Does this whole “when do we open theaters?” inquiry become more like a game of kick the can with each passing day? As a film journalist and critic, there is nothing more I would want than to be able to go to the cinemas and witness celluloid manna. Also, that community experience that is going to the movies is truly extraordinary.
A Quiet Place was a blast for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was sharing the storytelling endeavor with fellow film fans shouting at the screen and gasping at moments of high tension and alien invasion horror. Therefore, when Paramount announced that A Quiet Place Part II was being punted until 2021, there was no question it was the right move. That is a film, as is a good number of flicks, that warrants that in the dark, the sound is cranked we’re “in” the movie as a collective experience.
Many other studios are doing the same thing with their tent poles and other so-called blockbuster features. 2021 is getting crowded but think about how wonderful that will be—a non-stop barrage of cinematic awesomeness coming at us every week for months and months on end. When it comes to what to do with 2020, Tinseltown, I have to inform you that the thing that makes the most sense is to call it a day. Keep doing what you’ve been doing, it’s been delightful. I mean, I miss not getting to see the new Bond or Black Widow, but Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a great joy to witness at home. And so was Fisherman’s Friends (haven’t seen it? Seek it out), The Old Guard, Da 5 Bloods, and The Hunt.
With the recent news of Disney releasing Mulan on Disney+ with a $30 price tag, even for subscribers, clearly, the Mouse House is seeing the landscape as we are currently.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t just about the audiences and our painful separation from a landscape we used to frequent continually. Going to the cinemas several times a month (at least, pre-profession) has been a part of my life for four decades. The withdrawal from that lifelong habit was made so much easier thanks to The Assistant, Shirley, and of course, John Lewis: Good Trouble.
When it comes to the illness and how it can be used to describe the virus that is crippling our country and to a lesser extent the world, it could easily be applied to how sick movie theaters and other entertainment venues are at the moment. Many are on life support.
There is a cure for that and it lies in Washington, D.C. If our government can prop up the airline industry when they’ve had questionable economic practices, then surely movie theaters and the industry behind it can get a financial shot in the arm. The friendly sky business pocketed $50 billion cash while the hotel industry wasn’t so lucky but still got some help. Since cinemas—and I’d group live theater and music venues in with the package, account for a large share of American’s entertainment budget or allotment, surely the need exists for stimulus money to flow to their empty houses that are integral to our returning to a sense of normalcy when this horror show is over. Until then, they need government help. That shouldn’t be a tough sell.
In the meantime, follow Jungle Cruise’s example. Early on in this pandemic, Disney decided to send Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt’s franchise starter to the next year’s frame. Studios, take your 2020 beloved projects (we’re looking at you WB with Wonder Woman 1984 and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet). Merely mentioning Nolan and Tenet produces a Pavlov-dog type reaction from this guy. So yes, it pains me to write this. All of our favorites that were coming before the calendar switched its last number to 0 from 1, need to bust a move next year to that 2021.
Once those titles are shuffled to next year, then a lot of smaller projects, like the ones we’ve been enjoying at home, like Scoob! for the kiddos and Irresistible for the rest of us, can plan accordingly and fill out the release calendar for the rest of 2020. The Oscars can still go down in March of 2021 because so many of the Academy Awards’ movies can work well on the home screens as opposed to cinemas. The challenge will arrive with flicks such as Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and Paul Greengrass’ News of the World. But with Mulan moving to home watching, perhaps Spielberg might move his Oscar-bait picture. These were being seen equally as Oscar darlings and a box office infusion for those struggling theaters.
This is not a problem that exists in a vacuum. The film industry shares the plight of every other sector of the economy across America (and to some extent the world). Yes, we are in a global economy, but since the U.S. has done such a miserable job of fighting the pandemic, let’s just keep our discussion close to home. The closest industry that finds its livelihood churned violently from current events like the movie biz has to be American professional sports. That’s one of the spokes of the American wheel that makes its citizenry feel like some sort of regularity is returning to our country. Rather than punting its season until next year, every single one of our premiere leagues is going forward with their competition—with varied success.
The NBA is simply trying to complete its season, one that began in October of 2019. Commissioner David Silver and the owners have crafted a plan that is (so far) working brilliantly. By having players in a “bubble” in Orlando at a Disney resort facility and playing their games on the same court until they crown a champ, the NBA has managed to insulate themselves from the Covid-19 nightmare that is exploding elsewhere. Players are tested frequently. The idea is that if everyone follows protocol, staying put in the bubble—basically, there is little chance that the league won’t be able to crown a champion.
Now, Major League Baseball, on the other hand—chucked a plan that would have had them playing in their own bubble, most likely in Arizona, in favor of having the league go forth in a manner that gives off the impression that they aren’t aware of current events. Sure, they do not have fans in the stands. But teams are still traveling to the 30 cities that host baseball franchises. Already, they’ve hit COVID potholes. Almost two dozen Miami Marlins players and staff have tested positive, setting off a tsunami of troubles that have postponed games and it appears that the odds of them making it to the World Series seems to shrink every single day.
Football, since the onset of the Coronavirus, have themselves been acting like nothing is out of the ordinary. They held their draft. They went through free agency and now teams are starting to hold training camp for a season that will proceed—most likely—without fans. But like baseball, football will find teams heading to a different city every week. If things are bad with America’s pastime of baseball, expect it to be exponentially worse for football. Whereas basketball fields teams of 15 players, baseball has between 25 and 30 (based on the time of year) and football has 55 players and a legion of coaches, assistant coaches, and other employees. As it stands now, look for the NFL to have the same problems as baseball.
As each day goes on, it’s looking somewhat likely that baseball may scratch its season altogether and that is honestly what I think Hollywood should do with its “blockbuster” movies. Even if theaters were to open, their ticket selling would be handicapped by social distancing requirements, mask mandates, and a public that would rather spend $20 at home to “rent” a flick such as Sonic the Hedgehog than to risk becoming exposed to a deadly outbreak. Even if people were to visit their local cineplex, how much could theaters make when they would be looking at a quarter of capacity (at most)? It’s time for those in charge of studios to put on their adult pants and make tough decisions that seem to be a no-brainer, given the headlines of the last six months.
Just like the schools of the country that have already opened, there is the risk that just as things start commencing, it will all get shut down. There’s a school district in Indiana (Elwood) that opened its doors for the school year 2020-2021 and two days later, they had to shut down due to a student that tested positive. Why even take that chance? Why ramp up a movie release schedule, only to find that it all has to be pulled when a second wave makes its way through the country during the actual part of the year where people traditionally get sick—the fall and winter? It makes absolutely no sense.
Cut your losses now and call it. Stop kicking the can down the road, week by week, and make a far-reaching decision that accomplishes something special. If Hollywood does do this and say that there are no way theaters will open until “sometime in 2021,” then theater owners, managers, and their employees can plan accordingly. If airlines, hotels, and the restaurant industry are lining up to get their government stimulus checks, then so too should the movie theaters and the entire business behind it.
When it comes to the studios that are putting out these pictures, they’ll be OK. Those smaller studios or production houses also can qualify for federal aid to get through these tough times. For the big five—Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, and Universal, they’ll take a hit, sure. But look at what Universal accomplished with their “at-home” releases of The King of Staten Island and Trolls: World Tour. Each dominated the buzz in the movie world for the week leading up to its release and then in the days after the films dropped on audiences. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Trolls sequel made more money than the original during its five-month run in theaters. The Pete Davidson comedy (that paired him with co-writer/director Judd Apatow) was at the top of Amazon’s and iTunes rental charts the week it debuted (as well as DirecTV, YouTube, Google Play and FandangoNOW).
Long term, this kind of decision can only endear movie theaters to the public. Looking out for customer’s health and well-being is never a bad thing. They can also have the opportunity of being a leader in the larger society as a whole. By revealing that theaters will not open in America until 2021 when the disease abates or there is a vaccine, the movie-going public will consciously, and subconsciously, know that one of our favorite businesses to frequently put the public over profit and that will go a long way.
Theaters will come back stronger than ever. After all, there is nothing like seeing a film with a packed house. Just remember back to 2019 when Avengers: Endgame was breaking box office records. Recall that feeling when we got goosebumps and chills up and down our spine when Captain America caught Thor’s Mjölnir during the ultimate battle against Thanos? The. Place. Went. Nuts! It was right up there with cheering with tens of thousands of people when your team wins the World Series. That is something that people list as missing most (after seeing friends and family, of course) since a pandemic took over our world. When the world is safe again, theaters will open their doors to a movie-going public that is utterly starving for the cinematic arts. The government needs to bail out or prop up our local and national theaters, as well as those who work there—not to mention the legion of people who make their living from the entity that is the motion picture (from grips to caterers and everything in between).
Just prior to Covid-19 taking over our daily lives, I had begun to call the act of witnessing movies on the big screen with a huge crowd of people our new “national pastime.” Baseball had always held that title and even as football has now become more popular, it’s nowhere near the collective pastime that is movie-going in the last few decades. Some people don’t like baseball, or football—or sports in general. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t care about watching movies at the cinemas? Yeah, me either.