Filmmakers: Maybe Don't See My Movie in Theaters Right Now

Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu

Even as U.S. exhibitors are hurting, some directors are saying quietly that they can't encourage audiences to return to cinemas despite safety protocols added during the pandemic.

The pandemic has some Hollywood filmmakers making an unheard-of plea: "Please don't release my movie in theaters right now." Before the novel coronavirus, a splashy debut on the big screen was the stuff dreams are made of for any director, producer or star.

In recent days, producer Jordan Peele is said to have played a prominent role in the decision to delay Candyman's release from Oct. 23 to next year, worried about encouraging consumers to gather in an enclosed, indoor cinema, sources tell THR. The film, a direct sequel to the 1992 supernatural slasher of the same name, was directed by Nia DaCosta, who co-wrote the script with Peele and Win Rosenfeld. (Peele and Rosenfeld's Monkeypaw Productions made the film for MGM, with Universal handling distribution.)

Cinema safety is a delicate subject as the industry attempts to recover from the shutdown. Theater owners, who are operating at drastically reduced capacity in order to promote social distancing, are spending tens of millions of dollars on enhanced sanitary procedures like improved air ventilation systems. Yet, just as with the general population, opinion within the creative community is divided in terms of activities someone is willing to participate in, or encourage, such as moviegoing.

Insiders stress the decision to move Candyman was squarely made by MGM and Universal, but no studio wants to upset someone as powerful and prolific as Peele. "More and more filmmakers are having these conversations," says one top studio executive. "There's just so much confusion. And there's a spectrum in terms of comfort level." Adds a counterpart at another major: "I'm hoping we'll be in a better place in November and December." (A mid-September National Research Group poll showed that roughly half of moviegoers remained nervous about sitting in a theater.)

Monkeypaw, in a statement to THR, said the Candyman filmmakers "very much want a theatrical release for the film, which is why it has been pushed to 2021. The communal audience experience is crucial for Candyman and, right now, that is not available to everyone due to capacity restrictions and closed theaters. We are simply waiting for a time when all horror fans can have that experience."

The Monkeypaw team didn't provide further comment, but insiders note that African Americans — who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 — are one of the film's target demos.

Peele is not the only one concerned about the risk to the audience. In a bold move, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have told their fans to not go see their new indie movie, Synchronic, indoors. The duo run the genre label Rustic Films with producing partner David Lawson.

"Due to distribution arrangements that are out of our control, the release of Synchronic into drive-ins and indoor theaters has been confirmed for October 23rd. But we want to be very clear: at the time of writing this, we personally wouldn't go to an indoor movie theater, so we can't encourage you to. To us, this isn't only about feeling safe in a theater, this is also about the scientific community indicating that enclosed spaces like movie theaters are still a hazard for spreading COVID-19 to others," the trio wrote in a Sept. 11 Instagram post.

Sources say Benson and Moorhead asked Well Go USA, the U.S. distributor, to scrub the October date, but quickly learned that if that were to happen, deals with other indie distributors in countries across the globe would have been jeopardized.

While Synchronic is forging ahead in theaters, most movies, like Candyman, have abandoned their fall and early winter movie dates. Cinemas remain closed in a number of key locales, including New York and much of California, pending approval to reopen by local health authorities. Also, the performance of Christopher Nolan's big-budget Tenet has been underwhelming in the U.S. after costing Warner Bros. a hefty $200 million to produce before marketing. Through Sept. 21, the film's domestic cume was a tepid $36 million, compared to $215 million overseas, where theaters have been reopened longer. Days after the movie launched in the U.S. during Labor Day weekend, Warners delayed Wonder Woman 1984 from Oct. 2 to Dec. 25.

In late August, Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease expert and director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, participated in a briefing organized by the National Association of Theatre Owners outlining CinemaSafe, a set of protocols for the coronavirus era. Sanchez endorsed the voluntary guidelines as a means of greatly mitigating risk but stressed that there are no guarantees.

She now suggests the movie industry go further. "Although there are still no published studies nor media reports linking COVID-19 transmission with going to a movie theater, I am also not aware of any studies that are proactively looking at the question of movie theater risk," Sanchez says. "This missing piece is a huge opportunity for science and industry to continue innovation and collaboration."

In their Instagram post, the Synchronic crew encouraged people to see the film at drive-ins or on video-on-demand in a few months. "If you do go see it in an indoor theater, please adhere to all the guidelines," Moorhead and Benson wrote. "We love and miss the theatrical experience, so let's work together to stop the spread of the virus."