For the first time, when your own jaded movie-friend says, “This year was the worst for movies,” they’ll be right.
Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is no release calendar. Of a recognizable kind, specifically.
It’s odd. I used to wish for this. Not for a virus, but for the decimation of the calendar. When I was younger and going to the movies routinely, I realized how much was ruled by pattern: a spectacularly crappy January output, the buzz from film festivals, a slew of giant summer releases (some good, most mediocre), a handful of Fall gems, and finally, the December awards season contenders. Despite the fact I would be seeing (sometimes) great films, I felt a lurch in my soul that quality was oftentimes dictated by schedules and the chances theaters would be willing to take on daring, quietly produced movies.
Now we have COVID-19 and everything we know has been destabilized.
Instead of another predictable summer where Disney and the “Fast & Furious” franchise swallow us whole, we have a blank slate. Most of what you were expecting to see right around the corner has been moved to the end of the year (“No Time to Die” and “Black Widow”). Even those release dates aren’t set in stone, as I don’t think anybody can predict how long it will take people to feel comfortable being audience members again. If the numbers don’t look good, studios won’t hesitate to pull projects, for it is only on the guarantee that the 007, Marvel, and “Furious” franchises will prosper worldwide that these movies get made.
Experts have agreed that folks will eventually be going back to the movies, but whether they will be going in droves after months of conditioning themselves to believe (rightly) that any close contact with another person could result in death… Eh?
What were so long alternatives to theatergoing are now the sole options. Streaming services are holding up heroically (for obvious reasons) during this pandemic. But those services were going to be releasing their original, binge-able content regardless of what was happening to the world.
Some studios are surrendering, sending their movies straight to VOD instead of delaying (examples: “Trolls World Tour” released on streaming on the same day it was supposed to hit big screens, and the upcoming Kumail Nanjiani comedy “The Lovebirds” switched gears to now be released on Netflix), but most are just pushing them months (or, in the cases of “Furious” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru”, a year) down the line and crossing their fingers.
It’s not just screenings that are in limbo: nearly all current (and preparatory) productions are being stalled until the coast is clear. The next year for movies will be just as complicated as this year. The cost of reigniting interest will clash with the cost of producing films that were supposed to be underway right now.
Many of the movies that we were supposed to be watching here, in 2020, went into production sometime in 2019. It takes weeks or months to shoot a film, and an added chunk of time to edit that film into a releasable state, and depending on what kind of film it is, it needs the strength of festival buzz (or the padding of marketing during entire seasons) to guarantee that all the expensive work wasn’t for naught.
Movies never slowed down prior to the Coronavirus. Not for war, not for 9/11, not even for the Great Depression of the 1930s. These crises solidified them as a necessary art to keep morale up (watch the 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels”). During any global conflict, the concern was if audiences would have the spirit to go to the big screens, and they absolutely did. Now they have no choice but to stay home.
Titans like Disney and Sony are getting kicked between the legs, being forced to push their products so far into the future that they are guaranteed to lose money as a casualty of lost-steam. Masses will want nothing to do with each other until the virus is as vanquished as Sonny Corleone at a toll booth.
The filmmaking stream flows best when it is uninterrupted, and never has it outright ceased in this way. 2021 is going to be crowded with movies from 2020 completed in 2019, and it’s going to be weird. America aside, the global film industry has no clue what to do with itself. All the filmmaking powers across the globe are in the same spot we are. 2020 will go down as the worst year for cinematic output ever.
Optimistically speaking, cinema will eventually find its footing again in the old-familiar dance of predictable releasing. But since we are all shut up inside, it’s going to feel like a long, long time before that happens.