the industry

What If the Movie Studios Decide They Don’t Need Theaters After All?

The Aurora Theatre in East Aurora, New York. Photo: Hannah Buehler/ WKBW-TV

In a normal year, major movies don’t get released on Labor Day weekend, since it’s too late to compete for summer’s bounty and too early for awards season. But with many of the nation’s theaters finally open again, this Labor Day will be defined by the premieres of two big movies that also represent a fork in the road: Together, they may determine not only what films we see but how we see them for the rest of this year and perhaps for much longer. One, Disney’s Mulan, will bypass U.S. movie houses completely and debut on Disney+ on September 4, more than five months after its originally scheduled opening in theaters. The other, Warner Bros.’ oft-postponed Christopher Nolan film, Tenet (opening September 3), is making a bet on the big screen.

For movie studios, it’s a stark moment of decision. With a huge backlog of films awaiting release and production restarting or beginning on others, Mulan and Tenet are raising the question: Does the year in movies have to include leaving the house? If Mulan underperforms, theaters will live to fight another day. But if Mulan is a smash and Tenet wobbles financially or, worse, generates headlines about theater-based viral clusters a few weeks from now, it’s hard to imagine regular theatergoing — or major releases — resuming before the arrival of the New Year, a vaccine, or both.

On paper, Mulan looks like the stronger, and safer, bet. Some 2020 movies destined for wide release have already gone to streaming — Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island premiered on VOD, Apple bought the Tom Hanks WWII drama Greyhound, and Disney diverted Hamilton to Disney+, a decision that no doubt boosted its subscriber base, now at an impressive 60.5 million. And the Sundance hit Palm Springs, which Neon and Hulu paid more than $17 million to acquire, became a Hulu-only release this summer. But Mulan is different — it cost $200 million, and the company’s choice to release it via Disney+ means that nothing is off the table. The $29.99 price tag (for which you will “own” the movie as long as you’re a subscriber) is high compared to a movie ticket, but for families that would have gone to see it together, it’s a no-brainer. And since it doesn’t have to share revenue with theaters, Disney needs to sell far fewer virtual tickets to make a profit. If Mulan works, it’s no great leap to imagine Warner, which launched HBO Max so poorly that an executive-suite pogrom soon followed, trying to boost its service by using it to debut Wonder Woman 1984 (scheduled for release October 2) or Dune (December 18). For that matter, why wouldn’t Disney follow Mulan with Black Widow (due November 6, it’s the movie behind which three years of Marvel’s schedule is trapped) or Pixar’s Soul (November 20)?

One reason is Tenet. Expectations for the movies that have so far tested the theatrical box office — The New Mutants, an X-Men movie already shelved for two years, and Unhinged, a Russell Crowe road-rage thriller acquired by the fledgling distributor Solstice — couldn’t have been lower. But for months, Nolan’s movie has been discussed as the first post-pandemic big-screen must-see, and with the very existence of theaters imperiled, the studio has apparently decided that the post part of post-pandemic is negotiable. (“Cross your fingers and hope that people across the nation sitting in a dark room with strangers for two hours don’t get sick” looks more like a bottom-line-driven prayer than a rational plan; one expert has likened it to Russian roulette.) If Tenet does even okay — acknowledging that most cities are mandating reduced capacity for theaters — that may be sufficient justification for studios to postpone deciding to stream their biggest movies, many of which they will instead continue to hold back until full-fledged theatrical releases become possible.

That’s already what’s happening with Warner Bros.’ musical In the Heights and Godzilla vs. Kong, Universal’s Fast & Furious 9 and Halloween Kills, and Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II and Top Gun: Maverick, all of which are attempting to leapfrog the pandemic entirely. None are now scheduled until spring 2021 at the earliest. They’re the equivalent of rich folks who packed their cars and decamped to their second home — their second home being “the future” — when things started looking bad. That, in a way, was a vote of confidence in theaters, a statement that waiting it out might be more attractive than abandoning a decades-old cultural habit — and business model.

But for how long? We’re already seeing signs of how readily studios are prepared to abandon theaters. Disney is reportedly close to selling one of the last films it inherited from Fox, The Woman in the Window, to Netflix. Meanwhile, the struggling Paramount (its market share was just 5 percent in 2019), which sold Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, also to Netflix, for more than $50 million, is close to selling its Tom Clancy adaptation Without Remorse to Amazon and has decided that its post-apocalyptic comedy Love and Monsters, which was to open next February, will go straight to VOD this October.

Even in a best-case scenario, which looks less and less likely, this fall’s slate of big movies in theaters will still be much thinner than usual. And it won’t reverse the giant paradigm shift that’s currently taking place. For a century, studios have been at the center of Hollywood, and as often as some of those companies have changed ownership, their names have been recognizable for longer than we’ve been alive. But now, aside from the ever-more-dominant Disney, just a handful remain — Warner, Universal, Sony, and Paramount. And it’s shockingly easy to imagine a world in which they are no longer the sole creative engines of Hollywood but rather suppliers of content to the new production/distribution players: Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. Those companies, along with the streaming services that the old studios own (Disney’s Hulu and Disney+, Warner’s HBO Max, the Universal-owned Peacock, and CBS All Access, which shares an owner with Paramount), are becoming the prevailing forces behind what we watch and where we watch it. And, more often than ever, that is at home, competing with what used to be called TV.

But old habits die hard, and studios, having missed out on summer, are now trying to open films in order to qualify for awards — a strategy that can involve nurturing movies in specific venues for months, a bespoke approach that, this year, is exceedingly difficult. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and most other industry-awards groups have obligingly extended the eligibility deadline from December 31 to February 28 (Presidents’ Day weekend — it’s the new Christmas). It’s a shrewd way to buy time — though perhaps not enough time. Oscar season is usually a moment for indie companies — both those owned by studios, like Searchlight Pictures, Focus Features, and Sony Pictures Classics, and those that are not, like A24 and Neon — to trot out their most favored offerings. But the four festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York) where the year’s most promising “small” films often launch are fielding reduced — and, in many cases, virtual — lineups this year, with few high-profile American and English-language movies. Like their big-budget counterparts, many of the most anticipated indies, like Wes Anderson’s all-star comedy The French Dispatch, have simply been put on ice until things change. That is, if they change, since the educated, affluent, older audiences attracted to indies are exactly the kind of people happy to stay home until the movie comes to them.

What may be most striking about this moment is the absence of a master (or any) plan. For restarting production, elaborate protocols are being created for everything from Netflix dramas to Jurassic World: Dominion, which has ramped up with a 107-page health manual and an entire hotel leased as a safety-zone bubble for its cast and crew. But the studios don’t have detailed proposals for how to release movies; they’re just staring at a horizon of uncertainty and expressing the wish that “maybe things will be better” by an ever-receding date. Post-Tenet, hard decisions about October and November movies will need to be made fast. As more films go into production and pressure from that end of the pipeline increases, it will become easier for studios to tell theater owners that although there will be plenty of big movies for them whenever the pandemic ends, until then, they’re going to release their films in whatever manner keeps their audience (safely) fed. That is starting to feel more urgent; companies can’t just keep sitting on unseen movies forever. Something has to be sacrificed: movies or moviegoing. The paired fates of Mulan and Tenet may determine which one prevails.

*This article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What If the Movie Studios Decide They Don’t Need Theaters?