Disney's confidence in movie theaters' ability to recover in 2020 is waning. On Wednesday, the company pushed back a number of its theatrical releases including Marvel blockbuster "Black Widow."
The decision isn't too surprising considering how lackluster ticket sales have been at domestic cinemas since the industry attempted a large-scale reopening in late August. Still, the move is a huge blow to theater operators who were relying on big budget features to coax moviegoers back to auditoriums.
Already, "Wonder Woman 1984" was displaced from its October release date, leaving a more than month's long gap between major Hollywood releases. Without "Black Widow," the next big feature won't arrive until late November when MGM's "No Time to Die" and Disney's Pixar film "Soul" are slated for release.
"Tentpoles drive the box office. Always have," Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said. "So, while there's an opportunity for smaller distributors to get in on the big screen action, it's doubtful theaters can survive on small, genre-driven films alone."
Right now, audiences aren't clamoring to return to cinemas. According to a survey in mid-August conducted by Morning Consult, a global data intelligence company, only around 22% of consumers feel comfortable returning to theaters — even with big blockbuster titles slated.
New Covid-19 cases are rising by a weekly average of 5% or more in 29 states and Washington, D.C., according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Public health officials have said it is easier for the virus, which is spread mainly through respiratory droplets, to be transmitted in indoor spaces where air doesn't circulate as much.
Major movie theaters began to reopen in late August with "Unhinged" being the first new movie to play in these cinemas. From Aug. 21, when that Solstice Studios film debuted, through Sunday, the North American box office has garnered $108 million in ticket sales.
That number pales in comparison to what a typical weekend tally looked like for the domestic box office in 2019. During the weekend of Sept. 20 to Sept. 22, 2019, the U.S. and Canadian box offices sold more than $125 million in tickets.
Warner Bros. "Tenet" was expected to drive people back to cinemas, but failed to spark a resurgence at the box office. The Christopher Nolan film garnered less than $10 million during its opening weekend and $36.1 million total since opening Sept. 4. For comparison, the film has thrived internationally, tallying $214 million since its debuting there in August.
It doesn't help that theaters in major metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles, where ticket prices are typically much higher, remain closed.
"Not the news movie theaters need at this point, but content wears the crown and the leaders of the box office world have spoken," Bock said.
The movement of "Black Widow" impacts Disney's entire slate of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and TV shows. "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" has been pushed to July 9, 2021 and "Eternals" has been shifted to a Nov. 5, 2021 release date.
While a trailer for "Wandavision" has debuted during the Emmys broadcast, there is no set release date for the show on Disney+. Additionally, "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," which was expected on the streaming service in August, but hit production issues during the coronavirus pandemic, also doesn't have a debut date.
"2021 has become a cinematic waiting room, of sorts, where a cadre of high profile movies have gone in order to wait for movie theaters to return to full operation to offer the prestige, exclusivity and box office revenue that only they can provide," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said. "No question this is a tough one for an industry that has had more than its share of challenges this year due to the pandemic."
Disney also pushed the release of "West Side Story," a musical adaptation of the famous musical directed by Steven Spielberg, to Dec. 2021 from Dec. 18, 2020, as well as Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile" to Dec. 18, 2020 from Oct. 23, 2020.
"Exhibition's long-term concerns can be somewhat assuaged as Disney is again signaling their commitment to theatrical releases by pushing their Marvel franchise and other titles further down the slate, but this move unquestionably extends the global box office recovery phase further into 2021," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, said.
Disney's new release schedule: