COVID-19 has thrown a massive curveball to the 2020 summer movie season. The worldwide lockdown in March has forced a significant shake up causing studios and distributers to either push their movies back or throw it onto a streaming service. While streaming has proved itself to be a lucrative medium of distribution, its nearly impossible to produce the same level of income as a traditional, theatrical release.
Studios have tried their best to creatively distribute their content for at-home consumption. Universal was first out of the gate in April with “Trolls: World Tour,”which ended up being a huge success for the company. The film grossed $95 million in the first 19 days of release at a $19.99 rental price. This number may seem standard at first glance, but since Universal was able to cut out the middle-man (movie theaters,) it was able to keep an estimated 80% of the revenue instead of the typical 50/50 split between the studio and various 3rd parties. (Source: Deadline)
Despite its proven results, the success of “Trolls” is not one-size-fits-all. “Trolls: World Tour” is considered a midrange movie or a lower tier blockbuster. It’s was never intended to be an event movie that brings out the average American who only goes to the movies on special occasion. The true test would come later down the line when Disney released its live-action remake “Mulan” for premier access on its streaming service Disney+
Disney took a slightly different approach to distributing “Mulan.” Disney+ subscribers were allowed to pay $29.99 on top of their subscription fee to unlock it on the service. The intention behind this move was to both increase subscriptions to the streaming service and produce additional income that would hopefully mirror (or at least get close to) what a theatrical release would have brought in. The film was also released simultaneously in theaters around the world to test the waters to see if movie goers were ready to return to the theater.
So far, “Mulan” has only earned $57 million worldwide at the box office, including $36.2 million from China. Disney was surely hoping for a better turnout from the region that this film was intended for, but this turn out can be attested to the ongoing effects of the pandemic across the globe. It’s streaming numbers have not officially been released, but liberal estimates point to a possible revenue of about $263 million to date. (Source: Forbes)
“Mulan’s” combined revenue is significantly lower than what a theatrical release would have pretty much guaranteed. Disney’s previous live-action remakes have consistently performed well at the office with a few of them like “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” grossing more than $1 billion. With its massive market appeal domestically and its subject matter reaching out to the 2nd largest movie market in the world (China), it would have likely been a shoe-in for the billion dollar club.
So how long will it be until another movie is able to cross the billion dollar milestone? With the pandemic not showing signs of slowing down and no definite date for a widely available vaccine, it could be a while before we see move goers flocking back to the multiplex. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” was the first major test and managed to only gross about $280 million worldwide to date (an estimated $400-$500 million is needed for Warner Bros to break even). “Tenet’s” significant underperformance shows that audiences are just not ready to make their way back to the theater. (Source: Deadline)
It is important to note that “Tenet’s” domestic gross came without the help of costal cities in New York and California, the two biggest movie markets in the country, so its gross could increase significantly once those theaters are able to open back up. Still, it’s safe to say that no movie will come close to $1 billion anytime soon. With most major fall releases like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Black Widow” already moving even further away, it’s unlikely that it will occur in 2020 at all.
The safest bet would be Summer 2021, or even Fall 2021, for a full return to movie theaters.
Audiences need time to decompress from the stress brought on by COVID-19. Even when a vaccine is released, it will take a while for it to become widely available and for a significant portion of the population to receive it.
Even once society has returned to operating at its previous standard, who’s to say audiences will even find theaters necessary anymore? COVID-19 could have permanently changed the way audiences want to receive their content, and studios will be forced to cater to their needs. This would result in a significant restructuring of the industry and could be the final nail in the coffin for already struggling movie theaters.
Only time will tell, but for the sake of the sake of the industry and those depending on it, let’s hope for a safe return to movie theaters as soon as possible.