Wednesday, September 2, 2020

In Laman's Terms: What Do Theatrical Movies Look Like Now?

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: this article is not an endorsement for going out to a movie theater during the pandemic. Personally, I will not be attending a general theatrical screening until a vaccine is found. This editorial is merely an examination of domestic theatrical release trends.

And so, after months of dormancy, domestic theatrical moviegoing is back.

It's weird to say that considering the COVID-19 pandemic has been generating 30,000+ new cases on a daily basis for two months now in America. But with Tenet kicking off its advanced showings on Monday night in advance of kicking off its general theatrical release on Thursday, movies are heading back to the big screen. However, even though your local Cinemark or AMC may be playing new movies for the first time in six months, that doesn't mean theatrical moviegoing is exactly back to normal.

What will theatrical moviegoing look like for the near future? To answer the question, let's look at the schedule for upcoming release. Here's what's currently scheduled for release between now and the end of October:

Sept. 3- Tenet

Sept. 11- The Broken Hearts Gallery

Sept. 18- Infidel

Oct. 2- Wonder Woman 1984

Oct. 9- The War with Grandpa

Honest Thief

Oct. 16- Candyman

2 Hearts

Oct. 23- Death on the Nile


Oct. 30- Come Play


Traditionally, each week will bring between two to three new theatrical releases. Clearly, this is being rectified in recognition of theaters having limited amounts of space and screenings to work with under restrictions meant to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Last September saw seven new wide releases enter the marketplace, eight if you wanna count the wide release expansion of Brittany Runs a Marathon. By contrast, only three new wide releases will drop in September 2020.

Basically, expect, for the near future, a lot fewer titles at your multiplex. That's good news for big blockbusters like Tenet and Wonder Woman, which can now play without any competition in sight for weeks. Hell, Tenet will doubtlessly top the box office for four consecutive weeks in September 2020. What else can compete with it? October 2020 will start to see a slight increase in new wide releases, but who even knows if these movies will keep those release dates. 20th Century Studios announced The King's Man was getting delayed by four months just three weeks prior to its debut. Maybe Death on the Nile and Connected get similar last-minute postponements.

Meanwhile, arthouse releases, at the moment, are totally screwed. Those movies typically start their theatrical releases in New York and Los Angeles, build up word-of-mouth there and other cities before making their way to wider releases. That kind of release isn't feasible right now given that New York and L.A. reside in states that still don't allow their movie theaters to open. To boot, the limited amount of screen space means it's more difficult than ever for scrappy indie titles to get screenings. The fact that it's basically impossible to launch in arthouse movie theatrically right now means arthouse studios have begun to alter their plans for Fall 2020 titles. 

Focus Features, for example, has shifted Miranda Otto's Kajillionaire from a conventional theatrical release to one that'll be available on PVOD just 21 days after its theatrical debut. Meanwhile, Searchlight Pictures, recognizing the difficulties facing smaller movies right now, has opted to delay Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch from its October 16 date. This would also explain why A24 hasn't scheduled release dates for films like Minari yet. How can they in the current theatrical film landscape?

For a while now, the divide between big and small films has grown in the film industry. "We have reached a point where we should accept the death of the Hollywood film for adult," Ted Hope said on IndieWire all the way back in December 2014. "Hollywood is a one-horse town." Since then, blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame keep making bigger and bigger grosses while smaller titles struggle to get made and released.* That divide will only grow in the near-future as blockbusters become basically the only thing to watch at the movie theater while arthouse movies are unable to even get theatrically released.

The good news is that this will almost certainly be rectified once a cure for COVID-19 comes around and movie theaters can return to regular release patterns. This isn't just some wishful thinking on my part. STX and especially MGM have spent the majority of 2020 scooping up mid-budget movies aimed both at adults and for theatrical release. Even Paramount Pictures, which has been selling off big tentpoles to streaming services all throughout the pandemic, actually bought up the new Lee Daniels movie, The United States v. Billie Holiday, last month and proceeded to set it up for a February 12 theatrical release.

The mid-budget and arthouse film isn't going to be killed by the pandemic. If the rejuvenated Chinese box office proves anything, it's that things that go dormant for a while can come roaring back. However, for now, there's no denying the much more restrictive theatrical landscape that serves blockbusters first does embody the worst trends in the last decade of theatrical cinema. As tentpoles become the default option in the reopened domestic theatrical landscape, let's all cross our fingers that doesn't remain the status quo once 2021 rolls around.

*= In the interest of fairness, the last four months of 2019 actually saw a renaissance for adult-skewing movies. Hustlers, Joker, Ford v. Ferrari, Little Women, Downton Abbey, 1917 and Knives Out all made over $95 million domestically while Parasite cracked $53 million. This is not meant as a "Gotcha!" thing against Ted Hope and his well-written piece. On the contrary, this should be seen as a note to major Hollywood studios that if you build appealing movies aimed at adults, moviegoers will show up to the theater! Put your marketing and budget weight behind original titles, not just familiar brand names. Remember: Universal made considerably ore money on Queen & Slim than Cats.

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