By Erich Schwartzel
LOS ANGELES -- When it comes to the movie release calendar,
Hollywood studios are stuck in a "Groundhog Day" routine of
A fresh batch of films scheduled for theatrical release in
February, March or April are being postponed or sold to streaming
services as cases of Covid-19 stay at high levels across the
country. Executives say to expect a cascade of rescheduling that
stretches into the summer moviegoing season.
"Morbius," a "Spider-Man" spinoff scheduled for release by Sony
Pictures Entertainment on March 19, will now debut on Oct. 8,
giving the studio a seven-month leeway and delaying what was
expected to be the first big-budget, wide-release offering since
theaters closed last March.
Hollywood executives anticipate more major releases to follow,
including the twice-delayed James Bond installment "No Time to
Die," currently planned for an April release that now seems a
remote possibility. Sony's new "Cinderella" adaptation and the Walt
Disney Co. prequel "The King's Man," both scheduled for release
within the next two months, could get bumped as well.
Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at ViacomCBS
Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, projects moviegoing will resume to
varying degrees in May and June ahead of a "very bullish" third
quarter. For his part, he has scheduled one of his studio's biggest
2021 movies, "Top Gun: Maverick," to premiere July 2, and said he
doesn't expect that date to change.
That still anticipates some bruising months ahead for a
Hollywood that has rewritten the release calendar several times
since Covid-19 shuttered theaters in March. After resigning
themselves to a lost holiday moviegoing season, theater-chain
owners and studio executives hoped for a robust return to cinemas
Now even projections of a return by summer are considered
optimistic in some corners of the industry, laying the groundwork
for a pileup of unreleased films that shifts even more power to the
streaming services that can distribute them without delay. The
uncertainty is likely to hit the struggling U.S. theater industry
especially hard, depriving them and surrounding businesses of foot
traffic and further tethering consumers to at-home entertainment
Roughly a third of U.S. theaters are currently open, and many
are operating with auditoriums at reduced capacity. The No. 1 movie
in America this weekend, Liam Neeson's "The Marksman," made a
measly $3 million, while the majority of grosses on the No. 2 film,
"Wonder Woman 1984," came from drive-in locations and relatively
small markets like Salt Lake City.
Covid-19 cases in recent weeks have climbed to records in Los
Angeles, home to many of the nation's top-performing theaters,
taking the market off the table for the foreseeable future.
If a majority of U.S. theaters remain closed or at reduced
capacity by May, it will jeopardize plans to release the year's
biggest summer offerings, including Disney's "Black Widow" and
Universal Pictures' "F9." Both movies were originally scheduled for
release last May.
With theaters closed, a number of coming releases have been sold
to streaming services that are themselves desperate for fresh
programming after months of coronavirus-related production
shutdowns. The biopic, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday,"
originally intended for theatrical release by Paramount Pictures in
February, will instead stream on Hulu, a strategy that also allows
it to be eligible for the 2021 Academy Award nominations.
Some titles, like the science-fiction adventure "The Tomorrow
War," starring Chris Pratt, are being sold to streaming services to
avoid competing in a marketplace overrun with delayed titles.
The movie, originally scheduled for July, would have gone
head-to-head with better-known franchise movies such as the new
"Top Gun" -- as well as other heavy hitters, like Marvel Studios'
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," that were bumped to
the summer months.
Skydance Media, a co-financer behind "The Tomorrow War," instead
screened it for streaming services and had an auction. Amazon.com
Inc. is now in negotiations to buy it for $200 million, according
to a person familiar with the matter, a sign of the seller's market
that has formed as streaming services compete for subscribers with
the most in-demand programming.
Big-ticket streaming deals will likely continue, executives say,
especially as cash-crunched talent agencies pressure studios for a
payday now rather than wait through an untold number of
But keeping major releases out of theaters stretches already
struggling exhibitors like Greenfield Garden Cinemas, the only
theater in Franklin County, Mass.
Co-owner Isaac Mass, an attorney who purchased the nearly
century-old, seven-screen multiplex in late 2019, said he was
already forced to close for January and February after staying
afloat for several months on 10% of regular revenues and his own
savings account. A cold New England winter that would have sent the
theater's heating bill soaring was the final straw.
He had planned to reopen in March, ahead of the arrival of the
new James Bond movie. Now he's waiting to see if April, coming just
before the Memorial Day moviegoing season, is the better bet. Mr.
Mass said no matter what, he has to wait for the big studio movies
that draw a crowd.
"There's only so much you can do with a movie no one has heard
of before, " he said.
Write to Erich Schwartzel at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 18, 2021 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.