Earlier this week, Disney made the latest seismic moves to its — and exhibition’s — release calendar with the delay of Marvel Studios’ Black Widow from November 6 to May 7, 2021. While the move is lauded as another signal that the distributor remains committed to the theatrical experience and the revenue window it provides, the news underscores a reality that moviegoing on a domestic and international scale will take longer to recover than hoped or planned for.
Widow‘s delay comes on the heels of Warner Bros.’ decision to shift Wonder Woman 1984 from October 2 to December 25 later this year. Studios remain apprehensive when looking at the opening weeks of Tenet‘s domestic box office performance, nervous to risk another big-budget tentpole in a market that remains partially closed (despite far more encouraging trends in many international markets).
By and large, theater owners have done all they can up to this point by re-opening over 70 percent of cinemas in North America, investing in and adopting an array of new health practices to ensure customer safety during the ongoing pandemic. That move was met with Warner’s bold and widely respected decision to release Tenet in a virtual wild west atmosphere. They stood with theaters as far as delivering a new product.
Unfortunately, the progress has been stunted early on in the re-opening process. Consumer awareness (not to be confused with sentiment) of theaters reopening has remained very low, according to multiple surveys from NRG, and marketing for both Tenet‘s release and the broader resumption of exhibition’s business has been generally quiet.
Communication has lapsed in many ways. The cooperation between studios and theater chains has leaned largely on the latter — relying on grassroots word of mouth in suburban and rural areas instead of the usual media and marketing blitzes provided by the entertainment hubs of Los Angeles and New York, among other metro areas whose theaters remain closed.
The result, despite consistently strong week-to-week legs by virtually all films in release right now, has been a light volume of foot traffic throughout the past month.
To be clear: a return to normalcy was never expected to happen anytime soon. It became evident over the summer that we likely weren’t going to be talking about pre-pandemic-level box office trends again until sometime in 2021. The theatrical reboot has (correctly) been defined as a “marathon, not a sprint” by Warner Bros. and various exhibition sources.
That doesn’t mean moviegoing has to stall indefinitely, though. There has been, and still is, an opportunity for the majority of the country to return to movie theaters in a safe and controlled environment. Comscore polling as recently as this month indicated that positive sentiment was trending in the right direction.
However, studios — largely based in the two major markets whose cinemas remain shuttered — haven’t taken as proactive a role in marketing current films and sharing in the promotion of open theaters as many exhibitors would like to see. Audiences need to be better informed of open theaters and their safety protocols.
Just as importantly, cinemas need new product — more than just one tentpole, and preferably, something with true four-quadrant appeal.
It’s a theme we’ve heard all year, and it will remain true throughout the duration of this pandemic and the recovery era. Combined with the streaming dump of Mulan, and subsequent delays of Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow, the box office is now relying on one highly cerebral blockbuster and a bevy of counter-programming content, putting the box office at risk of a backslide this fall.
Forecasting the Pre-Holiday Box Office Corridor
With the aforementioned delays in mind, and even whilst factoring in Tenet and other films’ strong holds, the next six weeks are pacing to generate close to $80 million or less at the domestic box office. That takes us up to the day Black Widow would have opened, November 6.
For perspective, the five-week period of August 22 through September 25 this year will finish slightly over $85 million. That was once expected to be the slowest and most challenging time of the restart, with Tenet and Mulan hypothetically drawing various audiences back in steady waves and compounding word of mouth about re-openings — leading into Wonder Woman 1984 and other titles. But in this day and age, nothing is written in ink.
Broken down, that means weekly domestic box office revenue, after topping $22 million for two straight weeks mid-September, may dip to an average of $10 million or less throughout October and early-to-mid November leading up to the tentative openings of No Time to Die and Soul on November 20.
That projected weekly average would register on par with the $11.3 million earned from August 22 to August 28 — before Tenet had fully expanded nationwide, and before many theaters had re-opened.
Notably, these models assume the vast majority of theaters currently open will remain so during this time, with similar operating hours and showtimes observed over the past five weeks. Just as crucially, the equations also presume cinemas of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — the top three domestic markets — will remain closed until November 6.
Models, of course, deteriorate if any significant markets are forced to temporarily close again due to the lack of new product, sustainable admissions, and/or regional outbreaks of the virus during a time of year scientists have warned could be very challenging as flu season peaks around the corner.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that a number of lower profile, non-major releases remain slated (for now). As of this writing, 101 Studios has The War with Grandpa for October 9, Open Road is planning the Liam Neeson thriller Honest Thief for October 16, and Disney moved up the horror pic The Empty Man from December to October 23 (in time for Halloween), among others.
We’re also excluding the potential impact of Sony’s Connected and STX’s Greenland for now, which remain unscheduled but tentatively planned for releases in the fourth quarter of this year. Those films alone aren’t going to cut it when it comes to supporting mid-to-smaller-sized circuits, though.
Applying the Lessons of Tenet and the Re-Opening’s First Phase
Optimistically, the major market holdouts could begin their restart process by late October or early November in advance of Disney / Pixar’s Soul and MGM’s No Time to Die — both still slated for November 20 releases.
Even more optimistically, if studios show a higher degree of involvement in marketing these films and theatrical re-openings than they have during Tenet‘s early weeks, the next phase of recovery might still have a chance to begin during the typically lucrative holiday season.
These are lofty “if”s, though. A potential second wave of COVID-19 this fall would certainly impact studios’ plans to remain dated in November and December, as could the results of the United States presidential election on November 3 — which may or may not have its own implications on further financial aid for the film industry, not to mention how the country itself tackles the virus going into the new year as a vaccine (hopefully) comes closer into view.
Much has been made of the importance Los Angeles, New York, and other major cities provide to the box office footprint, but their dollar contribution (estimated by NATO and Comscore at 10 to 15 percent for most mainstream films) is arguably secondary to their ability to start the national marketing engine — which, in turn, plays a significant role in guiding the sentiment of moviegoers. It’s not just about money, it’s also about influence.
The safety of everyone is the top priority right now, and that’s why exhibitors have gone to great lengths to provide it for customers while also striving to support thousands upon thousands of people whose families and livings depend on the functionality of this industry.
No outbreaks have been traced to theaters upon re-opening, and as cited by the earlier Comscore survey, the customer experience from those attending theaters during this time has been overwhelmingly positive.
Can we be certain things will stay that way indefinitely? Of course not. That comes with the territory of adaptation during a pandemic. Uncertainty is an element even during times of so-called normalcy.
It’s understandable that studios are playing things safe during a time when everyone is re-writing the rule book, just as it is admirable that they’ve shelved the vast majority of titles for later theatrical releases instead of pushing them off to streaming.
Likewise, some studios are in a stronger position of being able to take risks right now than others. That’s why Disney and Warner Bros., essentially boasting the strongest backlogs of new films, are in control of how this year — and early next — pan out for the movie industry.
When the time does come for the next major film to open nationwide, be it No Time to Die, Soul, Wonder Woman 1984, or something further out into 2021, the warnings and lessons of these first five weeks absolutely must be heeded.
No more half measures. The experiment of Tenet must breed progress and improved results for the next trial release — because everything will be a trial until it isn’t. Just as one major film had to be first out of the gate, eventually, another will have to be the second.
8-Week Film Forecast
|Release Date||Title||3-Day (FSS) Opening Range||3-Day (FSS) Opening Forecast||% Chg from Last Week||Domestic Total Range||Domestic Total Forecast||% Chg from Last Week||Distributor|
|10/9/2020||The War with Grandpa||n/a||n/a||101 Studios|
|10/9/2020||The Wolf of Snow Hollow||n/a||n/a||Orion Classics|
|10/9/2020||Yellow Rose||n/a||n/a||Sony / Stage 6 Films|
|10/16/2020||2 Hearts||$500,000 – $3,000,000||$1,000,000||-50%||$2,000,000 – $13,000,000||$4,500,000||-40%||Freestyle Releasing|
|10/16/2020||The Courier||n/a||n/a||Roadside Attractions|
|10/16/2020||Honest Thief||$2,000,000 – $7,000,000||$4,000,000||-53%||$10,000,000 – $35,000,000||$20,000,000||-43%||Open Road|
|10/23/2020||The Empty Man||$1,000,000 – $6,000,000||$2,500,000||$3,000,000 – $18,000,000||$6,500,000||+30%||20th Century Studios|
|10/23/2020||Synchronic||n/a||n/a||Well Go USA Entertainment|
|10/30/2020||Come Play||n/a||n/a||Focus Features|
|10/30/2020||Fatale||$1,000,000 – $4,000,000||$2,000,000||-73%||$4,500,000 – $18,000,000||$9,000,000||-54%||Lionsgate / Summit|
|11/6/2020||Let Him Go||$2,750,000||$10,000,000||Focus|
|11/13/2020||Freaky||$4,000,000 – $9,000,000||$7,500,000||-50%||$8,000,000 – $20,000,000||$16,000,000||-50%||Universal|
|11/20/2020||No Time to Die||n/a||n/a||MGM|
|11/20/2020||Soul||n/a||n/a||Disney / Pixar|
As always, the news cycle is constantly evolving. Market projections are subject to breaking announcements at any moment.
This column will continue to track the impact of release date changes in the weeks ahead.
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