Studios Hold Out Hope for Theaters’ Return to Normalcy

Studios Hold Out Hope for Theaters’ Return to Normalcy Illustration by Jan Feindt
Illustration by Jan Feindt

In delaying tentpoles, rather than sending major titles to streaming platforms, much of Hollywood is betting that audiences will be comfortable going back to cinemas after the vaccine rolls out.

Despite more delays, don’t expect Hollywood studios to abandon ship and offload their most precious cargo — event tentpoles. They’re still willing to wait for a proper theatrical run, and are hopeful that COVID-19 vaccines may calm the waters and allow moviegoing to resume in earnest by fall, if not late summer.

Throughout the pandemic, the vast majority of big-budget event pics have seen their releases repeatedly pushed back amid ongoing theater closures in major markets and other locales, versus being sold off to a streamer or sent to an in-house streaming service. That’s because a $200 million movie capable of earning $1 billion at the global box office cannot achieve its full financial potential without a robust theatrical release, which triggers lucrative ancillary streams, merchandising and sequels.

Smaller franchises, such as Paramount’s A Quiet Place, are also key to a movie studio’s well-being. The week of Jan. 18 saw the dominoes fall again as a slew of high-profile spring and early summer titles once again moved, led by MGM’s James Bond pic No Time to Die, which relocated from April to early October. A Quiet Place Part II also left April and is now bound for mid-September, while Sony, among other moves, pushed back Ghostbusters: Afterlife from June to November.

“The studios have delayed the vast majority of their major releases until movie theaters are back in business for a very simple reason. A theatrical release is their biggest source of revenue on these titles, and they cannot be profitable without such a release,” says John Fithian, president-CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “The tunnel of this pandemic for exhibitors has been long, but the light at the end of that tunnel looks very bright indeed.”

Wall Street analyst Eric Wold of B. Riley Securities agrees that the forecast is improving, even with delays and disorganization in getting the vaccine to the masses. He says it’s a positive sign that titles such as No Time to Die and Ghostbusters are sticking to a theatrical release rather than going to a streaming platform. “Now, as long as you can make it to July, then you can participate in the recovery,” Wold notes.

Hopes for that recovery got a big boost Jan. 25 when AMC Theatres, the country’s and world’s largest cinema chain, said it has found a way to avoid restructuring in response to major losses by raising more than $900 million in equity and debt. It now has enough liquidity to make it through the summer even if the circuit can’t fully reopen until fall. Other mega-circuits, such as Cinemark, are also in solid financial standing despite release delays. At present, only 35 percent of the 5,400 or so indoor cinemas are open for business. None are open, however, in the country’s top 10 markets.

Wold says that opening movies while so many cinemas are still shut is “great for headlines, but not for the bottom line,” noting how poorly Wonder Woman 1984 did. Adds one financier, “The major studios have realized there is no point in trying to release their product right now.”

The major exception is Warner Bros., which debuted Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in late summer and, on Dec. 25, Wonder Woman 1984. The former earned $363.1 million globally, including $57.9 million domestically. The DC superhero sequel, which is now winding down its run, has earned $37.7 million domestically and $110.7 million overseas for a total of $148 million. Sources say WW84 is likely to lose north of $100 million at the box office. It’s unclear how that loss will be mitigated by the movie’s day-and-date launch on HBO Max in a bid for new subscribers.

Throughout the pandemic, many of the major studios have sold off smaller and mid-range titles to streamers hungry for content and happy to pay top dollar. At one point, there was chatter that a streamer might buy No Time to Die for as much as $800 million, but the talks never got far. “The unspoken rule? You are not going to sell a movie that has a huge upside in theaters,” says a veteran executive.

Other big summer movies still on the calendar include Black Widow (May 7), F9 (May 28), Venom: Let There Be Carnage (June 25) and Top Gun: Maverick (July 2). Paramount refutes rumors that Top Gun 2 will open on Paramount+, just as insiders elsewhere say there are no plans to send Marvel’s Black Widow to Disney+.

“We have no plans to move our theatrical release of Top Gun,” says Paramount president of distribution Chris Aronson. “I think the next two months are critical, and whether the new administration can implement a robust vaccination plan. If Biden’s 100 million vaccines in 100 days works, then I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Since the pandemic began, the National Research Group has surveyed moviegoers every week. In January, there’s been a notable uptick in “comfort” scores, with 82 percent of respondents saying they would feel comfortable going to the movies once the vaccine is broadly accessible to anyone who wants it. “There is hope on the horizon for the first time in a while. The speed of the vaccine rollout is by far the biggest thing that will bring the business back,” says Ethan Titelman, an executive vp at NRG. Adds Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian, “The phrase you are going to hear a lot right now is ‘cautious optimism,’ which is quite different from a few months ago, when it was all gloom and doom."

This story appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.