Hollywood is already spinning a post-COVID comeback story, but the future of the movie business remains highly uncertain.

By Tyler Aquilina
May 21, 2021 at 06:04 PM EDT
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Like much of America, Hollywood is ready for a wild summer.

That much was clear on Wednesday, as the film industry rallied together to declare its love for and commitment to movie theaters in a nearly four-hour pageant at a Los Angeles AMC. Speakers stood on the floor beneath the big screen, dwarfed, in a fittingly symbolic tableau, by the massive canvas upon which movies have historically dazzled audiences.

"The Big Screen Is Back" was the message, and that message was delivered repeatedly. "If you have a movie and you don't have the big screen, you have nothing," said Arnold Schwarzenegger, who then led the crowd in a chant of "We are back!"

J.J. Abrams stopped by to wax rhapsodic about the power of cinema. "With TV, the relationship is you're the parent and it's the child," he said. "It's in your house. It's smaller than you, you can turn it off, change it, and control it. With the movies, you're the child and it's the parent. You look up to it. It controls you and it is taking you where it wants to take you."

"Personally, some of my absolute best life experiences happened in rooms like this," he added. "I think it will come back in a roaring way."

On the screen itself, a dozen studios shared previews of their summer movie slates, often accompanied by videos of actors or filmmakers enthusing about the theatrical experience. In the Heights director Jon M. Chu recalled his 3-year-old daughter's enthusiasm after seeing the movie in a theater, moments before Warner Bros. shared the full, electrifying opening number from the musical film.

Tellingly, the words "HBO Max" were never uttered during this presentation. Likewise, Disney's preview of Cruella ended by declaring the movie would be "in theaters May 28," leaving out the addendum that it will also be available on Disney+ for $29.99 (as will Black Widow and Jungle Cruise). It all amounted to a grand show of optimism and confidence as the industry seeks to blow the wind back in theaters' direction.

"[Studios'] actions right now are leading back towards theatrical, so maybe those VOD numbers weren't as successful as we were led to believe while we were in the middle of the pandemic," says Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations.

Indeed, Disney apparently declared an end to their day-and-date strategy last week, citing "recent signs of increased consumer confidence in moviegoing," as CEO Bob Chapek put it on an earnings call. (It's also worth noting that Disney+ subscriber growth has finally begun to slow down.) He then announced that Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the Ryan Reynolds action-comedy Free Guy will release solely in theaters later this year.

That announcement came with a caveat, though: The movies will play exclusively in theaters, but only for 45 days. With that, Disney delivered the final blow to the decades-old 90-day theatrical window, which had been in death throes for much of the past year. The truth is, regardless of what the studios may say, the movie business will never be quite the same.

"It's a new, difficult world where [studios consider], how do you value what you get in streaming, and does going early get you more subscribers?" says Patrick Corcoran, VP and chief communications officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "Does it give you more contented subscribers, and what's the value of that, compared to what you may be giving up in theatrical? It's a question of, where do you make the most money?"

"These big studios are going to have a lot of power that theatrical does not have anymore," adds Bock. "That 90-day window is cut in half, and it'll probably keep getting chopped and sliced away depending on how well these films do. It's going to be a conversation that we continue to have, no matter how this summer shapes up."

And this summer could be huge — relatively speaking, at least. Should release dates hold across the board, the box office could indeed be poised for a major comeback, starting Memorial Day weekend with the arrival of A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella. In the Heights will release two weeks later, on June 11, followed by F9 on June 25 and Black Widow on July 9. In a landscape bereft of blockbusters since Godzilla vs. Kong smashed box office expectations in March, this slate no doubt looks like a life-giving rain to exhibitors.

"We've always had these three things having to get in balance, which are the state of the pandemic, the availability of movie theaters, and the availability of movies," Corcoran says. "And right now, all those things are heading in the right direction."

"I don't know that it will all be constant upward movement [at the box office]," he adds. "It's probably going to happen gradually over a number of weeks. But it may also break loose like crazy."

Cinemark Theatres CEO Mark Zoradi said he was "highly optimistic about theatrical exhibition's recovery" on an earnings call earlier this month. He cited Godzilla vs. Kong as well as Mortal Kombat and the anime film Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, which together helped push the domestic box office to a record-high pandemic-era weekend of $56 million, according to Comscore.

"Importantly, these successes came not only from advanced tickets but also from a substantial amount of walk-up attendance, which further underscores a growing consumer eagerness and confidence in returning to theaters when compelling content is available," Zoradi said.

"When I look at this list, it's a strong list of contenders, and it's a good list to bring consumers back, especially cautious consumers," Bock says of the upcoming summer movie slate. What's more, he adds, the list extends well into the fall, with potential blockbusters like Shang-Chi, No Time to Die, and Eternals slated for September, October, and November.

"It's almost like we have a second summer this year, as long as things go according to plan," Bock says.

That will require grosses justifying theatrical releases in studios' eyes, which no movie has quite achieved yet. Godzilla vs. Kong fell just short of the $100 million mark domestically with a $95 million total, while Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon has made just $46 million.

"We need to have 10 of these [upcoming] films gross at least $100 million domestically," says Bock. "That's the number I'm looking at to have a successful summer. And there are definitely 10 to 12 that I think have the potential to do that. But that just comes down to consumer confidence, and nobody has a direct bead on that yet. And we won't until things start rolling on Memorial Day weekend."

That doesn't mean Hollywood isn't already trying. According to data from the research firm National Research Group, which was touted at Wednesday's event, 70 percent of moviegoers feel comfortable going to theaters right now, and the firm projects an increase to 80 percent by the end of next month. Domestic ticket sales totaled almost $190 million in April, up 300 percent from February.

"If the story is great, the audience will come," Blumhouse's Jason Blum said in closing remarks at the presentation. "I would stay for any of the movies previewed here today. There is buzz in the creative community about movie theaters opening. That's where most artists want to see their work."

Ultimately, though, "Word of mouth isn't going to necessarily be all about the films this summer," Bock says. "It's going to be about, 'How did you feel going back to theaters? Did you feel safe? Was it a good experience?'" (By all accounts, it is safe for fully vaccinated people to go to a movie theater.)

In the meantime, the theatrical business will wait on tenterhooks to see how Hollywood's comeback story plays out. With California's ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres shut down permanently and Alamo Drafthouse bankrupt, the business is still very much holding its collective breath. As Bock sees it, "It is live or die for a lot of chains this summer."

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