Long Range Box Office Forecast: The Impact and Implications of Disney and Warner Bros.’ 2021 Strategies

Photo Credits: Disney ("Raya and the Last Dragon" and "Black Widow"); Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ("No Time to Die"); Paramount Pictures ("A Quiet Place Part II" and "Top Gun: Maverick"); Universal Pictures ("F9")

There has arguably never been a more tumultuous year for the world than 2020, which makes this week’s column somewhat relieving to assemble as it will be the final long range box office report until at least sometime in January.

Recently, two major studios capped their year with crucial announcements that will factor significantly into exhibition’s goals toward box office recovery in 2021. While there are no concrete answers to be found yet, and the speculative work of forecasting has only become more muddied during these past nine months of the pandemic, there is progress on the horizon.

2020’s Final Box Office Tallies and 2021’s Early Forecasts

First, the bad news: With this year beginning its welcomed fade out, domestic box office remains on track to finish around $2.1 billion, or potentially nearer $2.2 billion if/when the grosses of re-released films not officially reported yet by studios are made available retroactively through end-of-year accounting (a standard practice after the holidays every year).

Regardless, it’s a figure that will be down more than 81 percent from 2019’s second-best-ever $11.35 billion domestic haul, and the lowest haul (without accounting for inflation) in nearly 40 years. Globally, this year’s sum looks to finish near $11.5 billion — down from a record $42.5 billion one year ago. (Notably, the high overseas share carried by countries who have handled the virus more successfully is considered indicative of the potential moviegoing demand that may await the domestic market eventually.)

The domestic market’s first quarter of 2021 isn’t likely to improve much, either, with our current models suggesting it could remain flat with Q4 2020 and generate approximately $200 million across the first three months of the new year.

The pandemic-induced asterisks next to all of these statistics should be fairly obvious. While cinemas’ efforts to reopen with new health practices this fall have helped put food on the table for some families and kept the moviegoing spirit alive, the majority of moviegoers have made it clear they aren’t ready to return to theaters — or other mass communal events — until vaccines are widely distributed. A steady stream of new, widely appealing content will certainly be important as well, something that didn’t come to fruition after Christopher Nolan’s Tenet blazed an early path.

After a great deal of speculating throughout most of this year, though, those two awaited elements are finally peeking over the horizon as 2021 knocks on the door.

The Dichotomy of Disney and Warner Bros.’ 2021 Strategies

Questions still linger, though, as evidenced by Warner Bros.’ surprise announcement that they will premiere their entire 2021 slate of movies day-and-date in theaters and streaming via their parent company’s HBO Max platform.

Based on modeling of the estimated 17 films covering in that plan, including top-earning candidates like Godzilla vs. Kong (May 21), The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (June 4), In the Heights (June 18), The Suicide Squad (August 6), Dune (October 1), and The Matrix 4 (December 22), it’s a move that could potentially result in the loss of hundreds of millions of box office earnings, not to mention the fallout of relationships with exhibitors and creative talent.

In short: unless AT&T allows Warner Bros. to backtrack this strategy (should the health situation allow, of course), their films are open to internal financial risk and may play a heavily diminished role in theatrical exhibition’s recovery goals in 2021. (Scenario: A year from now, it could be Universal’s Sing 2 garnering the “#1 opening” headlines over Christmas weekend, not the decades-long-anticipated fourth Matrix film.)

There are numerous debates over the practicality of cutting into theatrical exclusivity for films which need that revenue stream to justify their budgets and the industry’s ecosystem. That discourse is weighed alongside the reality that 2020 has upended studio and cinema balance sheets alike, as well as the hope for a new stimulus package that can provide relief to cinemas soon. Meanwhile, distribution has begun for multiple vaccines — leading medical experts to grow more confident about achieving herd immunity by summer.

That latter expectation is the current lynchpin of cinema’s hopes for recovery to begin by mid-2021, and the reason why Warner’s shocking move is in such contrast to that of other studios.

Vaccines won’t change the landscape overnight, though. Like many regions of the United States, key international markets such as France, Germany, and Italy are in the middle of renewed cinema closures right now due to virus case surges. Even with vaccines rolling out, it will take months for their effect to be felt on a broad cultural scale. This is why major studios will remain mostly absent from the release slate in 2021’s first quarter.

In fact, after Warner Bros. launches Wonder Woman 1984 day-and-date and Universal pushes News of the World domestically on Christmas Day next week, only 12 “major studio” films are planned for wide release throughout January, February, and March.

Of those 12, three belong to Warner (thus will be cannibalized by streaming views), several (such as March 19’s Morbius) are speculative candidates to be delayed, and Disney’s own Raya and the Last Dragon will release via streaming on the same day as its March 5 theatrical release — one week before Disney also plans to release The King’s Man (March 12).

It is that next-to-last title and its distributor that are sending a signal of cautious optimism, though.

While Raya is likely to perform far lower at the box office than it would have with a traditional release strategy, it is the first brand new, high profile movie Disney will be making available to both domestic and international cinemas during the pandemic. Coincidentally, it will occur exactly one year after they released Pixar’s Onward, which was heavily impacted by theatrical and economic shutdowns days into the start of its run as the pandemic gripped the world back in March.

Essentially, Disney is testing the waters of a PVOD day-and-date release while also indicating this is the period on the calendar they believe science is indicating it may finally make sense to release their films beyond homes again. The studio previously sent Mulan to PVOD during the summer, but without making it available to theaters domestically. Pixar’s Soul is also going straight to streaming without a theatrical release this Christmas.

Rather than commit an entire year’s slate to a plan that may or may not be relevant 12 months from now, Disney is approaching what’s hoped to be the downturn of the pandemic in 2021 on a title-by-title basis. That’s particularly important because they remain open to theatrical exclusivity for Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, which remains dated for May 7.

Alongside a new Pixar movie in June, three other Marvel Cinematic Universe chapters — Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (July 9), The Eternals (November 5), and Sony’s Spider-Man 3 (December 22) through December of next year, audiences could have plenty of reason to congregate in theaters again. Disney appears committed to playing their role in making that happen.

2021’s Big Picture… for Now

Before Widow, though, the first genuine tentpole with blockbuster aspirations remains MGM’s No Time to Die. Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond was the first major movie delayed due to the pandemic in early 2020, and after two release date shuffles still remains parked on the April 2 (Easter) weekend alongside Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2.

At the moment, that’s the new target D-Day for exhibition. Everything before it, including Raya and any other films releasing in the first quarter of 2021, will serve as an extended warm-up period with theaters hopefully getting more major product than they did in the final months of 2020.

To be fair, the target has changed before, and it could change again. There are numerous financial considerations to make in each studio’s case. MGM, particularly, isn’t Disney. Bond is not only their biggest title on the slate, it’s arguably their *only* tentpole candidate.

For the purpose of speculation, it wouldn’t be shocking if MGM and Bond’s franchise producers decide to distance the big-budget, legacy franchise pic from winter one more time. They could aim for a summer or fall release date while — or after — other studios have theoretically provided the foundation of theatrical recovery with films like Widow, Universal’s The Boss Baby: Family Business (March 26), F9 (May 28), and Minions: The Rise of Gru (July 2); Sony’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife (June 11) and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (June 25); Pixar’s Luca (June 18); Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II (April 23) and Top Gun: Maverick (July 2), et al.

If all goes well, the second quarter of 2021 (April though June) has mathematical potential to become the first $1 billion-plus domestic box office period since Q1 2020.

Before we get to the point of more confidently discussing the prospects of that target and the prospects of individual films, though, a rough winter must be endured first. Wonder Woman 1984 may bring a small influx of much needed revenue for theaters able to remain open in late December and January, but that movie and a few counter-programmers alone will not be enough to keep all theaters afloat while COVID-19 cases continue to set new daily records entering the heart of flu season.

If everything goes well, such as vaccine distributions remaining on schedule and virus cases declining significantly after the winter surge, a late spring and summer movie season is realistically achievable. Yes, there will still be seating capacities in place. Masks will probably still be required, too — or at least strongly recommended. But consumer sentiment for going to the movies is expected to greatly improve when the general population has access to vaccines and studios commit to releasing major films on a regular basis again.

Tangential to the trends of the pandemic is the reality that multiple studios have taken steps to shorten theatrical windows while cinemas have been offline this year. There is no way to be sure exactly how that development will continue in a post-pandemic era, but an evolution should be expected — even if not as dramatic as some of the strategies we’ve seen announced in a market without theatrical competition at its fullest. How those new windows and exhibitor-studio agreements take shape will heavily inform not just 2021’s pace for box office recovery, but also the years beyond.

However the new year and all of these changes shake out, there is a wealth of major content on the docket for movie theaters. Here’s hoping the final long range report of 2021 will be looking back on the world’s successful fight against the pandemic and cinema’s return to a bustling cultural sanctuary.

Long Range Forecast & 2021’s Wide Release Calendar

Release Date Title 3-Day (FSS) Opening Forecast Range 3-Day (FSS) Opening Forecast % Chg from Last Week Domestic Total Forecast Range Domestic Total Forecast % Chg from Last Week Estimated Location Count Distributor
12/25/2020 News of the World $2,000,000 – $7,000,000 $4,000,000   $10,000,000 – $25,000,000 $18,700,000   2,000 Universal
12/25/2020 One Night in Miami…   n/a     n/a     Amazon Studios
12/25/2020 Pinocchio (2020) $500,000 – $3,000,000 $750,000   $1,000,000 – $10,000,000 $2,750,000   2,000 Roadside Attractions
12/25/2020 Promising Young Woman $500,000 – $3,000,000 $800,000   $2,500,000 – $15,000,000 $4,500,000   1,200 Focus Features
12/25/2020 Wonder Woman 1984 $10,000,000 – $20,000,000 $14,000,000   $40,000,000 – $75,000,000 $60,000,000   1,750 Warner Bros.
1/1/2021 (no releases scheduled)                
1/8/2021 (no releases scheduled)                
1/15/2021 The Marksman $2,000,000 – $5,000,000 $3,500,000   $7,000,000 – $17,000,000 $12,500,000     Open Road Films
1/15/2021 Wrath of Man   n/a     n/a     United Artists Releasing
1/22/2021 Breaking News in Yuba County $2,000,000 – $5,000,000 $3,000,000   $5,000,000 – $15,000,000 $13,000,000     MGM / United Artists Releasing
1/29/2021 The Little Things $3,000,000 – $8,000,000 $4,000,000   $12,000,000 – $30,000,000 $16,000,000     Warner Bros.
2/5/2021 Cinderella (2021)               Sony / Columbia
2/5/2021 Minimata               MGM
2/12/2021 French Exit               Sony Pictures Classics
2/12/2021 Land               Focus Features
2/19/2021 Joe Bell               Solstice Studios
2/19/2021 The Mauritanian               STXfilms
2/19/2021 Nomadland               Disney / Searchlight Pictures
2/26/2021 Nobody               Universal
2/26/2021 Tom & Jerry               Warner Bros.
2/26/2021 The United States Vs. Billie Holiday               Paramount
3/5/2021 Boogie               Focus Features
3/5/2021 Chaos Walking               Lionsgate
3/5/2021 Raya and the Last Dragon               Disney
3/5/2021 Untitled Universal Event Film (2021)               Universal
3/12/2021 The King’s Man               20th Century Studios
3/12/2021 The Many Saints of Newark               Warner Bros.
3/19/2021 Morbius               Sony / Columbia
3/19/2021 The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent               Lionsgate
3/26/2021 The Boss Baby: Family Business               Universal
4/2/2021 No Time to Die               MGM
4/2/2021 Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway               Sony / Columbia
4/9/2021 Bob’s Burgers               Disney / 20th Century Studios
4/16/2021 Bios               Universal
4/16/2021 Fatherhood               Sony / Columbia
4/16/2021 Mortal Kombat (2021)               Warner Bros.
4/16/2021 Untitled Universal Event Film II (2021)               Universal
4/23/2021 The Asset               Lionsgate
4/23/2021 Last Night in Soho               Focus Features
4/23/2021 A Quiet Place Part II               Paramount
4/23/2021 Ron’s Gone Wrong               20th Century Studios
4/30/2021 (no releases scheduled)                
5/7/2021 Black Widow               Disney / Marvel Studios
5/14/2021 Marry Me               Universal
5/14/2021 Rumble               Paramount
5/21/2021 Free Guy               Disney / 20th Century Studios
5/21/2021 Godzilla vs. Kong               Warner Bros.
5/21/2021 Spiral: From the Book of Saw               Lionsgate
5/28/2021 Cruella               Disney
5/28/2021 F9               Universal
5/28/2021 Infinite               Paramount
6/4/2021 The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It               Warner Bros. / New Line
6/4/2021 Samaritan               United Artists Releasing
6/4/2021 Spirit Untamed               Universal
6/4/2021 Vivo               Sony / Columbia
6/11/2021 Ghostbusters: Afterlife               Sony / Columbia
6/18/2021 In the Heights               Warner Bros.
6/18/2021 Luca               Disney / Pixar
6/25/2021 Blue Bayou               Focus Features
6/25/2021 Venom: Let There Be Carnage               Sony / Columbia
6/30/2021 Zola               A24
7/2/2021 Minions: The Rise of Gru               Universal
7/2/2021 Top Gun: Maverick               Paramount
7/9/2021 The Forever Purge               Universal
7/9/2021 Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings               Disney / Marvel Studios
7/16/2021 Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar               Lionsgate
7/16/2021 Space Jam: A New Legacy               Warner Bros.
7/16/2021 Uncharted               Sony / Columbia
7/23/2021 The Tomorrow War               Paramount
7/23/2021 Old               Universal
7/30/2021 The Green Knight               A24
7/30/2021 Jungle Cruise               Disney
8/6/2021 Hotel Transylvania 4               Sony / Columbia
8/6/2021 The Suicide Squad               Warner Bros.
8/13/2021 Deep Water               20th Century Studios
8/13/2021 Don’t Breathe Sequel               Sony / Columbia
8/13/2021 Respect               MGM / United Artists Releasing
8/13/2021 Untitled Russo Brothers Family Film               United Artists Releasing
8/13/2021 Untitled Blumhouse Project II (2021)               Universal
8/20/2021 The Hitman’s Bodyguard 2               Lionsgate
8/20/2021 Paw Patrol               Paramount
8/27/2021 The Beatles: Get Back               Disney
8/27/2021 Candyman               Universal
9/3/2021 Jackass               Paramount
9/10/2021 Untitled New Line Horror Film               Warner Bros.
9/17/2021 The Bad Guys               Universal
9/17/2021 Death on the Nile               Disney / 20th Century Studios
9/17/2021 Man from Toronto               Sony / Columbia
9/24/2021 Untitled Universal Event Film               Universal
10/1/2021 Dune               Warner Bros.
10/8/2021 The Addams Family 2               United Artists Releasing
10/15/2021 Halloween Kills               Universal
10/15/2021 The Last Duel               20th Century Studios
10/22/2021 Snake Eyes               Paramount
10/29/2021 (no releases scheduled)                
11/5/2021 Clifford the Big Red Dog               Paramount
11/5/2021 Eternals               Disney / Marvel Studios
11/5/2021 Untitled Elvis Presley Project               Warner Bros.
11/12/2021 (no releases scheduled)                
11/19/2021 King Richard               Warner Bros.
11/19/2021 Mission: Impossible 7               Paramount
11/24/2021 Encanto               Disney
12/3/2021 Untitled               20th Century Studios
12/10/2021 American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story               Lionsgate
12/10/2021 Cyrano               United Artists Releasing
12/10/2021 West Side Story (2020)               20th Century Studios
12/17/2021 Marvel Studios – Sony Untitled Spider-Man: Far From Home Sequel               Sony / Columbia / Marvel Studios
12/17/2021 Untitled Disney Live Action               Disney
12/22/2021 Untitled Matrix Sequel               Warner Bros.
12/22/2021 Sing 2               Universal
12/22/2021 The Nightingale               Sony / Columbia

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.

For press inquiries, please contact Shawn Robbins

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