Box Office Calendar in Chaos: "Next Year Is Becoming a Cage Match"

Illustration by Lydia Nichols

Setting theatrical schedules has never been simple, but as the pandemic pushes releases into 2021 and beyond, distributors say "it’s like playing four-dimensional chess on acid."

On March 4, MGM's James Bond film No Time to Die became the first Hollywood tentpole in the COVID-19 era to delay its theatrical release. The 25th installment in the storied spy franchise moved from early April to Thanksgiving. At the time, the decision seemed drastic — theaters were still open in the U.S. and the World Health Organization hadn't declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic — but it proved to be a bellwether of the coming chaos.

Theaters in the U.S. soon shuttered (cinemas in China, where the pandemic began, had gone dark in late January). Studios rushed to rearrange their slates in what has been the biggest disruption to the release calendar in Hollywood history. The migration, which is ongoing, will have implications for years to come and will make 2021 particularly crowded. Choosing a movie's date is a vital part of the process. It's common for the fiercely competitive studios to select a date two to three years out for their bigger films — and sometimes even farther into the future.

No one could have imagined the calendar carnage as theaters remain closed amid a devastating surge in cases across the U.S. and in some overseas territories. On July 24, Disney said it was taking tentpole Mulan off the calendar and pushing back its Avatar and Star Wars films by a year, through 2028 (Avatar 2 moves from December 2021 to December 2022). A few days earlier, Warner Bros. had likewise removed Christopher Nolan's Tenet before announcing that the tentpole will begin an overseas rollout Aug. 26, followed by select U.S. cities Sept. 3. Paramount made a major announcement July 24, saying it was pushing marquee titles A Quiet Place Part II from Labor Day to April and Top Gun: Maverick from Christmas to June.

"We've never faced such uncertainty, which has resulted in the most fluid dating situation ever," says Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Paramount. "The whole supply chain has been impacted."

Another top distribution executive was a little more colorful in his description of the complicated climate, saying, "It's like playing four-dimensional chess on acid."

Under normal circumstances, shifting the release date of a tentpole could signal that something is wrong with the movie. Mulan and Tenet each has moved no fewer than three times because of the pandemic. "This has upended everything we know about the sanctity of the release calendar," says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. "Release-date changes for huge movies have become commonplace and barely raise the blood pressure. Everyone has come to expect that everything is uncertain."

Sources say it was preferable to unschedule Tenet and Mulan for now instead of announcing new dates and having to move them again. "I think everything is in flux until Tenet goes," says Eric Handler, a Wall Street analyst with MKM Partners. "Other studios will watch to see how many people show up. That could cause some more delays."

Remaining 2020 tentpoles on the calendar include Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, No Time to Die, Free Guy and Steven Spielberg's West Side Story. Mulan's fate isn't yet clear.

Early in the pandemic, many 2020 event pics gave up on this year, including The Eternals, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, F9, Minions: Rise of Gru, In the Heights and Jungle Cruise, all of which are now set for the first three quarters of 2021. "Next year has become incredibly crowded, but we don't know if the films [set] toward the end of the year will be able to finish production," says Handler. "The clock is ticking with every day that goes by." With A Quiet Place Part II and Top Gun: Maverick now in the 2021 mix, competition will be even fiercer. Says Dergarabedian, "Next year is fast becoming a cage match."

Meanwhile, 2022 may not provide more breathing room: Besides Avatar 2, the next installments in the Thor, Doctor Strange and Indiana Jones franchises also have been pushed to that year. However, industry experts and studio execs expect that some smaller and midrange titles will continue to go straight to premium VOD or streaming in order to lighten the calendar.

And even big movies could see shorter runs; on July 28, mega-chain AMC Theatres said it will allow Universal titles to be made available on premium video-on-demand after just 17 days.

"There is going to be a redefinition of what is theatrical and what is not," says one top executive who's spending more time than ever reviewing slots. He says a proliferation of 2023 dates are being snatched up for untitled event films (think of it as insurance). Adds Handler, "It's a messy situation."

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.