Hollywood 2020: Rescheduling Tentpole Movie–Uncertain Risk Amid Pandemic

Box Office Calendar in Chaos: 2021 Is Becoming Cage Match

Illustration by Lydia Nichols

When theaters in the U.S. shuttered, 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.

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 pictures by a year, through 2028 (Avatar 2 moves from December 2021 to December 2022).

Warner Bros. had likewise removed Christopher Nolan’s Tenet before announcing that the tentpole will begin an overseas rollout August 26, followed by select U.S. cities September 3.

Paramount pushed 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 distribution at Paramount. “The whole supply chain has been impacted.”

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Another top distribution executive said: “It’s like playing four-dimensional chess on acid.”

Mulan and Tenet each has moved 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 expects that everything is uncertain.”

It was preferable to unschedule Tenet and Mulan instead of announcing new dates and then 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.”

Tentpoles on the 2020 calendar include Wonder Woman 1984Black WidowNo Time to DieFree Guy and Spielberg’s West Side StoryMulan‘s fate isn’t yet clear.

Many 2020 event pics gave up on this year, including The EternalsGhostbusters: AfterlifeVenom: Let There Be CarnageF9Minions: Rise of GruIn the Heights and Jungle Cruise, all of which are now set for 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.”

Cluttered 2022:

Besides Avatar 2, the next installments in the ThorDoctor 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 go straight to premium VOD or streaming in order to lighten the calendar.

Even big movies could see shorter runs; on July 28, AMC Theatres said it would 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 executive. A proliferation of 2023 dates are being snatched up for untitled event films. It’s a messy situation.”

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