How Will Movie Theaters Survive Into 2021? Our 4 Burning Questions (And Possible Answers)

The fall/winter movie season has just effectively been torpedoed. Today, Disney announced that their big winter 2020 titles Black Widow and West Side Story have been pushed to 2021, while Death on the Nile has moved from October to December 2020. While there are still movies holding onto to their upcoming 2020 dates – No Time to Die from MGM, Wonder Woman 1984 and Dune from Warner Bros. – it sure seems like those release dates will be pushed any day now. Which asks a big question: how do movie theaters survive?

Big 2020 Fall/Winter Releases – Will They Hold?

As of now – now being September 23, 2020 – here are the big films still clinging to their 2020 release dates:

  • No Time to DieNovember 20, 2020.
  • SoulNovember 20, 2020.
  • The Croods: A New Age – November 25, 2020.
  • Free Guy – December 11, 2020.
  • Coming 2 AmericaDecember 18, 2020.
  • Dune December 18, 2020.
  • Death on the NileDecember 18, 2020.
  • Wonder Woman 1984 – December 25, 2020.
  • ConnectedTBA 2020.
  • Again, these are the big movies. There are other, smaller films also still set up for this year. But what of these big films? After Tenet underperformed at the box office, studios immediately grew warry about releasing large-scale productions. Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Tony Vinciquerra even went on record and said: "What we won't do is make the mistake of putting a very, very expensive $200 million movie out in the market unless we're sure that theaters are open and operating at significant capacity."

    So will these dates hold? All of them have already been shuffled around a bit. It's possible that No Time to Die holds onto November, as that film will likely have a big overseas audience, and MGM might be counting on that to help with box office. Meanwhile, Disney announced a slew of release date shuffles today, but kept Soul in place. Why? Well, there have been rumblings that Soul might go directly to Disney+, a la Mulan, and that's starting to seem more and more likely.

    Coming 2 America has had absolutely zero marketing so far, and there have been rumors that the movie would end up being sold to Netflix. If so, that's another big release biting the dust. And what of Dune and Wonder Woman 1984? They're both scheduled for late in the year, which makes their push into 2021 all the more plausible. The same goes for Death on the Nile.

    What About Drive-Ins?

    When this pandemic started playing hell with theatrical releases, there was a pretty good solution: drive-ins. And I'm not just talking existing drive-ins, either. I thought it seemed like a no-brainer for theaters to transform their parking lots into make-shift drive-in theaters and show new movies that way. Some theaters have tried this, but only with older films. And while some new films have found their way to drive-ins, studios remain wary of them. There was even a story going around that Warner Bros. did not want to show Tenet in drive-in theaters in markets where indoor theaters remained closed. This sounds pretty damn foolish.

    On the flip side, an argument can be made that make-shift drive-ins in theater parking lots wouldn't have room for multiple screens. Therefore there would only be limited showtimes, which would in turn hurt box office. But to that I say: something is better than nothing. But studios may not agree.

    What Do Theaters Do Now?

    The only "big" release on the schedule for October was the animated movie Connected. But a report over the weekend revealed that Sony was delaying that date, but still hoping to open the film sometime in 2020.  The year has shown that studios are far more likely to drop animated, family-friendly films to streaming – like Trolls World Tour and Onward. Could Connected be next? Even if it's not, October remains a theatrical wasteland.

    With Black Widow now pushed to 2021, 2020 is the first year there haven't been any Marvel Cinematic Universe films in theaters since 2009. And whatever you think of the MCU – I can take it or leave it myself – they always make money for theaters. As a result of all this change, theaters are now facing a tough choice. Do they shut down again? Or do they keep showing older films along with smaller new productions and hope that an audience continues to come? If audiences couldn't be enticed to come out to see a big new movie like Tenet, why would they risk their lives even further to watch something they can get at home?

    Another option would be for studios and theaters to strike up a plan for virtual screenings – you buy a ticket for a movie via a theater's website and watch that film, digitally, on the same site. This seems like the best possible option at the moment, but...studios seem skeptical.

    How Do Theaters Survive Into 2021?

    This is the big question. To get an answer, we reached out to Patrick Corcoran, the vice president and chief communications officer of NATO, the National Association of Theatre Owners. He told /Film:

    "We need big movies...We'd hoped that Disney would hold on, but studios have to make their decisions based on their marketing spend and their marketing plan. If they aren't certain that theaters will be open, they're going to delay. We're gratified that they're moving and not going to Disney+. That's kind of an important statement. But until we get some of that certainty, we may be seeing theaters close back down again because it's really tough, if you don't have new movies coming in, to keep the lights on. To keep paying people. You lose money being closed, but you may end up losing more money if you can't get audiences in and you're open."

    Corcoran continued: "If something doesn't happen soon, you're probably going to see theaters close down again until we have those markets [New York and Los Angeles] open and the studios ready to release films. We've still got late November and December that still have a fairly good footprint of titles, but it's tough to get there."

    But again: how much longer can theaters hold on? "Some theaters have lines of credit that they can tap and keep going until they have new movies," Corcoran said. "Some do not. Some may close and then that may be permanent for some, which means they'll either get bought by somebody else or they'll stay closed. We don't really know because it's such an individual company issue. But there's a lot of distress, a lot of worry for that. There are so many variables right now, it's hard to say what a worst or best case scenario is."

    As Corcoran sees it, theater owners can "either hold off and risk losing a lot of theaters, or get out there now and get what you can." And adds: "The waiting is not good for studios or theaters. At a certain point, we need those movies."

    With additional reporting from Ben Pearson.