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.

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.


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.


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.

Sony Embraces Aspect Ratios For Mobile Devices

The recent Academy Awards ceremony showed a film industry that seemed to be pushing back against the rising tide of Netflix and streaming originals. That’s the conclusion reached in the wake of Roma being denied a Best Picture Oscar and it seems entrenched players are going to work even harder to keep defining a “movie” as something you only – or at least primarily – watch in a theater and not on your computer or, God forbid, your phone.

Sony, though, seems to be understanding that there’s a future that can’t be ignored or denied and so is beginning to manufacture phones featuring an aspect ratio commonly used for the biggest Hollywood blockbuster films.

Displaying films in the way they were intended has long been a point of contention between those making the movies and the hardware manufacturers that bring devices into people’s homes and lives. It was decades before the widescreen aspect ratios of theater screens were matched by the television sets people bought, so for years watching movies at home meant A) losing half to two-thirds of the picture when it was presented “full frame” or B) having the “letterboxed” picture shrunk down so the 16:9 or 21:9 picture was shown in full, with black bars at the top and bottom. The latter was better, though neither was optimal.

What’s most striking, though, is that the pervasiveness of widescreen television sets and computer monitors have educated the general public about what watching a movie should look and feel like.

When I worked at a movie theater there was one screen that would, for movies like Terminator 2, drop masking from the top to accommodate the 22:9 aspect ratio used. When it did so, it was guaranteed that at least one patron would come out during or after the movie to complain about how part of the picture was being lost. “No,” I would say, it’s that most movies are 16:9 but this one is different so the screen shape changes in order to not leave blank space. I would then pull out a piece of paper and draw something like the following.

The blue square represents the average 4:3 TV screen, while the beige a 16:9 and the green a 21:9 picture. The red-shaded areas are those parts of the picture the viewer, in the early 1990s, was missing when they watched a “full frame” movie on their TV at home. So they weren’t losing out on picture at the theater, they were seeing less of the movie in their living rooms.


Now everyone seems to understand this. Device manufacturers in the late 90s, hoping to prop up the expanding DVD market, started to make widescreen TVs more common and affordable to the point that they’re now the standard.

Sony, by allowing its customers to view and shoot movies and videos in the widest of widescreen formats understands this is where consumption is heading. Theaters are important, I’m the first one to admit, but the democratized access and ease of viewing offered by streaming and download services means the potential audience for a movie is exponentially increased.

According to the MPAA (PDF), 263 million people in the U.S. and Canada went to the movies in theaters in 2017, or about 72 percent of the combined population of those countries. Meanwhile 95 percent of the U.S. population and 70 percent of the Canadian population owns smartphones or other mobile devices, most which have video-watching functionality. That’s 337 million people, over 60 million more than go to theaters.

It’s interesting that while filmmakers rail against what they consider a sub-standard mobile/home/computer viewing experience, those devices have morphed to better present movies as they were intended to be seen, without loss of picture or framing. That fight is happening at the same time the platforms themselves – Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and even YouTube – have increasingly embraced vertical video that is the polar opposite of how films are shot. Even studios are using vertical, or at least 4:3, video in their marketing efforts. Look no further than recent promotional spots for Captain Marvel, which are obviously formatted for best viewing on Instagram or some other squareish platform.

Filmmakers would be well-advised to stop worrying so much about the death of the theatrical experience and work harder to make sure the outlets that are bringing more movies to more people are showing them in the format they were created to be viewed in. That’s the real battle, one we’ve been winning for several years but which now is being challenged again.