Inside Studios’ Scramble to Set Movie Release Dates Mid-Pandemic: ‘There Are No Rules’

“Every day is just us reacting,” one studio marketing head says

“There are no rules,” says one studio marketing head about the current Wild West atmosphere around releasing multimillion-dollar pieces of entertainment into movie theaters that have been shuttered for months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Late last week, Christopher Nolan’s $200 million spy flick “Tenet” — previously anointed as the tentpole film to reignite the theatrical business — was pushed back two weeks to July 31, from its July 17 benchmark. That move sent an apparent ripple effect through the industry, forcing a deluge of schedule changes, including Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” being bumped to October 2 from August 14.

As one major studio’s marketing head told TheWrap, “Every day is just us reacting.” The individual said that abiding by specific release dates and respecting the release dates of other films is gone.

In Hollywood B.C. (before coronavirus), upending a film’s scheduled release would not only be costly, but also either a sign of concerns with the film itself or a reason to lose faith in the studio: During a Credit Suisse conference on Wednesday, Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi said Warner Bros.’ decision had to do with a marketing opportunity.

When it comes to distribution and shifting dates in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by an ongoing  pandemic, so much remains uncertain for studios and their exhibition partners. “It’s turned into a cinematic ballet,” Comscore media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “You’re dancing with someone, and your partner moves, you have to move with them.”

The majority of cinema chains have already made clear their plans to begin reopening theaters later this month and into July. Zoradi and his exhibitor brethren have harped on the importance of “Tenet” to rejuvenate a moviegoing business that has sat dormant for more than three months. That responsibility now falls to Disney’s “Mulan,” which is set to hit theaters July 24 — unless it too decides the risk of being first is just not worth it.

For “Mulan,” however, that might not be as easy a decision. The live-action adaptation was supposed to open in theaters on March 27, mere weeks after theaters across the country were forced to turn out the lights indefinitely. “Films like ‘Mulan’ and ‘A Quiet Place’ (a Paramount film that was scheduled to open March 20) are in very different positions from a lot of these other films,” the marketing executive said. “They were very close to opening, so they’ve likely spent all of their marketing dollars.”


“Tenet” (Warner Bros.)

The executive’s studio is looking at an expedited 10-day to two-week marketing campaign when they decide they’e ready to release a film back into the market. And those marketing budgets look vastly different considering they aren’t following the same rollout.

“Tenet,” which hadn’t even really begun its campaign when the pandemic struck, can bounce around to find the best date without wasting money, or reinvesting its marketing budget. But for “Mulan,” a $200 million film that had gone through a typical campaign already, there is so much more money on the line. If the film were to have to push two weeks or so there probably wouldn’t be much of a problem, but if months have to be considered then the studio might have to pour more money into marketing. In addition, there is a concern about the uncertainty around reopening, how audiences will behave and whether municipalities will allow theaters to continue to open as evidence grows about a potential second wave of infections.

The New York Times recently reported that some states that have begun to open back up in attempts to jumpstart their economies have seen record numbers of coronavirus cases.

All of this shuffling from the uncertainty will take a financial toll on studio budgets. “Look at ‘Fast and the Furious,’ they bought a Super Bowl spot and then had to move a whole year. They’re probably going to have to spend more for additional marketing now,” the marketing executive said.

Disney also bought a Super Bowl spot for its final “Mulan” trailer. According to AdAge, a 30-second commercial slot for the 2020 Super Bowl broadcast cost about $5.6 million.

Where “Mulan” does have an upper hand, Dergarabedian said, is that most everyone knows about “Mulan.”

“The awareness is high for a lot of these films, and that really eases the burden on marketing. It’s not like all the marketing money that was spent before was spent in vain,” he said. “Really, the key is just let the audience know what the final release date is… everybody already knows about ‘Mulan.'”

For the majority of the films studios have yet to distribute, shuffling them around is the only thing that makes sense. The same day that Warner Bros. moved “Tenet” and “Wonder Woman 1984” — also impacting the releases of “The Matrix” sequel, Anne Hathaway’s “The Witches,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” and “Tom & Jerry” — Disney pushed Peter Jackson’s anticipated documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” to August 2021, from its September 2020 date, and relegated its live-action and CGI mixed film “The One and Only Ivan” to the Disney+ streaming service. The studio also moved “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” based on the U.K. musical about a 16-year-old who overcomes prejudice to become a drag queen, to January 2021, from October 2020.

Universal (now infamously) all but forwent a theatrical release for its animated sequel “Trolls World Tour.” Releasing films to streaming platforms via premium video on demand, however, isn’t always a viable option, especially for bigger-budgeted releases. And Universal could be in a tough spot if the film doesn’t perform well overseas, according to the marketing rep who spoke with TheWrap.

“The (premium video on demand) stuff hasn’t really been a success for anyone. ‘Trolls’ spent roughly $50 million on marketing and then made, what, $100 million,” the executive said.

Though “Mulan” is tasked as the first big blockbuster responsible for enticing audiences back to theaters, it won’t be the first new film to grace screens post shutdown. Solstice Studios is releasing a new Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged” on July 10, which the studio moved back from its original July 1 release date, and Sony is releasing a new rom-com “The Broken Hearts Gallery” on July 10.

As it stands now, dates are all set, but nothing is for certain. The studio marketing executive said they are tracking as much data on reopenings as they can, getting new, slightly better information every day, but that until those first films hit theaters they won’t have a clear idea of what the landscape will look like.

“We’re not going to open if the movies before us don’t perform. But we have no crystal ball and no real way of even estimating what these films will do,” the executive said. “We’re just trying to figure out ways to give us the time we need. We’re mining the data and trying to get a better sense of consumer behaviors. But the truth of the matter is, that’s just data. We won’t know what’s what until we’re able to see the real thing.”

Trey Williams

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • [email protected] • Twitter: @trey3williams


The news
you need now,
more than ever.

See Subscription Options
Try PRO today