Wonder Woman is hanging out on Doritos bags, mocking movie fans.
Right next to the image of Gal Gadot is the reminder that her much-anticipated superhero sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” is in theaters June 5. Or at least it would be if coronavirus hadn’t happened, closing theaters across the nation and pushing the film’s release back to August. But with every day bringing more COVID-19 cases and deaths, moviegoers have to wonder if they’ll be waiting even longer.
“It’s funny to see all these blockbusters that usually overtake our Targets and Walmarts, and all the products that we know and love, still plastered with the old dates,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “They’re just lying to us now.”
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In a non-pandemic world, Marvel’s “Black Widow” would be a week into its theatrical run right now – instead, the Scarlett Johansson prequel is arriving Nov. 6, though anything is possible with the industry up in the air and seemingly evolving before our eyes. Studios have shifted nearly all of their films to later this year or into 2021. Others have moved to streaming, not without some controversy: The animated sequel “Trolls World Tour” made more than $100 million with a digital-only debut, which sparked a cold war between Universal and theater chains.
So when can fans expect to see their favorites in theaters again? Bock and other experts answer a few burning questions about the uncertain future of moviegoing.
Is the summer movie season canceled?
Pretty much, though three high-profile films still stand on the calendar: Christopher Nolan’s thriller “Tenet” (July 17), Disney’s live-action “Mulan” (July 24) and “Wonder Woman 1984″ (Aug. 14). “It’s nice, honestly, that they have them out there, because everybody who loves movies, especially blockbuster movies in the summertime, can still look to that and have a glimmer of hope,” Bock says.
The hard reality, however, is even if enough theaters open in the next few months, there’s no guarantee that crowds will show up or that concessions will be operating at full tilt, “and that’s the only way that theaters are actually going to get paid,” Bock says. Not to mention the as-yet-undetermined guidelines to keep people safe and healthy while munching on their Goobers.
“Unless New York and LA actually open (this summer) – and that is just seeming more and more impossible as we go – there is no way a studio is going to open a movie, especially a tentpole,” he says. “Science and education will not allow for it.”
Will multiplexes ever reopen?
“There’s no question in my mind” that theaters will be back in business one day, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “It just may look a little different.” Capacity could be limited by social distancing, or the same movie might show on multiple screens.
Dergarabedian also envisions theaters using more loyalty programs and discounted tickets to brings audiences back. “Every business is going to be in the same boat trying to do that.”
Some change is inevitable, given that ticket sales per capita have been declining for years – long before the current crisis, Bock says. “In terms of where we’re headed and how long it’s going to take to get back to not just restart but rebuild the theatrical engine, it could be years before everybody’s on the same page (and) people feel comfortable.”
When will audiences return?
Uproxx senior entertainment writer Mike Ryan predicts people will listen to their governors about when everything is fine, “whether it’s accurate or not.”
Still, he says, “until there’s a vaccine, or we get super-lucky and it’s a seasonal virus and just one day loses its potency, I am going to propose that it is not safe. I can remember dozens of times I’ve been sitting in a theater and someone with a wet cough was sitting in my vicinity, then a couple of days later I, too, have that same cough. Call me crazy but risking your life to see ‘Gemini Man’ in a theater doesn’t seem like the wisest choice.”
While Bock thinks the majority of moviegoers will take a wait-and-see approach rather than rushing back, Dergarabedian says “people are hungry” to return to the movies. He points to the recent resurgence in drive-in theaters as film fans “finding a way around this problem to get to the communal big-screen experience.”
Plus, with an overly packed lineup next year, “2021 could be a huge comeback year for the industry – with the caveat that people feel safe and secure.”
Will everything release simultaneously on streaming?
With the success of “Trolls World Tour,” Bock says, “discussions have to be going on right now” at studios about releasing future films digitally first or shrinking the theatrical-to-digital window from months to weeks. “Streaming is an option for them and they have a captive audience like we’ve never seen before.”
While no blockbuster film has gone straight to video on demand, it might become a possibility the longer COVID-19 wears on. The horror sequel “A Quiet Place Part II” (planned for release Sept. 4) would be a top contender since it “doesn’t necessarily need to be seen on the big screen,” Bock says. “There’s no doubt that would be a massive hit.”
And if “Tenet,” “Wonder Woman” and/or “Mulan” open on time, Bock adds, “I guarantee (studios) will have a Plan B and it will be instituted right away if audiences don’t show up because they’re scared or concerned or just don’t feel comfortable. Maybe the next week, they release it on VOD. That’s going to be their safety net going forward.”
Will the Oscars actually happen in 2021?
“When ‘Bad Boys for Life’ wins best picture, yes, it’s going to be weird,” Bock says with a laugh. “This is going to be the strangest thing.”
Ryan says “for sure” the Academy Awards will take place, “but by next March, who knows what the world will look like? The Oscars could be back to normal. Or it could be something that resembles what the NFL Draft looked like,” with everyone involved chiming in virtually.
Because the Oscars have changed eligibility rules to allow for streaming-only films this year, “it’s going to be interesting when the biggest movies of Oscar season just start showing up on iTunes,” Ryan says. “And that will happen because I promise Netflix will still release all its prestige films, so the other studios aren’t just going to let them have free crack at it. “
However it works, Dergarabedian says, “everyone understands this whole year has to have an asterisk next to it, whether it’s the box-office numbers or awards nominations and how those are done.”