It was the fourth weekend in July when Hollywood began to grasp the terrible extent of 2021’s Not-So-Hot Vaxx Summer of weak ticket sales. From July 23 to 25, Jungle Cruise, the Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt embodiment of an old-timey Disneyland amusement-park ride, premiered to a “soft” $34.2 million in North American theaters (with another $30 million coming from concurrent Disney+ premium video rentals) — lackluster returns for a brassy kids’ flick that cost more than $200 million to produce and at least another $100 million to market. Then, two weeks later, as surges in the Delta variant continued to stretch emergency rooms to their breaking point across the continent, Warner Bros.’ R-rated supervillain romp The Suicide Squad drew similarly underwhelming crowds. Plopped into theaters and onto HBO Max on August 6, the $185 million action comedy collected a mere $26.5 million in the U.S. and Canada over its opening three days, falling short of even the most pessimistic prerelease “tracking” estimates.
The studio response was swift. With comfort levels among audience members plummeting (from a pandemic-high 81 percent of respondents stating they felt “very” or “somewhat” okay about buying a movie ticket in July to 66 percent earlier this month, according to polling by the National Research Group), Paramount yanked the September 17 release of Clifford the Big Red Dog, canceling its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and indefinitely delaying distribution of the CG-and-live-action adaptation. Sony sold global streaming rights for Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, the fourth and final installment of Sony Pictures Animation’s $1.3 billion–grossing Hotel Transylvania franchise, to Amazon Studios for $100 million. And in what was interpreted as the clearest indicator of Hollywood’s fear surrounding the Delta variant’s blockbuster-killing power, Sony also pushed the release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage from September 24 to October 15.
On the face of it, not a big deal: a delay of less than a month during which theatrical moviegoing could theoretically return to something closer to normality as vaccination rates continue to rise after hitting their fastest pace in months. But new footage from the sequel to the 2018 sci-fi symbiote thriller Venom (which grossed a surprisingly strong $856 million worldwide) was notably absent from Las Vegas’s CinemaCon on Monday. Inside the Caesars Palace Colosseum, Sony debuted a dazzling new trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home (set for a December 17 release) and a sizzle reel for the Brad Pitt–Sandra Bullock–Bad Bunny ensemble shoot-’em-up Bullet Train (April 2022) and presented a surprise screening of its long-gestating franchise reboot Ghostbusters: Afterlife (November 11). Even though Venom is still currently teed up as one of the fall’s biggest titles, there was no Carnage to be seen.
According to multiple inside sources, that’s because Sony is planning to delay the release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage until January 21, 2022 — the date currently occupied by the Jared Leto vampire-superhero thriller Morbius — but the studio is waiting to make the announcement until after CinemaCon, the annual extravaganza at which movie-theater-chain executives and owners come to be dazzled by sneak peeks at Hollywood’s impending blockbusters. “They didn’t want to flash to exhibitors that they’re scared of the early fall,” one person with knowledge of Venom’s release scheme tells me. “Why would you move it three weeks? Buys you nothing.” (Sony declined to comment for this story.)
Among studio sources reached by Vulture, the short-term outlook is that autumn’s big films (such as Dune and Top Gun: Maverick) will most likely stay on their scheduled release dates — although Marvel Studio’s Eternals could be delayed if the 24th MCU entry Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings underperforms at the box office upon its September 3 release.
And even in the unlikely event that COVID infection rates trigger another wave of sheltering at home this fall, conventional movie-industry wisdom now holds that the 25th James Bond installment, No Time to Die — which has seen its release date shift three times already — will stick to its October 8 date. Although Amazon struck a deal to buy Bond 25’s distributor, MGM, for $8.5 billion in May, the release strategy is still dictated by Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, the chief executives at 007’s longtime production company, Eon. According to a person with knowledge of business practices at Eon, everyone’s expectations there have been adjusted downward.
“They’ve lost so much money by moving [No Time to Die]; the marketing has gotten stale,” this person says. “The Broccolis care more about the U.K. than anything — making it a big hit in the U.K., a decent hit in the U.S. and the rest of the world.”
Even in an era of rising streaming dominance, the movie industry is still a hits-driven business. And despite a recent report that North American box-office revenues plummeted 80 percent in 2020, hitting a 40-year low amid the coronavirus crisis, neither Sony nor MGM had ever seriously considered selling Venom and No Time to Die to deep-pocketed OTT platforms like Netflix or Apple+. But if Hollywood has learned anything from the success-with-multiple-asterisks box-office run of Black Widow — which became the biggest hit of the pandemic era over its July opening weekend, dropped a calamitous 67 percent in its second weekend in theaters, and earned a surprisingly robust $125 million via premium rentals while still falling decidedly short of pre-coronavirus financial expectations — it’s that big movies can expect to earn around one-third less than usual in these iffy times. “With pockets of Europe, Latin America, and now Australia getting hit [with the Delta variant], instead of doing $100 million, a movie now does 50 or 60,” one studio executive says. “If the business is off by 30 percent, that kills us. But Bond feels ready to go. MGM is a one-movie company. I don’t think they can hold it another six months.”
When it comes to Bond, Eon is crossing its fingers that audiences’ comfort levels shoot up above 81 percent again and is “hoping for the $700, $800 [million] range,” the source close to the company says. “There’s no way they’re going to get there. But there may be some cover: ‘We probably weren’t going to do a huge number. We can blame COVID, do some business in the U.S., and move on.’”