Thursday, July 9, 2020

In Laman's Terms: How Will Movie Theaters Reopen Domestically?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Note: The plans for reopening movie theater detailed in this piece are not ones endorsed by the author. I personally believe movie theaters should be closed until we get a COVID-19 vaccine. This piece is just dedicated to speculation on how domestic movie theaters will reopen based on recent comments from movie theater chain heads and movie studio executives. Said speculation is not based on personal desires of the author, who values human lives over being able to watch Gerard Butler movies theatrically during a pandemic.

For the longest time, the plan for reopening movies domestically seemed pretty concrete.

Tenet's refusal to move from its July 17, 2020 release date seemed to make it clear that Tenet would be the movie that ushers audiences back into multiplexes. It was the kind of perfect happy ending Hollywood loves. After months of movie theaters being closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these locations would reopen their doors so that audiences could see the newest movie from a filmmaker whose always championed the theatrical experience. It was too good to be true.

Turns out, it was.

In the last month, Tenet has adjusted its release date twice. First, it delayed itself by two weeks to July 31st. Then, it got another two-week delay, this time to August 12. By July, this whole pandemic thing was supposed to wrap itself up nicely so that Hollywood could go back to business as usual. But with Coronavirus cases exceeding 3 million as of yesterday, it's clear those plans are long gone. It's inevitable at this point that Tenet will delay itself yet again. Meanwhile, movie theater chains, like Cinemark, are in a pickle. They reopened their doors in June 2020, anticipating that new theatrical releases would arrive by the end of July 2020.

With further release date delays likely, these theater chains are stuck in a precarious position. Their overzealous rush to reopen has now ensured there'll be an even longer than expected awkward period where they have nothing new to play. With surging COVID-19 cases dominating news headlines, it's doubtful moviegoers will feel it's worth it to travel outside of their homes just to watch Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery on the big screen. Basically, the theatrical film industry is stuck in a massive quandary right now...but a romantic-comedy from Sony/TriStar might hold the key for how movies are released theatrically over the next few months.

In a Hollywood Reporter piece detailing how movie studios are trying to cope with surging COVID-19 cases, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Group Tom Rothman explained that the studio is definitely releasing The Broken Hearts Gallery theatrical on August 7. In the past, it had been presumed theatrical releases opening in the wake of the pandemic would simply play in thousands of screens just like most movies had done pre-COVID-19. However, Rothman explained that Broken Hearts would employ a gradual roll-out release strategy that based its theater count over what areas of the United States are safe at a given time. To quote Rothman:

The play on Broken Hearts Gallery is not about a weekend. It's about several months. If there are theaters open, and the safety protocols are in place in Ohio and not in Los Angeles, that's OK. We'll play Ohio and then we'll play L.A. when it opens. That's how movies were released in the pre-Jaws era. They rolled out. If you're the only film in the market, that can be OK, if you're able to be patient.

As of this writing, no other movie studio has officially said they'll be following this release strategy. It's certainly not an approach that would work for every film. Tenet, for example, would be an ill fit. With its massive $225 million budget, it requires as many places to be open at once as possible to be profitable. To boot, Christopher Nolan movies like Tenet are all about surprises. Releasing it on a state-by-state basis would ruin that element of the production.

But not every film is Tenet. If American movie studios want to start releasing movies theatrically again, the Broken Hearts release model could work for low and mid-budget titles. Films currently scheduled for theatrical release include August 2020 like Greenland, Train to Busan 2: Penninsula, Antebellum and The New Mutants. These are all more modestly budgeted fare that could resonate with wider audiences but don't need $1 billion worldwide to be profitable. They could do just fine with the kind of box office you'd get from a more gradual release strategy.

Plus, it'd be a way for movie studios to appease movie theater owners, who'll be desperate for new films to fill their screens, without sacrificing a potential $1+ billion juggernaut like Mulan. That Disney film would do a fraction of its potential box office in the August 2020 theatrical landscape. But a title Gerard Butler's Greenland may actually do a bit better than usual in a gradual theatrical roll-out in that timeframe. This scenario could be seen as a win-win for movie theaters and movie studios (whether it's also a win for the health of moviegoers is a whole other question).

Of course, that wouldn't be the triumphant glorious return for theatrical moviegoing Hollywood wanted. Gradually releasing movies on a state-by-state basis doesn't have the glamor of unleashing Tenet on thousands of screens. But if Hollywood studios and movie theater chains really refuse to take a cue from Broadway and shut down everything until a COVID-19 cure is found, the release strategy of Broken Hearts Gallery could be the only way forward. Delay blockbusters like Tenet and Mulan into October and beyond. Meanwhile, movie studios may start letting smaller mid-budget films serve as test runs for theatrical moviegoing in states that have flattened the curve.

Maybe this is how theatrical moviegoing returns in the wake of the pandemic. Most importantly of all, maybe this is how The New Mutants finally sees the light of day.

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