For most of the history of Hollywood, the US would get to see new blockbuster movies first, while the rest of the world had to wait. The coronavirus pandemic could reverse that model.
Theaters in many countries have gradually reopened in the last few months. Several European countries—including France, Italy, and Spain—allowed theaters to open their doors again (with precautions) in May and June. Japanese theaters have been open for three months. Nearly every theater in South Korea is currently open.
But not so in the United States. As Covid-19 cases surge in states across the country, the American film industry has been slow to reopen. Only about a quarter of US theaters are open for business, the Los Angeles Times reported. Theaters in the country’s two biggest markets—New York City and Los Angeles—remain shuttered. (California governor Gavin Newsom recently ordered theaters to close again this week after some were briefly allowed to reopen.)
Theater chains around the world are sustained by Hollywood’s movies; the longer Hollywood withholds its new releases, the graver the threat to their existence. And the studios are also in jeopardy, because they can’t afford to sit on unreleased big-budget films indefinitely. Hollywood is thus faced with three options: Wait until US theaters are open again before releasing their films-in-waiting, show them to the rest of the world first while America attempts to get its act together, or make them available on streaming services in some or all parts of the world in lieu of theaters.
Historically, big Hollywood movies would premiere in the US months before they became available everywhere else. Distributing a finite number of film prints across the globe was a complicated financial risk studios were loathe to take until a film was proven to be successful in America. Jaws, the model for the modern blockbuster, debuted in the US in June of 1975, but didn’t come out in much of the rest of the world until that fall. Despite much of Star Wars: A New Hope being filmed at a studio in London, the film wasn’t released in the United Kingdom until six months after it premiered in the US.
Those drastic gaps in release dates have since narrowed due to digital distribution and Hollywood’s growing confidence in international markets. Today, blockbusters typically premiere in other countries on the same day—or occasionally a few days before—the US debut. (Online piracy, as well as the desire to build hype for US premieres, has led studios to release some movies outside the US first.) Though America no longer has movies entirely to itself for months, its moviegoers could, until Covid-19, assume they wouldn’t have to wait long for new releases.
Coronavirus could change that. Early in the pandemic, the popular thinking among Hollywood studio executives was that they would not release a potential blockbusters until the New York and Los Angeles markets were ready for them. But as theaters continue to bleed cash, and studios spend hundreds of millions on marketing campaigns for films that have no concrete release dates, Hollywood might reassess that strategy. For films with less box-office potential, Hollywood already has and will continue to considering putting them on streaming services.
That’s not an option for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming thriller, Tenet, which would have been expected to gross around $1 billion under ideal circumstances. Executives at Warner Bros., the studio distributing the film, believe that up to two-thirds of the projected box-office take will come from countries outside the US, Vulture reported. Warner Bros. and Nolan—a filmmaker who believes religiously in releasing films in movie theaters—are reportedly still planning for an all-at-once, global release. It’s highly unlikely Warner Bros. would consider a streaming release for Tenet, as that’d effectively end what has been a lucrative relationship with the British blockbuster director.
Tenet was originally scheduled for release in July, but has since been pushed back twice, until Aug. 12. Most industry observers are skeptical it will meet that new date with virus cases surging in major markets like Texas and Florida, and theaters still closed in New York and Los Angeles.
For virtually all of Hollywood’s existence, if you lived in the US, you never had trouble going to see the biggest new movies at your local theater—while those in other countries could only do so inconsistently. Unless the situation in the US changes quickly, Americans might experience what it’s like to be on the other end of the Hollywood waiting game.