Who knew Bill and Ted, those time-traveling dudes from yesteryear, would prove to be so sage in 2020?
First off, life would totally be a lot nicer if everybody took their “Be excellent to each other!” mantra to heart. But it turns out Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter’s air-guitaring guys are also wise when it comes to releasing a movie in the middle of a pandemic: Last week, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” switched from an Aug. 28 theatrical release date to a video on demand, digital and open cinemas release Sept. 1, giving fans a chance to see it wherever they’d like.
Since March, COVID-19 has hammered the movie business, shuttering theaters and shifting film releases to later in the year or 2021. Theater chains have been working on safety protocols and preparing for audiences to return – when not hugging it out with studios and making important deals: In a major shift, AMC Theatres and Universal Pictures on Tuesday agreed to a shortened theatrical window that would allow films to stream only 17 days after reaching theaters. The recent spikes in coronavirus cases has sent chains and studios skittering back to the drawing board, and every change to the movie calendar might as well be written in pencil.
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None of this is ideal. At all. This year has been a bogus journey, to put it mildly. Right now, though, for any company that wants to release a film in a theater in 2020, Bill and Ted’s plan is the smartest going forward because it allows movies to be seen wherever the audiences are until things get (somewhat) back to normal. Are you in an area doing well with COVID cases or have a drive-in nearby? Hit up a theater and get your dose of Keanu. Everyone else, and those feeling skittish about safety, can stream at home.
It’s an audience-centric strategy in which studios have to yield to reality. . Obviously, they want their tentpole flicks and potential blockbusters in theaters, and vice versa.
“People love to go to the movies, and people want to go to the movies,” Regal Cinemas CEO Mooky Greidinger tells USA TODAY. “Nobody wants to stay seven days a week at home. People want to have a good time.”
Many of 2020’s bigger projects simply bolted to next year: Early on in the pandemic, the ninth “Fast and Furious” installment scooted to 2021, and recently, “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Top Gun: Maverick” followed suit after initial,shorter-term postponements. Other instances of movie musical chairs have been frustrating, as studios delay releases every couple of weeks and offer false hope that anticipated films will see the light of day (or a darkened room with Goobers in hand) anytime soon. Is all this maneuvering just continuing to undermine a theatrical business model that’s shown vulnerable cracks due to a contagious virus?
Disney’s high-profile “Mulan” remake moved from March to July to August but is now off the slate indefinitely. The Russell Crowe road-rage thriller “Unhinged” was supposed to be the first movie to welcome audiences back to theaters, but its July 31 date quietly moved to Aug. 21.
The most hyped of all is Christopher Nolan’s mysterious thriller “Tenet,” which was initially set for July 17 but is now planning a theatrical release in international markets Aug. 26 before opening in select cities here – those that have open cinemas – Sept. 3. With sports having problems getting back in gear, school openings a concern all over the USA and many states facing record COVID cases and deaths daily, it’s head-scratching that Warner Bros. would release one of its biggest 2020 movies in scattered cities and drive-ins.
Even if theaters are open, audiences may not feel safe even wearing masks amid such uncertainty. According to a July Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll, just 15% of moviegoers say they’re likely to return immediately to reopened theaters and only 35% would go later in 2020. (More than half, however, say they’d attend an opening weekend in early 2021.) It’s fair to say this pandemic will affect people’s psyches and behaviors for a while.
Studio executives’ heads might explode, but let’s apply the Bill and Ted strategy to “Tenet,” assuming it’s not punted to next year. If Nolan’s film releases across the world everywhere, on streaming and in theaters, then those who are dying to see “Tenet” can watch it on the big screen and those who are worried can stream it on their large HDTVs. That way, no secrets and twists are spoiled early for audiences; maybe Warner Bros. makes a deal and kicks some of the VOD profits back to struggling theaters, as Universal is offering to do with AMC; and most importantly, crowds aren’t pressured to choose between health and entertainment.
It won’t be everyone’s favorite fix, especially as a game-changing scenario in which a major movie goes to home video simultaneously with theaters. While the AMC/Universal deal is an important step, it’s a larger conversation that needs to occur sooner or later, with digital platforms playing such a major role in people’s quarantined lives.
For studios, it doesn’t make financial sense to release a big-budget tentpole like “Tenet” on streaming and drive-ins;they could never recoup their investment in production and marketing costs. Entering a season rife with Oscar fodder, and huge flicks like “Wonder Woman 1984” (tentatively Oct. 2), “Black Widow” (Nov. 6) and the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” (Nov. 30), studios will have to choose soon which way to go, depending on the country’s health circumstances. “Tenet” would be a high-profile guinea pig to see whether this innovative, perhaps polarizing, Bill and Ted model truly works. (Given its broad interest, the “Wonder Woman” sequel would also be an excellent test subject if “Tenet” high-tails it to ’21.)
There’s no question most of us want to go, “Whoa!” in a movie theater again. We just might have to take an unconventional route to things being most excellent again.
Contributing: Jenna Ryu