I’m starting to become concerned about the 2021 film year. A few big titles have trickled in, from Judas and the Black Messiah taking advantage of the the extended Oscars window to Disney testing out Premier Access again with Raya and the Last Dragon. Those have been great, but so to date are proving to be the exceptions to the rule. What movie fans feared of 2020 is coming to a more dire fruition now.
Think back one year. Theaters and distributors, much like most Americans, believed we were in for a disruption of normal life lasting weeks, not months. When studios began pushing their releases, they presumed a return to theaters by Summer or Fall at the latest. MGM, thought to be very cautious with No Time to Die’s move from April 2020 to November of the same year has still yet to release the film. Once reality set in that it may be a while before theaters were ready to welcome capacity crowds, so too did the sense of doom about film in 2020.
Our fears, in that regard at least, proved overblown. While there was no MCU movie for the first time in a decade, the studios adjusted. Most big blockbusters got held back, but plenty of great films got put out. Some streaming releases — Wolfwalkers, Sound of Metal and Da 5 Bloods — were mostly unaffected and provided a respite for those hungry for quality cinema. Others — Soul, Nomadland and Palm Springs to name a few — struck deals with streamers to hang onto a 2020 releases date. Still countless more shifted to some form of hybrid or simultaneous release in theaters or on demand. Faced with an indefinite theatrical shortage studios found other ways to get out big portions of their scheduled releases. This year could be different.
Arguably the worst part of the pandemic for film releases was that first month before Universal made the decision to release Trolls: World Tour directly to VOD in mid April. That period saw nearly nothing released in anticipation of a quick reopening. A year later we have multiple effective vaccines, have made great progress on our path towards herd immunity and at last can see light at the end of the tunnel. In terms of the virus things are looking a lot more promising, but on the movie front we have seen a new release drought rivaling the early days of the pandemic. Expect that to continue.
Were it not for Warner’s unprecedented decision to release it’s entire 2021 simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, March and April would have yielded almost nothing of significance to broad audiences. Theaters are open again just about everywhere across the US and yet studios continue to push their films to later dates. Why would Disney want to put out something like The French Dispatch, or even one of their mega blockbuster superhero movie’s to limited capacity? Especially when they believe that those films could conceivably net massive profits opening to packed cineplexes just months later.
It’s the hope of normalcy by year end that has me worried about this year’s movie prospects, even more so than last year. As long as studios think there is more money to be made by holding out a bit longer, they will. It’s far from inconceivable to think that by the time summer rolls around long awaited blockbusters like F9 or A Quiet Place 2 may no longer be awaiting audiences on the calendar. Capacity limits in California wont be lifted until at least mid June, New York hasn’t even announced a similar date for potential reopening. That’s two huge markets that will be hobbled.
These limitations are in line with recommendations from epidemiologists and these states and governors are being responsible, but it does set up a conundrum for distributors. Do they hold out until their big budget films can produce pre-pandemic box office returns or do they cut their losses and start releasing to half full theaters? Either way the waiting game they’ve waged thus far will have ripple effects beyond simply the delayed tentpoles.
Whether it comes in summer, fall or even next year, as the big studios drop a growing backlog of delayed films, the theatrical calendar will fill up very quickly. 2022 and, if we’re lucky, the end of this year will feature huge, highly anticipated movies launching every week. While that will be fun, it could limit access and variety in moviegoing options. Film releases are more art than science with studios trying to find the perfect launch weekend in which to avoid competition with each other or cannibalizing themselves with two films too close together. Smaller distributors like A24 often will offer up their acclaimed indies as counter-programming to the big crowd pleasers of any given week or month. But what happens when Dune is the counter-programming for No Time to Die?
Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’ve probably seen the last of at home releases for films big and small. Box office is still the life blood of the film industry and of course distributors will do whatever they can to preserve profits. For moviegoers though this could mean a painfully slow 2021, one that truly meets all our fears about 2020. Big films waiting for full crowds could find themselves waiting until 2022 and smaller gems, once destined to be discovered, may become buried by the compressed calendar.
I hope Hollywood finds a way to make room for everything, keep theaters afloat and return to vibrant, diverse film culture. With near daily news of more movies delaying and iconic theaters shuttering for good, reasons for optimism continue to dwindle. With hope 2022 can be better.