There was a rare moment of bliss in 2020, at least for cinephiles and those seeking new entertainment, on June 12.
That day gave us two new films from titanic directors. Universal Pictures released Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” straight to video on-demand, a trend the studio started back in March; and Netflix released Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.”
New movies are solar systems away from solving the world’s problems, but they allow for a few hours of reprieve and something to look forward to. An Apatow and Lee double-feature would be a big deal under normal circumstances, but given the fact that “Trolls World Tour” had been the most prominent release since the coronavirus pandemic shut down theaters in mid-March, it was a godsend.
In April and May 2019, there were 47 film releases in the U.S. This year during that period, only 20 have come out — and even that number is inflated by the 11 releases from Netflix. The streaming service has surged as at-home entertainment has become king. Of those 47 April-May movies in 2019, just five came from Netflix.
In hindsight, the Lee-Apatow one-two punch already feels bittersweet because it might be the last of its kind this year. Movie theaters, already struggling before this months-long shutdown, are clamoring to get back in business — the two largest U.S. theater chains, AMC and Regal, are reopening in the next two weeks.
As other industries have reopened, and the public’s general complacency continues to mount, COVID-19 cases have spiked across the country. According to Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. recorded 34,700 cases on June 24, the highest count in two months, and states like California, Texas and Arizona recorded single-day records.
Sitting in an enclosed theater for two hours with dozens of people, even if there are social-distancing measures enforced, sounds like a tough (and dangerous) hang. Media research company MoffettNathanson’s analysts are predicting that ticket sales will go down by 52% in 2020, dropping by more than $5.5 billion.
But let’s say people do show up. Families come to the theater at their own risk, buy popcorn, buy soda, buy candy — and the theaters see some semblance of profit to stay afloat through this. There’s another inherent problem: Are there even going to be movies to watch?
The domino effect within the film and television industry because of the coronavirus is very real, and it hasn’t stopped. Studios have a finite amount of completed films in their arsenal, so the new currency is release dates. The last release-date holdout finally snapped: Christopher Nolan’s upcoming blockbuster, “Tenet,” viewed for months as the beacon of hope to reopen theaters, has now been pushed back twice — from July 17 to July 31 to Aug. 12.
Warner Bros. also pushed back “Wonder Woman 1984” a second time, shifting it from Aug. 14 to Oct. 2. That trickle-down effect has hit every major studio, and it keeps snowballing — “Fast and Furious 9” being pushed 11 months to April 2021 swiftly after the shutdown sure looks genius now. This isn’t just a short-term issue either; entries in the Marvel and DC franchises, built upon narrative continuity, are adjusting releases all the way into 2022.
The fixed amount of completed productions and the jockeying for release dates is one thing, but there’s another, more dire, issue at work: current and future production.
A film production involves hundreds of people. Most know the stars of the film, the director, maybe a writer and a producer, but the numbers add up quickly when you add in visual effects, art departments, sound crews, editors, camera operators, extras and so much more. Some of that can be done remotely, but most cannot.
Productions have been shut down for months across television and film, and more than 100,000 entertainment industry workers have lost their jobs in that time, according to the Los Angeles Times. The short-term solution is to look outside of the U.S. to get it done. Iceland, South Korea and the Czech Republic are some of the countries being vetted. Those solutions are obviously limited — it would be a bit jarring for Chris Hemsworth wielding Thor’s hammer in Reykjavik, or Gotham looking strangely like Prague in “The Batman.”
And ultimately, having hundreds of people in close proximity, with social-distancing seemingly impossible, in any country is not ideal and unsafe.
Filmmaking is always innovative, and some of the smartest minds in the industry can certainly figure some of this out, but this task will be their biggest challenge yet. And with movie theaters already trending downward before coronavirus, it’s hard to be optimistic about it improving.
If it does, will the long hiatus for theatergoers becoming accustomed to video on-demand releases make it possible to reconcile that audience? Time will tell — but the longer that time lasts, the less likely it seems.
Warner Strausbaugh is a Colorado Springs resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at email@example.com.