Is Sony’s Slate Change a Sign Studios Are Preparing to Write Off the Summer Box Office?

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Hollywood might not want to send in tentpole blockbusters even if movie theaters reopen

Sony Release Slate
Sony Pictures

Sony’s decision on Monday to change the release dates of seven of their upcoming movies is the first sign that major Hollywood studios may be preparing to write off this summer movie season — even if the coronavirus pandemic subsides enough for movie theaters to reopen in the next few months. Three of Sony’s biggest 2020 tentpoles, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” “Morbius” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” have been moved to the first quarter of 2021, with “Morbius” taking the spot of “Uncharted,” a franchise-launching action film with Tom Holland that had yet to start filming when the pandemic shut down all new productions. In addition, the Tom Hanks WWII film “Greyhound,” which was slated for release in June, is now indefinitely postponed. Such a move reflects what many box office analysts and distribution executives had told TheWrap in the past few weeks would be a likely post-coronavirus strategy: move summer releases into release slots held by films that won’t be ready by Christmas or by next spring. Movie theater chains that have cut salaries and furloughed workers now face the prospect of tough times extending well into July, even if the U.S. and other major markets begin to allow cinemas to reopen. “Morbius” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” were both initially scheduled for release in July, as was Universal’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” All three have been postponed. Even if movie theaters are able to welcome back audiences with reduced capacity in auditoriums by July, there will be little product to lure back moviegoers who might already be wary of returning to crowded spaces — and box office will likely remain low. “It’s going to take many weeks for theaters to recover to business as usual, and these studios can’t afford to put blockbusters that they need to succeed in this kind of environment,” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock said. “There may be some smaller budget genre films that studios may allow to hit theaters in that recovery period, but the turnout and revenue for both those films and the theaters that play them is going to be a fraction of what we would expect for mid-summer or whenever this lockdown ends.” At this point, the highest profile summer films that haven’t been moved yet include Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” (June 19), Paramount’s Tom Cruise tentpole sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” (June 26), and Warner Bros.’ cryptic Christopher Nolan sci-fi film “Tenet” (July 17). Disney and Paramount have yet to make big release slate moves beyond May while Warner has postponed its two big June releases, “Wonder Woman 1984” and “In the Heights” — with the former moving to an August slot in the optimistic hope that the summer box office might be salvaged. It remains to be seen if the other majors will follow Sony’s lead and make deeper cuts to their own summer release plans. Disney and Universal had no comment on any upcoming slate changes; reps for Warner and Paramount did not respond to requests for comment. “I think ‘Top Gun’ is going to be next. Paramount can’t afford to put that film out now that everything has changed so much,” Bock said. “But ‘Tenet’ may stick around if Warner Bros. is hoping that theaters may be open by late summer. They’ve done a good job cornering that part of the calendar in years past and it may pay off to have some big films ready to go in August in case things get better. Again, we just don’t know.” On a more positive note, if more studios continue moving summer releases into the fourth quarter of 2020 or early 2021, this winter could potentially be one of the most lucrative for theaters. And many projects slated for end-of-year release may not be ready in time because production and postproduction has been suspended. “Hopefully as studios move more films to 2021, there’s a bit of cooperation between them instead of intense competition to get the best spots. As amazing as Disney’s 2019 was, the industry does not want a repeat performance. We want all the studios to be successful,” Bock said. “If they don’t cannibalize each other, it’s possible that next winter and 2021 could lead to a big boom period,” he said. “What’s sad is that we don’t know how many movie theaters won’t survive to reach that point.”