It’s time for everyone to bite the bullet and admit the hard, bitter truth: 2020 summer movie season is dead, and it can’t be saved.
When Warner Bros. and Disney officially announced last week that they were pushing back Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Niki Caro’s Mulan, respectively, it was merely the latest concession to reality in the movie business. Despite months of pretending theaters would open again and movies would release for the summer season, COVID-19 never relented in its loud and clear message that things would definitely not be the same again any time remotely soon.
The attempted reopening of Los Angeles fizzled, like so many other absurd attempts around the country, for the same reasons movie theaters won’t reopen for summer business and movies like Tenet and Mulan will reschedule again. Because if they don’t, then they will have to attempt release in a handful of theaters capable of staying open, for anemic ticket receipts likely to turn Tenet into Nolan’s lowest-grossing theatrical release in 15 years.
The pandemic never significantly slowed and certainly never stopped, and now we’re witnessing catastrophic rises in infection rates spurred by wrongheaded reopenings and refusal of a significant portion of the public to believe in science and modern medicine. Here in Los Angeles, the situation is getting grim, and the same is true for Texas, Florida, and several other places. Globally, the pandemic is speeding up and the economy is grinding to a halt.
It was never realistic, with so much obvious evidence and consistent warnings from major medical professional organizations, to believe in the myth of a grand summer reopening for movies. It was a fever dream egged on by desperate hope that billions in box office revenue could somehow magically be inoculated against the pandemic while humanity remained vulnerable and unprepared.
It’s not simply mandatory closures of businesses causing this. It’s also the fact workers will spread the virus through a workplace until it can’t remain open. It’s the reality that audiences will be too scared to pack into theaters elbow-to-elbow with strangers. It’s the eventual flu season imminently upon us. And it’s the truth that the rise of streaming plus audience access to superior home theaters was already going to force major changes to theatrical distribution and to the concept of box office blockbusters — the novel coronavirus has merely sped up that process.
There cannot be any major film releases while the pandemic is still causing so many daily infections and deaths. Next weekend is already the Fourth of July holiday. Does anyone seriously think we’ll somehow be out from under this pandemic and in a safe situation for theaters to reopen six and-a-half weeks from now? Is that where it looks like things are headed at the moment?
Of course not. There isn’t even a serious plan in place to coordinate a national response to effectively deal with any aspect of this pandemic. Shutdowns and quarantines? Nope, it’s city by city and state by state, where policy is driven as much by angry citizens who are too bored to stay home as by commitment to public safety and science. Getting hospitals coordinated and stocked, while ensuring effective means of handling overflow and obtaining PPE? Nope, again it’s city by city and state by state, if that. Economically, there is nothing beyond sending checks to everybody and hundreds of billions to companies to bail them out of economic hardships.
Where in any of that does it sound like things are likely to improve while the pandemic spikes and hot spots flare up across the country?
There are 12 weeks left of summer 2020. By the time we reach mid-August, it becomes pointless to attempt a reopening for summer movies if such a reopening hasn’t already happened by then. And it won’t, because every indicator and every expert tells us things are going to get worse in the coming weeks and months.
I understand how much theatrical experiences mean to cinephiles and other movie fans. I’ve many times explained how theaters are my church, where I go to be around others who share my affinity for the public group experience of storytelling on the big screen. Likewise, I love the films shown there, so much so that I live in Hollywood and dedicate my life to writing about movies and TV here at Forbes online, and actually writing screenplays for movies and TV shows.
So I take no pleasure in the current reality for theaters and the movie industry. But I suffered what seems to be an extended coronavirus infection from March through May, during which I quite seriously believed I was probably going to die as my weight dropped below 149 lbs and I needed a cane to walk (I lost about 15 lbs at my sickest). I’ve seen friends and family sickened by it, too, some hospitalized in bad shape. I’ve seen friends’ family members die from it. Over half a million people have already died from COVID-19 worldwide, and that is likely a big underestimate.
What I’m saying is, however painful it is to see theaters shuttered and movies dormant, it’s much more painful to see innocent people infected and dying from a pandemic that had absolutely no reason to be this bad. Except we didn’t listen. Except we didn’t prepare. Except we didn’t do enough. Except we weren’t careful enough or patient enough. And now, as we suffer the terrible price of those mistakes, we watch as theaters think about inviting us back.
If theaters reopen in July, by August they’ll be closed again. If movies seriously attempt to release into those theaters while they’re open, audiences still will mostly stay away. It doesn’t seem plausible that any businesses are looking at the data, are aware of where things are obviously headed, and will still decide to open theaters and release movies into them.
The real reason to keep announcing new release dates is to avoid spooking everybody — investors, workers, and audiences for example — by just outright admitting the summer movie season isn’t happening this year and cancelling release dates until Christmas (or 2021, depending on how bad the flu season is).
But false hope is a mistake. It merely delays facing the inevitable and making the necessary choices sooner, when they will be easier to get done and help expedite the solution. VOD and PPV options will have to replace theatrical distribution for a lot of films. Tenet and Mulan have the advantage that if they release on VOD and PPV first for a few weeks, then their studios have major streaming services — HBO Max and Disney+ — on which they can then premiere the films to generate new subscription revenue, and sell the films on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.
I wrote all of this in detail here at Forbes earlier this year, by the way, including how Disney was in the best position to adjust their streaming and theatrical plans to fit the new inevitable paradigm, since it was almost surely their longterm plan anyway. It’s all still true, and more obviously so now.
But a bad box office attempt leading up to a VOD and PPV release could suppress both the level of interest on VOD/PPV and — as a side-effect — lower the price point the audience is willing to pay after a soggy theatrical opening and potential bad press about COVID possibly spreading in some of the crowds who show up.
The theater industry is suffering right now, but the film production industry and audiences cannot be expected to put their safety and lives at risk in the midst of a worldwide crisis in a misguided effort to somehow “save” theaters or “preserve the concept of theatrical viewing” (like that would somehow vanish forever if we don’t hurry and get some movies into theaters this summer). Industries must evolve, respond and adapt to changes and crises, and find ways to survive. Theaters have done this since their first days and will continue to do so, even if the future is one with a lower number of theaters and film releases each year — a future that is inevitable, remember, regardless of whether COVID-19 had shown up or now.
The 2020 summer movie season is dead. We should mourn its passing, and stop trying to deny it any further with talk of — or risky attempts at — reopening.