Feature Article

2020: The Year That Changed Movies, And What Happens Next

From delayed movies to closed theaters, 2020 has been a year unlike any other.

The recent announcement that another two of this year's big movies--Dune and No Time To Die--were moving to 2021 might not have been surprising, but it did feel like the final confirmation that 2020 was dead in terms of blockbuster entertainment. At the time of writing, Pixar's Soul and DC's Wonder Woman 1984 are still set for November and December releases, but there's every chance that they will move into 2021 as well.

The impact of almost every major movie scheduled since March being delayed has been huge. With very few films left to show for many months, Cineworld, the world's second-biggest theater chain and the owners of Regal Theaters in the US, has decided to temporarily shut all its US and UK sites. AMC, the world's biggest chain, is staying open for now, but the titles it will be screening over the winter are a lot lower in profile than we'd expect in any normal year.

When the first few movies were delayed back in March, there was every expectation that we'd still see them in 2020. No Time To Die and A Quiet Place: Part II shifted from the spring to the fall; at that stage only F9: The Fast Saga was moved all the way into 2021, a decision which seemed dramatic at the time. And while a few other films also jumped back an entire year (Jungle Cruise, Halloween Kills), the predominant pattern initially was spring and early summer movies moving by a few months. Black Widow, Candyman, The New Mutants, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984 were all delayed, but stayed on course for 2020.

But as the days grew warmer and longer, it became clear that even if theaters were to open by the fall, the schedule was going to be extremely crowded. Some films that had existing late-2020 dates were moved to 2021, such as Top Gun: Maverick, Marvel's Eternals, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho. Other smaller films, such as Antlers and Antebellum, disappeared off the calendar altogether, with their release dates not confirmed until many months later.

Not surprisingly, some studios chose the digital route. Universal was quick to capitalize on the fact that millions of potential viewers were quarantining at home and rushed three recent theatrical movies onto video-on-demand--the period comedy Emma and the Blumhouse-produced horror movies The Invisible Man and The Hunt.

More controversially, Universal also decided to premiere the animated family movie Trolls World Tour on digital formats. The film was originally set for a traditional theatrical release on April 10, but instead of delaying it, the studio simply released it on-demand that day. The movie was a huge hit for Universal but caused a public feud with AMC, which was angered by Universal's disregard for the long-honored theatrical window. The two companies eventually made a deal that they would share revenue from future Universal movies that received simultaneous theatrical and digital releases.

Of course, what seemed like a big deal in April surprises no one four months later. Disney's decision to release Mulan onto Disney+ and Warner's recent announcement that its remake of The Witches will hit HBO Max might not have been on those studios' plans at the start of the year, and the success of these decisions remains to be seen. But few can blame distributors for trying different approaches to releasing their movies. The concept of the theatrical window, something the theater chains have insisted on for decades to protect their bottom lines, has been seriously damaged in the space of a few months, and it's hard to see how it can be fully restored.

Of course, there were a handful of movies that kept their release dates, more or less. The biggest was Christopher Nolan's Tenet, which shifted forward a few weeks, but eventually hit theaters in late August internationally and the US a couple of weeks later. How well the movie has performed commercially depends on how you look at it. In terms of cold numbers, its $307 million worldwide gross so far is a huge disappointment for one of the world's most commercially successful directors. But judging it on 2019 standards is perhaps unfair--more than $300 million made during a worldwide pandemic is an impressive number. Unfortunately--and this is the problem with so many of the movies that the studios have chosen to delay--Tenet was extremely expensive to make (a reported $200 million production budget), and those are the only numbers that Hollywood cares about.

Beyond Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul, the remaining films left for release in 2020 include the Ryan Reynolds comedy Free Guy, the Croods sequel, and Eddie Murphy's Coming 2 America. But the big issue isn't that the rest of the year's movies aren't due out until 2021--which is less than three months away now. It's that very little is scheduled before the spring. January through March have traditionally been very quiet for releases anyway--too late for awards consideration, too early for the summer season--and right now there's almost nothing of note on the calendar for those months.

So we're now looking at another six months before this year's high profile films can finally start hitting theaters. And that's presuming the pandemic is under control by then, key markets such as New York have reopened, a second or third wave of the virus hasn't closed other markets again, there are still enough theaters left in business, and people actually want to go back to theaters. Hardcore movie fans might be desperate to get back to the big screen, but they're not what makes big mainstream movies a success. The much wider, more casual cinema-goer needs to be convinced. Will an entire year's theater draught have created a pent-up need to leave the house to watch a movie? Or will many people have moved on, realizing that it's cheaper and easier to stay home and consume all their entertainment that way?

Provided the stars should align and movie-going life resumes some form of normality, one thing's for sure--there won't be any shortage of new films to watch. A recent report in Variety stated that in the space of just 14 months, between May 2021 and July 2022, there are currently no fewer than eight Marvel Cinematic Universe films scheduled for release. Similarly, fans of DC, James Bond, the Fast and Furious family, Spidey spin-offs, Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson, and a variety of popular horror franchises will have an absolute feast of cinema to dig into.

There are questions to be asked about the sustainability of an industry--both the studios and the theaters--that is so reliant on the success of a handful of wildly expensive movies. One thing that has happened over the past decade is the decline of mid-budget movies--films that cost $40 million as opposed to $200 million. By putting such emphasis on blockbuster cinema, with its huge stars and massive productions, the studios have stopped making as many of the comparatively cheaper comedies, thrillers, and dramas that in a previous era might have turned a profit, even during a pandemic. From Marriage Story, Extraction, Da 5 Bloods, and David Fincher's upcoming Mank to any number of Adam Sandler comedies, mid-budget films are now primarily produced by streaming services. Of course, these services have been the one success story of 2020, and subscriptions for Netflix, Disney+, and niche services such as Shudder have hit record levels. But while it’s unlikely the studios will change course any time soon, this situation will become increasingly untenable if the pandemic and theater-shutdown reaches past spring next year into the summer months.

It's become a cliché when discussing Hollywood to trot out screenwriter William Goldman's immortal line about the industry--"Nobody knows anything." But it's never been more true than it is right now. Only one thing seems certain--the movie business exactly as we knew it 12 months ago is gone, and the next few months could determine what happens next.

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Dan Auty

Firmly of the opinion that there is no film that isn't improved by the addition of an exploding head or kung-fu zombie.

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