Since the coronavirus lockdown began in the spring, the hopes of the film industry “returning to normal” hung on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, due to be released on July 17. Warner Brothers and the industry at large so believed in Tenet’s power to lure audiences back to enclosed spaces with strangers was so great they even made this movie the de facto “last blockbuster standing” and the bellwether by which the return of film distribution depended. Well, on Friday, Warner Brothers and Tenet blinked, shifting the release date back two weeks to July 31.
Tenet moving then triggered a chain reaction of date shifts, which sees Wonder Woman 1984 move back to October 2 and Bill & Ted Face the Music actually move up one week to August 14, the spot previously occupied by WW84. Disney has not yet altered any of their release plans except to boot animated film The One and Only Ivan to Disney+. Otherwise, Mulan is still set for July 24—which means it is now the “last blockbuster standing”—and Black Widow is still sitting on November 6. For now. Huge asterisk on all of this, obviously, at this point.
Two weeks doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it is probably the first in what will likely be a series of date shifts. Warners is banking on more theaters being open by July 31 than will be ready for July 17, but c’mon, does anyone really think AUDIENCES will be ready? The issue is not the theaters opening, it’s how many people will actually show up when they do. I guarantee there is a “magic number” all studios have calculated for every film they plan to release under these circumstances estimating what kind of turnout they need to make money. Factors in that formula include gross needed to break even, audience capacity at theaters, on how many screens and for how many weeks can a film potentially play, and what percentage are the theaters retaining off each film.
Tenet cost at least $225 million to make, it HAS to make hundreds of millions of dollars for Warners to see a profit. And they NEED a profit. No studio is in a position to throw away a blockbuster to make a point about “return to normal” and “business is usual”, they’re bleeding money too badly to make a stand. It won’t be normal or business as usual for a long time, probably at least until there is a widely available vaccine for COVID-19. They know that, which is why they’re shuffling release dates instead of forging ahead with the original July 17 plan.
I know the plan is for these movies to play in theaters longer because of less competition in the market, but there isn’t THAT much less competition. Assuming everything goes ahead as it stands right now, beginning with Mulan on 7/24 there is at least one new movie entering the market place every week (except the week of Halloween and the week after US Thanksgiving). That’s a lot of movies competing for a reduced audience. Thanksgiving weekend and the Christmas holiday, two of the biggest movie-going weekends in the US, each have multiple new releases scheduled. The idea of “we’ll play longer and thus make money with reduced audiences” theory only works if there is actually less competition and there really isn’t less competition.
Frankly, I’m starting to think we won’t see any of these big movies this year. Between reduced audience capacity and a reduced number of people willing to buy those limited tickets, I don’t think the blockbusters can make enough to justify their existence. I’m low-key waiting for the first studio to admit they can’t make money with reduced capacity audiences and just pull their blockbusters from the schedule altogether. Lower-budgeted movies, like Bill & Ted Face the Music, or horror movies Antebellum and Candyman, could potentially make money in theaters. They cost so much less to make that the threshold to profitability is much lower. Of course, this is the same logic that makes them lucrative on digital rental, so it’s just as likely movies like that could be shunted over to premium VOD, which actually would leave more room for the blockbusters to earn.
If all the mid-budget or cheaper films moved to premium VOD, there would about twelve big-budget movies left to play in theaters. Mulan and Tenet would be the only movies in theaters until WW84 comes out on October 2. Of course, they immediately contend with Death on the Nile on October 9, and then only have a month until Black Widow in November—the number of releases still stacks up. The problem remains the same: too many movies, not enough audience. If we see Tenet at all this year, I will be amazed.