Paramount reschedules while Sony snatches up emptied dates

With the ongoing COVID pandemic continuing to drastically reducing the number of cinema screens open to audiences across the planet – and especially in the US – Disney has effectively declared that the year 2020 is a washout for their blockbuster movie schedule after Hollywood collectively admitted that the summer movie season was lost.

Having repeatedly pushed their much-anticipated live-action Mulan from a March 27 opening to July 24 and finally to an August 21 date, the studio has taken it off the calendar entirely, acknowledging that there is no certainty when theaters will reopen. While the US is experiencing massive upswing in infections – adding a million new cases in just 15 days – it is not the only market affected. Chinese theaters, where Mulan is expected to generate its second greatest amount of revenue, are still closed as well.

Even with its heavy investment in its Disney+ streaming service, Disney has repeatedly championed the theatrical experience. That stance is as much driven by financial considerations as it is with artistic ones. Without a cinematic release, Disney would be hard-pressed to recoup its $200 million budget, much less make a profit.

“Over the last few months, it’s become clear that nothing can be set in stone when it comes to how we release films during this global health crisis, and today that means pausing our release plans for Mulan as we assess how we can most effectively bring this film to audiences around the world.”

Disney spokesperson

Unlike MulanJungle Cruise, staring Dwayne Johnson, has had its release date pushed back a full year from July 24 to July 30, 2021. The studio’s animated films Soul and Raya and the Last Dragon, have likewise had their respective June and November release dates pushed back with Soul displacing Raya which moves to March 2021.

Not all Disney flicks will get their planned theatrical release. Artemis Fowl went directly to Disney+ a month after its scheduled opening, but that may have been motivated in part by Disney executive’s fears that the Kenneth Branagh film would flop at the box office, having already delayed it from an August 2019 release. It appears that Disney also decided to throw in the towel with the much-delayed Magic Camp. Originally an April 2018 release, it was replaced on the schedule by Christopher Robin. It will now debut on Disney+ on August 14. The animated The One and Only Ivan sees its August 14th theatrical opening converted to a streaming release date instead.

MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE IN THE HOUSE OF MOUSE…

In addition to its namesake studio, Disney’s Marvel, Lucasfilm and Fox studios have also hit the snooze button for their biggest releases. Black Widow, originally scheduled for a May release date, is currently (perhaps optimistically) scheduled for November 6, displacing the other MCU film scheduled for this year, Eternals. The latter film is pushed back to a February 12, 2021 release. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was originally to have that date, but has been pushed back to May of 2021 as filming has been suspended since this past March. It is hoped that it can resume filming in Australia in August. This altered release schedule will affect release dates further into the MCU both on the big screen as well as on the little as the Disney+ series WandaVisionLoki and Falcon and the Winter Soldier not only have had production delays of their own, but they tie into the big screen storylines. So far, the second season of Mandalorian appears to be on schedule for a fall 2020 release. It’s also worth noting that the oft-delayed The New Mutants is still on for an August 27 date, at least for Hong Kong.

James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar films, which are to alternate with Star Wars films for the next seven years’ of December tent poles have been collectively pushed back so that Avatar 2 will debut in December 2022 with Avatar 5 wrapping thing up 2028. The Star Wars films will now hit the big screen in 2023, 2025 and 2027 taking the dates previously scheduled for the Avatar films. An untitled Disney live-action film will now slot into Avatar 2’s original December 17, 2021 date.

However, not all films from the former Fox studios are moving as precipitously. The Personal History of David Copperfield and Death on the Nile from Searchlight and 20th Century respectively, move a mere two weeks down the calendar. Searchlight’s The French Dispatch no longer has a release date, while the studio’s Antlers has been moved to next February. And, while 20th Century’s The Empty Man gets pushed back to December 4, its Ridley Scott Medieval period piece The Last Duel, starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jodie Comer and Adam Driver gets moved UP two months to October 15.

OTHER STUDIOS SEE OPPORTUNITIES, PITFALLS

As the largest Hollywood studio, Disney films account for an outsized 40% of major Hollywood releases. When they set schedules, the other studios are left to scramble for the remaining slots or to offer “counter programming” to bring in the other audiences. The COVID pandemic has stalled or halted most film production across the planet to at least some extent as workers are furloughed or working remotely. Disney has not been the exception to that. Depending on how soon a vaccine or other cure can be found, the 2021 cinematic calendar can either be packed with a bewildering variety of offerings or it can be something of an entertainment with new releases sparsely distributed while production slowly resumes.

Orion is hedging its bets, announcing that Bill & Ted Face the Music will be released over the Labor Day weekend both in cinemas and video-on-demand. This strategy worked for Universal’s Trolls World Tour, but angered both AMC and Regal cinemas into announcing a boycott of that studio’s future releases. AMC has stated that it intends to reopen in August, but reality may get in the way of that. Orion is eyeing the lead time needed to promote the film, which would be wasted if the theater chain cannot open sufficient screens in time.

Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II and Top Gun: Maverick were both pushed back seven months into late spring and midsummer, respectively. Warner Bros also took Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated spy thriller Tenet off the calendar, carefully eyeing a late August or September opening. The BBC’s Killing Eve fourth season has been put on indefinite hold because of Europe’s ongoing, and uneven, battle with the virus.

Hours after Disney made its announcement, Sony swooped in to snag some of the abandoned dates. Perhaps fittingly, the sequel to Spider-Man: Far From Home takes Avatar 2’s former slot. Other studios are likely to stake their claim on the other, now-available dates.

WHITHER THE SILVER SCREEN?

All theater chains have been hard hit by the pandemic with some teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. AMC with 8,043 screens and Regal at 7,178 dominate the American market with over half the screens nationwide between the two of them. AMC barely avoided declaring chapter 11 bankruptcy in June. But downstream, suppliers are being hit hard with premium theater seat maker VIP Cinema Holdings Inc. being unable to exit its chapter 11 plan. Their position is going to be made much harder because they will only be able to fill 50% of their seats for any showing, and there will be an extended period between shows to allow for more cleaning.

There has been a lot of speculation about whether MulanBlack WidowTenet or others would skip the theater and go direct to streaming. When Universal did this with Trolls, it provoked a backlash from both AMC and Regal that the studio will need to address before next summer as they will need the box office revenue to make Fast & Furious 9 a financial success. Mere subscriptions to a streaming service cannot bring in the money needed to be declared a success. The 2019 installment, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, had a budget of $200M and took in over $750M world wide. Any other studio producing big-budget films is in the same position. And, while AMC and Regal could stand up to Universal, they could not afford to do so to Disney or the other large studios. The result would mutually cataclysmic. As we can all attest, a lot of movies suffer for being on the smaller screen as well.

In the meantime, with some theaters in Europe and elsewhere, independent studios will hope to be able to get their films onto screens that would otherwise be denied to them. South Korea has reopened for film production after having successfully contained the virus, and its theaters have reopened. Taiwan, Singapore and others offer a hope that the movie-going experience can return.