COVID-19 and the Box Office: Industry Analysts on the 2020 Release Calendar, PVOD, and Theatrical Exclusivity

A panel of industry analysts came together in the latest edition of the Cinema in Flux webinar series, hosted by Influx Worldwide, to discuss the state of the cinema business, tackling topics ranging from reopening dates to theatrical windows.

While some movie theaters in Texas and Oklahoma have already announced opening dates in May, most U.S. cinemas are looking at June and early July to slowly ramp up operations. It would allow cinemas and audiences enough time to get everything ready ahead of the first wide release on the schedule, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, on July 17. 

The best case scenario would see most theaters open and operating at either 25 or 50 percent capacity by the time Tenet opens, followed by Disney’s live-action Mulan on July 24. Working with an otherwise blank slate of new releases, theaters would be able to book new titles on more screens to make up for the decreased capacity. According to Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins, the Tenet and Mulan double-feature in late July would be an ideal scenario for theaters to welcome back new releases. “You have a Christopher Nolan film, he has this contingent of fans who will show up and then a couple of weeks later you’ll have Wonder Woman 1984, where you’re going to get a comic book fan base showing up,” he says. “It’s a good way to ease back into the tentpole release schedule; more than likely, we’ll see the diehard movie lovers come out those first few weeks and then people who are a little bit more cautious coming in the weeks after that.” 

“We have to readjust our expectations for the box office,” agrees Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “In the early days of this, anyone who jumps on the fact that ‘the box office isn’t quite what it could be,’ just won’t get it. That argument doesn’t make too much sense when it applies to every business outside the home, every brick and mortar business is going to take some time to build back up.”

That gradual trickle of moviegoers is one of the reasons Robbins expects opening weekends to come in below the figures we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. He is also expecting films to have stronger legs and longer runs for that very reason, with demand being dictated by consumer confidence in conjunction with new titles in release. “It’s going to be hard, if not outright impossible, to call or compare any opening weekend for these movies to anything in the past,” says Robbins. “Even though they might not hit the numbers they typically would have, there’s a stronger possibility they play longer because we’ll have that multi-tiered wave of audiences coming back in over the next few months once reopenings hit full stride.”

Regaining moviegoers’ confidence will be a delicate balance between monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in local communities and implementing social distancing and sanitation measures in each auditorium. This process will lead to varying approaches to reopening across different states and countries. These scattered policies will be one of the biggest challenges in the reopening efforts, but Robbins believes cinemas could benefit from a wait-and-see approach as other industries return to business. 

“If not one of the last industries to come back at full capacity, theaters will be towards the back end of businesses to fully reopen,” says Robbins. “There will be other industries to look at and learn from, people will have had time to adapt plans over the next few months. Some of the adaptations from other industries can help lead the way for exhibitors.”

While cinemas are closed, some media analysts have openly speculated if cinemas can ever retain their position in the industry once business resumes. “It’s not like streaming just showed up yesterday, it’s been around for a long time,” says Dergarabedian. He cites 2019 as an example of how traditional theatrical windows have benefitted the industry, with a record $42 billion in global box office coinciding with the launch of new streaming platforms from Apple and Disney. “People who love content, love watching at home and love going to the movies. Right now we’re in a different and unique situation, people are literally stuck at home.”

That unique situation paved the way for a $95 million PVOD (premium video on demand) launch for Trolls: World Tour across its first 19 days available to stream, a record according to Universal. With the majority of cinemas around the world closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell went on to boast about the title’s PVOD success in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, where he stated Universal would continue to release titles on PVOD and theatrical simultaneously beyond the crisis. A harsh rebuke from AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron followed, wherein the world’s largest exhibition circuit vowed to drop all Universal titles because of what appeared to be a unilateral decision by the studio to forgo theatrical exclusivity altogether. A follow-up statement from Universal seemed to walk back Shell’s original claim to the Wall Street Journal, but the damage was already done: studio and exhibitor tensions over PVOD and the theatrical window were being carried out publicly. “The whole dynamic between PVOD and movie theaters is being tested right now,” says Dergarabedian. “It’s a stress test and while we don’t know how this is all going to play out, we do know movie theaters are the engine that drive the kind of numbers that make these big budget blockbusters possible.” 

Robbins believes the benefits of theatrical expand beyond the big tentpole titles. “It can turn films you wouldn’t expect to be blockbusters into blockbusters,” he says. “Looking at recent examples, take Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star is Born, they became communal events in themselves and drew a very diverse audience.” 

Dergarabedian highlights the performance of a title like Parasite, the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, as an example of how theatrical can elevate a film’s exposure beyond box office numbers. “That movie was not born to be a blockbuster. It was made into a blockbuster. Even though it made around $54 million in North America, to me that’s a blockbuster,” he says. “If you’re an indie film fan, your idea of a blockbuster may be different than somebody who loves the big ‘popcorn movies’.”

For exhibitors, having a robust line up from tentpoles to Academy Award contenders is vital to ensure business year-round. “It’s appealing to an older audience, who don’t always go to the blockbusters,” says Sonny Gourley, VP of film at Marcus Theatres. “The Oscar season is very popular and rounds out our total moviegoing audience.” 

Making those titles available exclusively on the big screen isn’t only appealing to cinema owners, it’s also been a major driver for filmmakers to encourage greater support from streaming platforms in promoting a theatrical release. A streaming giant like Netflix, for example, went from day-and-date streaming debuts of their 2015 awards slate to instituting exclusive theatrical runs for their 2019 prestige titles. 

“PVOD is here and it’s something that exhibition is going to have to learn to deal with,” says Jason Guerrasio, senior entertainment reporter at Business Insider, adding that while changes to the window might come about, major titles were unlikely to bypass theatrical altogether. 

Despite the public fall out between AMC Theatres and Universal Pictures over the studio’s plans for simultaneous PVOD and theatrical releases, Gourley notes that most studios have been supportive during the COVID-19 closures, “There has been a lot of communication with the studios, they’re all rooting for us. Obviously, it’s in the best interest of the entire industry for us to open but I think everybody realizes that we can’t until it’s safe to do so.”