If you're a movie fan (and there are a few of those hanging around CinemaBlend), as you might have guessed, 2020 has been the sort of year that nightmares are made of. Movies ceased to be released starting in mid-March, and that meant there was no reason for theaters to remain open. And while there has been some variability in the last few months, for the most part, all the big movies that we were looking forward to have been delayed to 2021. This would, of course, have us all quite excited for 2021, except that whether or not things are going to get much better is very much an open question.
Back in March, there was hope that the production and release delays might only last a few months. So when a number of films pushed their release dates back by a full 12 months, if not longer, it seemed almost certain that everything would be fine by then. And yet, as we stare down the barrel of 2021, things are looking a lot less optimistic.
2021 Movies Are Still Being Delayed
At this point, every major release that was planned for 2020 has either been pushed into 2021 or released either straight to VOD or on a streaming service. Some movies, like Denis Villeneuve's Dune, seemed to wait until the last minute, hoping to release in December as planned, but that idea was eventually given up on. But things don't look any better in January right now than they do in December. Recently, the Jessica Chastain-led action film The 355 was delayed from Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend in 2021 to the same weekend in 2022. This is after movies like the Peter Rabbit sequel and Ghostbusters: Afterlife have already been pushed back further into 2021 than they were originally.
While The 355 might not be the massive tentpole project that most movie fans are waiting for, the fact that it isn't a major release, and yet is going to hold off for 12 months, is telling. Movies that were pushed into the beginning of next year, like The King's Man and Raya and the Last Dragon, could easily see their release dates pushed again, or they could finally kicked over to streaming services. What's clear is that the current release calendar is no more firm now than it has been for the last several months.
Social Distancing Will Likely Be The Norm For The Entire Year
The real canary in the coal mine for 2021 will probably be the same movie that set the ball rolling downhill in 2020, No Time to Die. The next James Bond film was the first major movie to delay its release, and it's now set to open just about one year after it was originally planning to do so. It's possible that by the time we get to April, things will be in a state where MGM feels confident opening the movie, but even if that's the case, it won't be business as usual for a long time.
It's obvious we're not going to go from complete closure to packed theaters. While different parts of the country and the world are clearly handling things differently, we can be sure that social distancing will be in effect in most, if not all movie theaters. This means that, while going to the movies again may be possible, it may not be easy. If enough people want to go back to the theater, then auditoriums could fill quite quickly due to the limited seating being sold. Alternatively, if people are still unsure about returning to theaters, then the business could suffer even more if theaters are open and nobody goes to them. This is what led Regal theaters to close across the country even after they were allowed to be open in many places.
Either way, it seems likely that social distancing will continue to be the recommended practice for quite some time even after things try to go back to normal. If this process starts in April or May, I can't imagine it ending before 2022, and possibly not even then.
Movie Studios Are Risk Averse
The simple fact is that there's a lot of uncertainty out there, and while most industries hate uncertainty, there are few that are so worried about risk as the entertainment business. There's a reason why, once comic book movies started to show success, they became the dominant form of entertainment media across the board. Studios don't want to be edgy. They don't want to try new thigs. They want to do what's safe and reliable, and what's safe right now isn't theatrical distribution, it's streaming platforms.
The newest major streaming platforms, like Disney+ and HBO Max, are showing success, and Disney has restructured its entire movie making business to make streaming a major part of it. If Wonder Woman 1984 is a resounding success, and it likely will be, that's going to convince not only Warner Bros., but likely others as well, that taking the risk of theatrical distribution simply isn't worth it. We could see more movies shift to streaming even after theatrical releases become more possible. Either that, or we could see more movies do the WW84 thing and plan to release in both channels. A steady flow of streaming content could mean studios getting their revenue from the consumer in monthly subscriptions rather than ticket prices, and in the end, the studio doesn't care where the money comes from as long as it comes in.
Nobody was expecting the new year to fix all that ails the movie industry immediately, but what's more likely is that 2021 will simply be more of the same. In some ways, it could even be worse. We might not see a complete theatrical shutdown in 2021, but we'll very likely see a complete year of the industry limping along just trying to stay afloat. People won't stop wanting to go to the movies, so I do expect the industry will survive. But it's going to still be some time before people are both willing and able to visit theaters again, and that the content will be there for them to enjoy.