Blockbuster Month is celebrating the true titans of the genre. All month long, you’ll read through a variety of features digging deep into the greatest hits of Hollywood, from popcorn classics to underrated gems. Today, Josh Spiegel debates whether the blockbuster will ever eschew the theater experience and go straight to our living rooms.
Back at the end of March — remember March? Like, even the concept of the month of March? — my wife informed me that our sister-in-law was being proactive. She was starting an online petition regarding an issue about which she felt passionate. Was it related to the dearth of Covid-19 testing throughout the country? Staggered school re-openings in her state or others in the Union? No, she had begun a petition to exhort the Walt Disney Company to release Mulan and Black Widow on Disney+ and/or premium VOD.
The following news may come as a shock, but her petition didn’t work. Granted, as much as I playfully dig at my family, no amount of petitions would likely have worked, at least in the spring. Mulan and Black Widow are among the many major, big-budget blockbuster films that Hollywood studios had no choice but to delay from their original release dates. For now (and this information may well change by the time you finish reading this sentence), Mulan is no longer on the calendar, and Black Widow is slated to open on November 1st. Whether or not these films are any good is immaterial. From a financial standpoint, Disney needs to make a lot of money on these titles, in the same way that Warner Bros. likely needs to make a boatload and a half on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet as well as the fall release of Wonder Woman 1984.
Ideally, while we’re all stuck in our houses, apartments, and the like, it might be nice to have easy access to these major titles. If you’ve been at home for months, you may be more than willing to spend 30 or even 50 dollars on these films, simply so you can finally watch them at all. But there’s little doubt: If you see Tenet or Mulan or Black Widow on VOD, skipping theaters entirely, you can take that as an omen. It wouldn’t be a sign that you’re getting big movies at home. This would be a sign that movie theaters are dead and buried.
The recent story of how a number of major theater chains, including AMC and Cinemark, are literally suing the state of New Jersey so that they can reopen may have seemed fairly callous. The argument that these exhibitors have made is that if churches can open back up again, then movie theaters ought to have the same option. (This, of course, raises a different question that exhibitors may not want raised: Why is it that churches are allowed to be open right now?) As unfeeling as the lawsuit may be, this much is true: Movie theaters are businesses, and if they’re not seeing any cash flow, then they can’t exist anymore.
And blockbusters are the true business of movie theaters, quality be damned. All that matters is that studios release movies that will inspire audiences to spend money on tickets and concessions. Drive-in theaters may be succeeding, relatively speaking — some are even popping up in parking lots. But the major chains are desperate for content, and they can’t rely on outdoor options. While some of those chains have chosen to grandstand against studios leaning towards video-on-demand options, they need studios a lot.
Luckily for them, at least for now, studios also need theaters. Yes, studios can opt to bypass theaters — and they have — but it’s often with ulterior motives. Case in point, Walt Disney Pictures chose to utilize Disney+ for both Artemis Fowl and the forthcoming The One and Only Ivan, which arrives on August 14th. It’s too early to tell about the latter title, but in the case of Artemis Fowl, it’s safe to say that Disney skipped theaters because Artemis Fowl was … well, terrible. Fowl was the kind of terrible film that was destined to be the subject of stories in which industry journalists explain how much money they lost for their parent company.
Then again, Universal Pictures — which bumped its biggest titles, such as the next James Bond movie and F9 — went straight to VOD with Trolls World Tour. At the time, the studio crowed that they made upwards of $100 million via VOD with the title; not surprisingly, right as AMC declared they wouldn’t show any new Universal films in theaters. And while Universal may well be pleased by those numbers, they haven’t exactly changed their game plan with regards to those aforementioned titles. No Time to Die and F9 are still being coveted for theaters next year — at least as of press time.
Sure, there’s the old argument among cinephiles and filmmakers like Nolan that some films need to be seen on a big screen, but it really boils down to the synergetic commerce behind the entire industry. The pull of blockbusters is a vicious cycle for studios and theaters alike: Theaters need to make money, so they rely on massively budgeted genre films to lure in audiences. On the flip side, studios need to make money, so they rely on those same genre films hitting big with audiences.
Of course, Netflix has certainly been an exception to the rule. After carving out a slice of Oscar season, much to the chagrin of Old Hollywood, the streaming conglomerate has now found a way to recalibrate the summer blockbuster. Because really, the closest we’ve had to one all season have been hits like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard. Two genre pictures with recognizable actors and an effective ability to harness social-media attention for at least a week or two. (To their credit, Disney+ also came close to replicating this model with the decidedly un-blockbuster-like Hamilton, which briefly renewed its status as a worldwide phenom ahead of this year’s Fourth of July.)
Realistically, though, neither studios nor theaters can afford to see everything go to VOD — and neither party truly wants to. Studios might survive longer than theaters under this strategy, but even then, they’d still be scraping along. That’s why studios want to release movies in theaters, and theaters want to open up. The key question — one that was percolating even before the pandemic — is whether or not people want to go to the movies. And, even after all of this, they still might not have a choice.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Tenet had its release date moved off the calendar indefinitely, though Warner Bros. promised a new release date announcement would be “imminent,” and it would likely lead to an overseas release before a domestic one. Naturally, that last prospect should add even more anxiety for domestic theaters: What if Tenet is pirated? What if the film’s so spoiled that it affects hype? Or, hell, what if critics and audiences overseas think Tenet flat-out sucks?
It’s a lot to chew on — and Hollywood’s certainly chewing.
On Thursday morning, Lionsgate announced that the third Bill and Ted movie would be released on VOD on September 1st but also made it available to any theaters allowed to reopen. And by the end of the day, Disney followed suit, announcing that Mulan was pulled off the release calendar indefinitely and future entries in both the Avatar and Star Wars franchises were delayed by at least a year. Shortly after that, one of Disney’s acquisitions from Fox, The New Mutants, proceeded with a streaming panel at this year’s virtual San Diego Comic-Con, insisting it would still arrive in theaters on August 28th, despite rumors otherwise.
All of these decisions by Disney and Warner Bros. and Universal speak to one thing: Studios don’t want blockbusters to skip theaters any more than theaters do. We can file petitions, we can tweet to the contrary, but these decisions imply that none of us should get our hopes up for seeing a blockbuster heading straight to VOD anytime soon.
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