Box Office Recovery Imperiled: "Do You Take the Risk or Do You Punt?"

'Black Widow' could soon join 'Wonder Woman 1984' in deciding to retreat as Hollywood studios once again delay their tentpoles amid the ongoing pandemic and consumer concerns.

Intentional or not, Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman-CEO Tony Vinciquerra set off a maelstrom when addressing the state of the box office at a Sept. 9 Bank of America investors conference. “What we won’t want to do is make the mistake of putting a very, very expensive $200 million movie on the market unless we’re sure theaters are open and operating at a significant capacity,” he said.

The comment was considered poor form by those working in the fragile Hollywood ecosystem who are once again trying to release big movies in actual theaters amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Yet Vinciquerra underscored what is fast becoming apparent: The U.S. box office recovery has been derailed as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet stalls domestically, key moviegoing markets such as Los Angeles and New York City remain dark and more studios delay their 2020 tentpoles out of concern that consumers aren’t ready to return to indoor cinemas.

But, in a game of chicken or the egg, theaters both stateside and in many other countries need new Hollywood product to restart (China, boasting a backlog of local product, is a major exception). Vinciquerra didn’t mention Tenet by name despite the fact that the Warner Bros. espionage epic cost $200 million to produce before marketing. Tenet began rolling out overseas — where, unlike in the U.S., many cinemas have now been reopened for weeks — on Aug. 26, followed by select U.S. cities on Sept. 3. Through Sept. 13, the movie’s global gross stood at $207 million, including a massive foreign total of $178 million and a paltry $29 million domestically (or an 86 percent to 14 percent split).

“Warner Bros. knew after last week’s turnout that the domestic release of Tenet was a costly, failed experiment,” says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “Who thought it was a good idea to open theaters a month after China when we are months behind them in taking care of COVID? This movie meltdown could have been avoided had they done their homework. Sorry, but it really was that simple. VOD or a combination of VOD-theatrical is the only answer for blockbuster films going forward until the U.S. gets a handle on this virus. That’s about as diplomatic as I can be right now.”

For much of the summer, Disney’s intention was to open Mulan just after Tenet. But as theater closures continued in the U.S., the company switched course and sent the live-action epic straight to Disney+ at a premium $30 price in the U.S. and other select markets over Labor Day weekend. Mulan is still being released theatrically in major Asian markets, along with Russia, although it bombed in China during the Sept. 11-13 weekend with a $23 million debut.

U.S. cinema owners, who reopened in time for Tenet and Mulan, were devastated by the Mulan decision. Now, they face more heartache. Days after Tenet bowed, Warner Bros., led by CEO Ann Sarnoff, said it is delaying the release of Wonder Woman 1984 from Oct. 2 to Dec. 25. That means there isn’t another all-audience Hollywood tentpole opening until November. And even then, there’s intense speculation that Marvel and Disney’s Black Widow (Nov. 6) will move.

“There just isn’t enough volume of film to sustain any momentum. We are really looking toward November and December before there are big films again,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners.

Adds a top film executive, “Consumers need a movie like Wonder Woman or Black Widow to come back. The problem is that studios will make less money than in normal times,” a top film executive notes. “Do you take the risk or do you punt until next year?”

So far, MGM’s 007 film No Time to Die appears determined to stick to a late November release across the globe (it's set to hit U.S. theaters on Nov. 20). Pixar and Disney's Soul also is set for Nov. 20, but whether it keeps its spot at the Thanksgiving table is less clear. Whatever happens, Disney insiders say the animated tentpole will get a theatrical release, versus being sent to Disney+.

Notes Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian, “All these release date changes, while totally understandable, can have a dramatic impact on the accordion-like ebb and flow of the box office.”

Midrange and smaller event pics set for October also are packing up, including the Jordan Peele-produced Candyman. And it remains to be seen whether the adult-skewing event pic Death on the Nile, from 20th Century Fox and Disney, stays on its Oct. 23 date.

The impact is already being felt on the part of consumers. In the lead-up to Tenet’s release, research firm NRG saw significant improvement in terms of whether people felt comfortable returning to theaters, with 52 percent of respondents saying they would be. With Wonder Woman now off the calendar, that score has slipped to 48 percent, according to those with access to the data. Likewise, 50 percent say they won’t return to the cinema for two months or more, up from 42 percent the day Tenet opened.

And survey after survey shows that older adults, and particular older women, are staying away. On Tenet’s opening U.S. weekend, a PostTrak exit poll showed that 66 percent of the audience was 34 and younger. “The primary audience is educated people, and they are staying away in force,” says Bock in reference to Tenet and Searchlight specialty title The Personal History of David Copperfield, which has struggled to hit $1.4 million domestically.

Overall, analysts such as Dergarabedian and Handler remain optimistic that moviegoing will find its stride even if the rest of fall and early winter are light in terms of titles. Ditto for Shawn Robbins of Box Office Pro.

"Combined with staying power from Tenet, which we are starting to see signs of and, and specialty titles from smaller studios, there will be options out there," he said. "It's far from the ideal scenario, and localized cinemas with smaller population bases may opt to limit operational hours until more films and patrons are available, but something is better than nothing for the industry at the moment. Everyone is writing a new rule book as this all unfolds."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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