2020 will be remembered as the year without blockbusters, but the way things are looking, 2021 is going to be more of the same. Earlier this week, Morbius delayed its release date, again, from March 19 to October 8 (honestly, October is a much friendlier month for a vampire-themed superhero movie), and there is a persistent rumor that the next Bond, No Time to Die, the first major movie of 2020 to move its release back as the pandemic hit worldwide status, will once again delay, moving back to the fall. With vaccine rollout slow in the US, and COVID numbers spiraling out of control across the country—not to mention that whole ACTUAL COUP thing that’s still playing out—there is a lot of uncertainty about when theatrical exhibition will be able to resume at the levels required to support the blockbuster class. The situation is much the same in the UK—minus the coup—which is an important piece of No Time to Die’s roll out, as England is Bond’s home turf, and like the US, the UK is dealing with spiking COVID cases.
One thing we learned in 2020 is that these blockbusters need audiences to survive. Putting them straight on streaming is a guaranteed money loser (Wonder Woman 1984 is going to lose money, though it’s not good so it probably would have underperformed even in a normalized market), but with ongoing theater closures and no certain “return to normal” on the horizon, studios holding these gargantuan movies are backed into a corner. Either they keep delaying releases—which is its own kind of expensive, with blown marketing costs and interest building on financing loans—or they throw the movie on streaming and take the loss on the chin and hope the stock market responds positively (the stock market LOVES it when Disney drops stuff on streaming, but has been lukewarm to HBO Max so far) to make up the difference. But that’s not a tenable solution for studios holding multiple blockbusters. You can’t throw them ALL away. It’s folding with a full house.
Warner Brothers got ahead of the mess by just deciding to release everything in 2021 simultaneously in whatever theaters are open and on HBO Max (they folded, not taking the chance that even one of their blockbusters could deliver a billion-dollar payday). This puts pressure on other studios to follow suit, especially studios holding highly anticipated films like Black Widow and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. At this point, I don’t think anything is off the table when it comes to releasing movies in the pandemic times, but Warners’ decision has been so wildly unpopular with everyone in the industry, I doubt other studios will be in a hurry to follow suit (especially those actively trying to woo talent away from Warners with promises of theatrical-exclusive releases). I understand the logic of Warners deciding not to deal with any more release date changes, but they’re now locked in negotiations with producing partners to keep from getting sued, and they’re facing a talent drain as many filmmakers feel betrayed by their unilateral decision making. We just don’t know what the long-term fallout of Warners’ decision is going to be.
But it seems certain we will see yet more release date changes in the next few months. No Time to Die will undoubtedly move, it’s just a question of which month they fall back on, and I bet Black Widow moves again, too. Marvel doesn’t need to sacrifice movies to streaming, since they have three projects launching in succession on Disney+ starting this week. WandaVision drops Friday, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuts in March, followed by Loki in May. If Black Widow moves, Marvel is still covered with a new project in May, and content-starved fans will have months of superhero stuff to satiate them. Universal will likely delay F9 again, but they could use their 17-day deal with AMC theaters to release lower-cost movies like The Forever Purge and Minions: Rise of Gru into theaters and then get them quickly onto streaming. 2021 will probably be more of the same, with big movies constantly pushing back releases and small-to-mid movies throwing in the towel and taking the streaming out, and audiences getting ever more used to watching everything at home. That’s the biggest question I have. Theaters will eventually reopen, and they will eventually be at full capacity. But what happens if no one shows up?