Day 6

Blockbuster movie delays are leaving theatres starved for content, worried for the future

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to influence almost every aspect of everyday life, safety concerns about indoor spaces and audiences seemingly unwilling to return to theatres has led to record losses for both movie studios and the theatres they rely on.

'There just simply hasn't been an audience for the movies that have been releasing in theatres'

Timothee Chalamet appears as Paul Atreidis in this still from Dennis Villineuve's upcoming adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune. The film was originally set to be released in 2020, but due to the ongoing pandemic, the film will now debut in fall 2021. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Eliana Dockterman describes the current global movie theatre outlook as "quite bleak."

"They don't have anything to show right now," Dockterman, a staff writer for Time Magazine, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"Most of the movies that were supposed to come out throughout the rest of the year have been moved to 2021, because there just simply hasn't been an audience for the movies that have been releasing in theatres."

According to some reports, the movie industry is poised to lose between $20 billion and $31 billion due to closures early in the pandemic, movie studios unwilling to release films that cost upwards of $200 million in an environment where health experts continue to issue warnings about spending time indoors, and audiences seemingly unwilling to risk a trip to the cinema even in places where theatres are open.

Canadian entertainment giant Cineplex, for instance, recorded a $98.9 million loss in its second fiscal quarter as a result of COVID-19-related closures. 

And it's not just Canadian theatres that are feeling the crunch. Earlier this week, Cineworld, the largest movie theatre-owner in the U.K. and the second-largest movie theatre-owner in the U.S., announced it would indefinitely shutter all of its screens in the U.K., U.S. and Ireland.

The reason? Release date delays, including No Time To Die, the latest film to feature Daniel Craig reprising his role as British secret service agent James Bond. 

Since the No Time to Die delay announcement, other studios like Warner Bros. have also announced additional delays on movies original set to be released in 2020 — including Dennis Villeneuve's Dune adaptation.

More bad news will likely come in the form of announcements that some governments, like in Ontario and Quebec, are rolling back theatre reopenings as COVID-19 cases surge in certain regions.

Movies that are being released are unable to generate normal profits

Still, the pandemic hasn't deterred studios from releasing films during the pandemic.

Christopher Nolan's Tenet — delayed repeatedly and ultimately released in late August and early September around the world — is currently one of the largest-budget films that's been released in 2020. 

Nonetheless, though the film screened in IMAX where available — as well as smaller venues and even drive-ins — Dockterman argued that Tenet has been a financial failure, because "Christopher Nolan movies usually make between $500 million and $1 billion, and Tenet didn't even get close to making that much money."

Tenet tests movie audiences' willingness to return during pandemic

1 year ago
2:06
Christopher Nolan's latest mind-bending movie Tenet has opened in Canada, but there are questions about how successful it will be in the time of COVID-19. The pandemic has already devastated summer blockbuster season and it’s yet to be seen if movie fans are willing to risk a trip to the theatre. 2:06

While Nolan's last film Dunkirk earned roughly $525 million, Tenet has earned a little more than $300 million in ticket sales since its release a few months ago. 

"That suggests that people don't really want to go to movie theatres right now," Dockterman said. "They don't feel safe."

On demand and streaming services are an option — but not for blockbusters

In an attempt to assuage financial concerns, some movie studios have chosen to release smaller-budget movies, like Trolls: World Tour and Scoob!, on video-on-demand (VOD) platforms.

Though some estimates suggest Trolls: World Tour generated upwards of $150 million bolstered by online earnings, Dockterman said the VOD model is unappealing to studios investing hundreds of millions of dollars — and hoping to generate hundreds of millions in returns — in larger, blockbuster films. 

"For a movie like … No Time to Die or a superhero movie, that's just not going to be enough money to recoup your investment, let alone make the sort of big profit that studios are looking for, in order to really stay afloat right now," she said.

Daniel Craig appears as British secret service agent James Bond, in this still from the upcoming film No Time to Die. The film has been delayed at least twice this year, and is currently scheduled for April 2021. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

Still, Dockterman predicted that studios in the future might choose to release smaller, family-friendly films — as well as Oscar contenders like The Favourite and Parasite — on VOD and streaming platforms, while saving blockbusters for theatrical releases. 

"It's kind of questionable how studios will think about their investments in movies when they're losing money left-and-right," she said. "And [studios] are probably going to bet on big bets to bring people to theatres."

Theatres waiting on Hollywood

At the same time, Dockterman highlighted the "erosion of the middle ground of movies" where studios are largely choosing to invest in big, blockbuster films and smaller independent films, while ignoring middle-budget dramas that were popular in the 1990s, like those featuring "Denzel Washington solving a crime."

"I think that we're just going to see a greater polarization, where we're going to see indie filmmakers just scraping by with a camcorder and a dream, trying to make things as cheaply as possible, in order to get something other there," she said.

"Because studios are going to be less willing to invest in those types of projects and they are going to be much more willing to put the money that they do have towards a known quantity like the Ghostbusters franchise or Star Wars."

As for what will happen to movie theatres themselves, Dockterman said theatre-owners are "dependent on what Hollywood decides to do."

"I do think there are people in Hollywood who want to make the investment to keep the movie theatre experience alive," she said.

Dockterman also pointed out that, in the U.S. at least, a recent court ruling has enabled movie studios to once again own movie theatres outright, which could see the rise of studio-owned theatres solely featuring content released by those studios.

"Netflix can just go buy its own movie theatre chain and show Netflix movies there if it wants," she said. "On the flip side, Disney could go buy its own movie theatre chain and show Disney movies there if it wants."


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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