Earlier, Warner Bros. announced that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was getting pushed back again, this time indefinitely. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to go full-tilt in the United States, studios are once again reshuffling their marquee tentpoles around. Big-budget movies continue to be bumped back further and further, some in incremental two-week nudges, some bouncing all the way to next year.
At some point, however, the juggling and bumping, the jockeying ever further back for position will have to stop. The summer blockbuster season is done. It’s looking more and more like we might go the entirety of Q3 without a tentpole release, as well. But October-December, i.e. the holiday season, is currently packed with big titles already scheduled or bumped to the last quarter of the year. If Hollywood wants to keep the theater industry going, most of those titles will have to stay put.
Still, that presents challenges. We’re all crossing our fingers that things will reopen around the country. But with states each taking their own approach to reopening and the two biggest moviegoing markets of Los Angeles and New York still on strict theater lockdowns, studios must get creative in their approach to theatrical releases. Of course, we’ve already seen some studios take nontraditional approaches to releasing their films, such as Universal pushing Trolls World Tour directly to VOD, Disney bringing Hamilton to Disney+ this year instead of giving it its planned theatrical release next year, and a few other movies moving to day-and-date releases, dropping simultaneously in the limited theaters still open and on-demand.
That non-traditional thinking will likely need to be carried over to theatrical releases, as well, if the reopening of the economy continues to be hit-or-miss. The current model of pinning a tentpole movie’s entire hopes on opening weekend simply won’t work if theaters in a number of cities across the U.S. continue to be shut down completely or even running at limited capacity.
Luckily, a potential “non-traditional” solution can be found by returning to the traditional movie release format of decades past.
You see, that aforementioned strategy of loading for bear in the weeks before release and recouping the majority of a film’s production costs in the first weekend is a relatively new one. That blitzkrieg strategy of releasing a movie didn’t happen until 1975, when Jaws came along. For the release of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Universal spent a then unheard of amount of money on marketing to the tune of $1.8 million, blasting ads and trailers across radio and television in the weeks leading up to release. It also had what was a, for that time, rare huge wide-release. The result was that Jaws‘ opening weekend was a massive, record-breaking success and studios soon scrambled to replicate its front-loaded success for future tentpoles.
Before Jaws chomped up the box office and changed major studio releases, however, tentpoles operated a lot more how indie films do today in terms of how they were released. They’d first open in a handful of bigger cities, allowing for a few different premieres, and then slowly roll out to the rest of the country over the course of the next few weeks, staying in theaters for half a year at a time.
If studios today want to recoup their costs with a number of cities across the country still being shut down, it might be worth considering a return to this longtail, slower rollout of tentpoles. Release films in the cities open right now and then add more theaters as other cities open back up. Theaters would have to adjust movies staying in theaters longer and home entertainment releases would need to be pushed back, of course – adjustments would naturally be made. Allowing movies to have longer release windows, however, would ensure the maximum amount of metropolitan markets have the chance to see them in theaters and add to their box office total.
“Why not just move them to on-demand or a digital release?” you might be asking. Simple: it’s not a viable financial solution for big-budget films. Note that the movies that have moved from theatrical to streaming or day and date release during the pandemic have been family films or movies with smaller budgets. There’s a reason for that. Tentpoles, particularly large franchise IPs, need theatrical release windows to be successful. Releasing a movie on a streaming platform like Netflix earns a studio no money on individual views or that title, simply on the flat subscription fees. Even releasing a movie as a premium video on-demand format, where it’s required to purchase specific titles individually, isn’t as lucrative. A family of five, for example, can buy it one time and watch it as many times as they want in 24-48 hours. Not only does the studio lose out on the equivalent of four ticket sales, they also lose out on the ticket sales of repeat viewings. Third, it negates home video sales which account for a nice chunk of change for studios. Lastly, it skews the timing of lining up merchandise sales – an absolutely vital part of a franchise’s overall earnings – with a theatrical release window. All of that might be surmountable for a family film or a movie with a small budget, but that’s not going to cut it for, say, Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet or Black Widow. They need theatrical releases.
So, if big-budget blockbusters need theatrical releases and theaters need big-budget blockbusters, why not try a return to the old-school, slow rollout/long release window approach?
It’s not a perfect solution. There are challenges today that didn’t exist back in the 70s and early 80s, namely, piracy. If a movie is released in Kansas City a month before it’s released in New York or Los Angeles, it’s guaranteed spoilers will run rampant online and crappy pirated versions will proliferate torrent sites. But there are ways to counter that if a studio is diligent and stays on top of it. The potential ticket sale revenue lost to pirating is still likely to be far less than the definite ticket sale revenue that will be lost by releasing a tentpole on-demand.
In our new normal where nothing is certain, it certainly can’t hurt to try.