COVID-19 has created the largest captive audience in modern history; movie studios shouldn’t squander it.
Another day, another film—or should I say, films—delayed or changed by coronavirus.
Denis Villeneuve’s highly-anticipated Dune was adamant about sticking to its prime Christmas release date, even as the box office calendar shifted around it — including studio sibling Wonder Woman 1984. That was, of course, until this week when Warner Bros. pushed the film back to October 1st, 2021, a staggering 10 months later. The Dune shift pushes Robert Pattinson’s debut as Bruce Wayne in The Batman’s release date back to March 2022.
Meanwhile, Disney announced on Thursday that Soul, its last remaining theater holdout, would be streaming exclusively on Disney+ on Christmas Day. Assuming Wonder Woman 1984 moves again to 2021, this year will close without a major film release in theaters. It is an unthinkable prospect in the age of the billion-dollar blockbuster, but Hollywood has few choices.
New York and Los Angeles, the country’s two largest film markets, are indefinitely shuttered. In markets where theaters are open, audiences don’t feel safe enough to attend in the numbers that would even remotely make up the loss. After Tenet’s qualified domestic under-performance, the studios have drawn their line in the sand. They won’t release their films in theaters without a guaranteed audience, and without marquee titles, audiences are even less inclined to risk COVID-19 exposure by visiting a movie theater.
Movie studios have tried side-stepping this vicious cycle by pushing their blockbuster titles to 2021 and beyond. Vulture has an exhaustive list, but the most notable shifts include: No Time to Die, A Quiet Place Part II, and F9 to April; Marvel’s Black Widow to May; In The Heights, Jungle Cruise, and Top Gun: Maverick to July; and The Eternals to November. Candyman doesn’t have a specific 2021 date, while Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is without one at all.
The release-hopping is a temporary fix for a more significant existential problem: the theater-going experience has changed, possibly forever. Without a trusted COVID-19 vaccine or a widespread treatment option, audiences won’t return to theaters—at least not in the way that comes close to 2019’s record $42 billion box office gross. Even once the world returns to a sense of normalcy, there’s no guarantee that theater attendance will reach pre-pandemic levels.
The last eight months have given us the opportunity to experience entertainment without the big screen, and it has been quite enjoyable. 2020 has taught us that streaming is indispensable, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Assuming 2021 offers the best-case scenario, audiences will have to deal with a glut of leftover titles from Hollywood’s lost year, sitting alongside those already planned. Just as “Zoom fatigue” has plagued remote working, “film fatigue” should concern studio executives. We’re set to experience a grudge match between valued IP and standard blockbusters next year and, simply put, some won’t make it out alive.
How will a mute Emily Blunt fare against James Bond’s last hurrah, or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beloved first play against Tom Cruise’s return to the skies? Titles that would’ve been bonafide hits under normal circumstances might get crushed when pitted against their flashier counterparts. Factor in smaller or indie projects—particularly those that compete for Oscars— and the battlefield gets bloodier.
Again, that is under the best possible circumstances.
So what is the classic Hollywood fix?
Studios might balk at it, but their best hope is streaming. As COVID-19 ravaged the entertainment industry, studios dipped their toes in the digital pond by pivoting their mid-budget titles to streaming services or premium video on demand. The Lovebirds and Eurovision landed on Netflix, Palm Springs opened on Hulu, and Trolls: World Tour grossed nearly $100 million in rental fees in three weeks. Meanwhile, big-budget projects got shuffled further down the release calendar. Disney’s Mulan was the first real blockbuster to get a digital-first release, with a $30 “premier access” price tag for Disney+ subscribers.
Mulan shouldn’t be the last major release either. Studios should go all-in on digital releases, box office potential be damned. COVID-19 has created the most massive captive audience in modern history. As our voracious appetite for content is currently whetted by older series and films, Hollywood has an unprecedented opportunity to re-capture the mainstream attention they’ve ceded over the years by meeting viewers where they spend much of their time: online. Dune is hotly-anticipated now; why waste the marketing and PR dollars on re-promoting it next year when Warner Bros. can capitalize on the hype with a primetime Christmas digital release this year?
Digital for the win
Transitioning to an overall digital-first release strategy won’t be easy. Hollywood—which has long been accused of being stuck in its ways and unwilling to buck the status quo—will need to experiment and be flexible as they figure out what works best for audiences and bottom lines.
There won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Ultimately, Hollywood will need to re-evaluate their projects’ financial viability, or rather, what a blockbuster looks like in this climate. Disney, for instance, could continue with its “Premier Access” model, but it’s a tougher sell for Soul than Black Widow, which has the support of its fervent fanbase (which may be why Disney is following a release plan similar to Artemis Fowl and Hamilton).
Studios will also need to forge new working relationships with digital gatekeepers like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, which have a vested interest in fresh content that can drive subscriptions, or develop their own streaming service (some like Disney, Warner Bros., and Paramount have a head start there). New distribution models will pop up, leveraging different price points, access levels, and exclusive windowing. Even promotion will need to be re-thought, with an even greater emphasis on social media penetration and access to talent (perhaps fans can pay for exclusive digital screenings where they can directly interact with cast members from home).
For Hollywood, going fully digital will be a colossal adjustment. But, it doesn’t have to be Armageddon for the film industry.
Blockbusters will still have their moment in the spotlight, and won’t have to worry about ferocious competition and the resulting audience burnout. The digital landscape also offers small and mid-sized films a more level playing field than they’ve had in decades. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing is that Hollywood finds a way to make the moviegoing experience as engaging, entertaining, and comfortable as possible for audiences in this new world we live in.
After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place?