The Coronavirus Has Put the Film Industry at a Crossroads—Here’s What That Means for You

While the summer typically ushers in a theatrical release schedule that boosts box office sales, and the fall kickstarts the awards season releases we’ll be hearing about until winter’s Academy Awards, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically shifted the when and how of this equation. Christopher Nolan’s thrice-delayed “Tenet,” which moved from a July to September release date, was heralded as the film that would mark the industry’s return to theaters after cinemas shuttered last spring. Instead, the Warner Bros. film’s comparatively tepid box office results moved the goalposts farther back for other big-budget films: Marvel’s Scarlett Johansson–starring “Black Widow,” the latest James Bond installment “No Time to Die,” and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake are just a few of the delayed 2020 blockbusters now set for 2021.

The long game of waiting for a spot on the ever-evolving theatrical release calendar has forced many new films to adapt their delivery method. Disney’s $200 million live-action “Mulan” was one of the first to forgo theaters when it premiered on Disney+ in September. Tom Hanks’ “Greyhound” found its home on Apple TV+; the Janelle Monáe starrer “Antebellum” debuted on PVOD; and the fall’s streaming slate of new feature films continues to grow with HBO Max’s Halloween release of “The Witches,” “Run” on Hulu, and more. 

Whether at home or in a socially distant cinema seat, COVID-19 has decidedly changed audiences’ viewing habits—and they’re not alone. Filmmakers are also grappling with how to get audiences’ attention. For one, the usual parade of press has been relegated to Zoom interviews and virtual junkets. “Run” writer and director Aneesh Chaganty and star Sarah Paulson are missing the promotional globetrotting of a theatrical release. “We got to travel the world, and that was a lot of fun,” Chaganty says of his 2018 film “Searching.” “It was such an awesome reward for the amount of work that we put in.” 

Similarly, first-time director Natalie Krinsky (“The Broken Hearts Gallery”) didn’t get to experience the thrill of touting her film at in-person events before it hit limited screens in September, but in a summer interview with Backstage, she found a silver lining to the film’s timing: “We’ve all been sitting at home with all our things for quite a while, so maybe there will be some sort of emotional reckoning and purging and some letting go.” Timeliness was also a factor in pushing “Antebellum,” to streaming in lieu of theaters. Considering its adapted digital release as Black Lives Matter retook the national stage this year, co-director and writer Gerard Bush emphasized that “there is an urgency to this moment,” and so they pressed forward.

There are business-minded reasons to push for streaming during this time, as well. For its part, “Run,” a thriller about a character locked inside, eerily dovetails with the pandemic, and its Thanksgiving week small-screen release will surely bring more eyes to it than the alternative. “Who are we going to be if we’re competing with ‘Fast and Furious,’ ‘Top Gun,’ ‘A Quiet Place,’ and James Bond?” poses Chaganty, noting that such big-budget movies will eventually hit theaters in a rush together. “We will not survive in that market.”

When that time of saturated blockbuster releases will come, exactly, remains unknown. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, an estimated 69% of small and mid-sized movie theaters will file for bankruptcy or close permanently if current ticket sale levels continue. The country’s top moviegoing markets remain closed at the time of publishing, and ticket sales outside those cities reflect limited audiences at the socially distant viewings. This off-kilter supply and demand leaves our nearly 40,000 movie screens in the balance, and filmmakers are joining the NATO, the Motion Picture Association, and the Directors Guild of America in continued efforts to appeal to Congress for financial support for movie theaters. In the meantime, as mass communal activities continue to be on hold, more films might skip multiplexes to reach their audiences at home.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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