this pack, pushing new models and doing what makes the most sense given all the craziness of the last year while also working to build something sustainable for the future. That confidence is borne, to likely a great extent, by the strength of their brand, something the other studios are still struggling with.

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.

What Should We Watch Elizabeth Olsen GIF by Disney+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

With Movies Paused, Super Bowl Ads In Question

Big Game, But What Movies Will Be Advertised?

Here’s how Jason Lynch opens his Adweek article on where CBS is in its attempts to sell commercial time during next year’s Super Bowl:

As the NFL regular season nears its halfway point, the clock is ticking for marketers to decide whether they want to be a part of Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to air Feb. 7 on CBS.

The clock is indeed ticking. Surely some movie studios are considering whether or not to participate and air spots for their upcoming films during the broadcast. But with the Hollywood release calendar constantly in flux – including Disney’s recent removal of Free Guy and Death on the Nile from this December – and coronavirus cases hitting new highs every day, it’s nearly impossible to even guess what movies might make the cut. Heck, it’s even legitimate to ask if the game itself will happen as scheduled.

Of course that won’t stop me from engaging in a little largely unfounded speculation, broken down by studio below.

Disney et al

The King’s Man: This one has been moved around quite a bit by the studio so far, originally scheduled for November, 2019 but is now planned for February 15, 2021. If, at the end of January, that date is still locked then Disney may hope to get a bit of last-minute awareness and attention with a commercial during the game.

Raya and the Last Dragon: The game being a month out from Raya’s current release date means a spot would be hitting right as the marketing campaign was ramping up in earnest.

Black Widow: Of all of Disney’s releases in the first half of 2021 this one seems the most likely, assuming that the current 5/7/21 date holds. The game would provide a big platform for Marvel Studios to essentially relaunch the MCU, which has now been on hold since the middle of 2019.

Cruella: Disney has only stumbled once or twice with its live action remakes/adaptations in recent years, and it’s probably hoping the charm of Emma Stone in the title role makes this one a success. Those titles seem to appeal to all age groups and a Super Bowl spot would reach a broad range of demographics.

Paramount

Tomb Raider 2: The first movie wasn’t a massive blockbuster, but Paramount is in desperate need of a franchise so it was good enough to warrant a sequel. Some of the first advertising for the original happened in the 2018 NFL playoffs, so the studio might hope to tap into the audience one more time.

A Quiet Place 2: Similarly, the 2018 Super Bowl was the launching pad for TV advertising for the original movie, spots that instantly generated massive amounts of buzz for what everyone agreed looked like an intriguing concept and story.

Warner Bros.

Tom and Jerry: Even if movie theaters are still closed, it’s at least a somewhat safe bet WB keeps this on its 3/5/21 date, meaning Super Bowl spots could run that promote a Scoob!-like PVOD release.

Godzilla vs King Kong: This movie has been sporadically promoted since it was announced in late 2015, with several delays happening even before the pandemic. Assuming it’s actually happening, a commercial here would come three months before release, which isn’t unheard of for bigger titles.

In The Heights: Advertising a musical in the highest profile sporting event of the year might seem odd, but WB might hope that audiences are as enamored by musicals – especially those with a connection with Lin-Manuel Miranda – to give it a shot.

Sony

Morbius: This is just a reminder that Morbius is a movie that’s actually happening, so unless Sony decides to dump it somewhere it will likely want to promote it.

No Time To Die: This is the rare instance where the constant pushing of release dates may actually be advantageous, providing an opportunity to put commercials for it in front of a sizable audience.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife: As above, moving this to June means Sony could give this release a big platform. Such a platform might help it reach an audience that needs to be convinced to come back to the Ghostbusters franchise after the disappointing results of 2016’s Paul Feig-directed installment.

Universal Pictures

F9: If the movie is still coming out in June, it will get a Super Bowl spot. End of story. It’s not even a question.

Amazon Studios

Without Remorse: The streaming companies have for years been talking about how they want and need an blockbuster action franchise of their own but so far that’s eluded them. After grabbing this from Paramount, Amazon could want to make a huge deal about a high-profile release with a big-name star debuting on Prime Video with a commercial during the game.

Still…That’s a Lot of Money

CBS is charging $5.5 million for a 30-second spot, according to Lynch. While the studios might not have to pay that full amount, advertising during the Super Bowl would still be a big and expensive bet to make.

To make that bet worth it, the theatrical picture would have to not only be more secure it would almost have to be a mortal lock. And considering they would be making that bet at least a month or so out from release it becomes even more uncertain. Even if a vaccine is available by February, its distribution won’t be anywhere near universal, meaning there could still be closures and other restrictions in place.

A more complete picture of what studios are placing that bet and what movies they’re choosing to advertise will hopefully be more clear in the coming months.