A slow vaccine rollout could spark another round of movie delays, further damaging the industry

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's administration had forecast that, between December and January, 70 million vaccines would be administered. As of Monday, only 8.9 million had.
  • Movie theater operators fear that this will lead studios to delay more blockbuster features.
  • Already, Sony's "Morbius" has been moved from March to October.

In this article

Patrons watch a movie at AMC DINE-IN Thoroughbred 20 on August 20, 2020 in Franklin, Tennessee.
Jason Kempin | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

A slower-than-expected rollout of the coronavirus vaccine could have a domino effect on the 2021 movie slate, with possibly devastating effects on the industry.

Movie theater operators and studios had been optimistic heading into the new year that a steady rollout of vaccines to the general public would result in more people heading to cinemas and keep films firmly set in their current release dates.

However, monthly targets set by President Donald Trump's administration are not being hit, which has already forced Sony's "Morbius" to be moved from its March debut to a seemingly greener October. The film had already been displaced twice from its original July 10, 2020, debut because of Covid.

There are fears that other studios will be compelled to follow suit. Currently, January is devoid of new titles, but studios have plans to dole out films starting in February.

"We are concerned about the pace of the vaccine rollout as it does endanger the [first-quarter] release schedule and the return to normalcy, even though movie theaters actually remain one of the safest out-of-home experiences," said Karen Melton, vice president of marketing at Malco Theaters.

Early expectations were that 20 million vaccines would be administered in December and 50 million in January. As of Monday, only 8.9 million have found their way into Americans' arms.

The Trump administration has blamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the slow rollout, saying the guidelines the organization gave of inoculating health-care workers and people in nursing homes first had created a bottleneck in distribution. States, however, have blamed a lack of money, manpower and guidance from the federal government for the poor distribution.

On Tuesday, the federal government announced that it is changing the way it allocates the vaccine. Its new strategy will be based on how quickly states can administer shots and the size of their elderly population. States will have two weeks to prepare for this change.

President-elect Joe Biden's transition team announced last week that his administration will release all doses that had been held in reserve.

"I expect that we'll see a dramatic increase in the vaccination rate," said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush, in an email to CNBC. "If we get 100 million people vaccinated in the first 100 days [which has been Biden's pledge], we'll have enough of a critical mass for theaters to fully reopen by the end of June."

What a box office recovery could look like
What a box office recovery could look like

However, with the number of coronavirus cases still rising, more films could be displaced from the first half of the year, said Eric Handler, managing director of media and entertainment equity research at MKM Partners.

"I think it is inevitable that many films in [the first quarter] and even a good number in [the second quarter] are going to get pushed back," he said.

As a result, Handler forecasts that the first-quarter box office will fall more than 90% from last year. The second quarter is likely to rebound slightly to be down between 50% and 60%, he said.

Already analysts are speculating about which films will be the next to shift. For Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, the newest James Bond flick, "No Time to Die," is a likely candidate.

"It is a golden egg for MGM, a studio that doesn't have the deep slate of a Disney or Universal to bank on," he said. "James Bond is a significant [intellectual property] with global implications and needs to be handled very delicately."

"No Time to Die" has seen several delays. It was first pushed from its November 2019 release when Danny Boyle, who was supposed to write and direct the film, left the project. It bounced between a few dates before landing a release in April 2020. However, the coronavirus pandemic pushed it to November 2020 and then to April 2021.

Robbins also noted that Paramount's "A Quiet Place II," a sequel to the hit horror-thriller from director John Krasinski, as well as Disney's "Black Widow," its first theatrical Marvel film release since 2019, are also on that list.

The second "Quiet Place" was originally set for release in March 2020, but was pushed to September of that year due to the pandemic. It was moved again to April 2021. Similarly, "Black Widow" jumped to November 2020 from its original May date and then was postponed again to May 2021.

"With a new government administration incoming, much of Hollywood is probably looking to see if the vaccine delays up to this point can be mostly corrected during late winter and early spring," Robbins said. "That may yet play a deciding factor in whether or not summer movie season is targeted to begin in early May, or perhaps is pushed back to the June-July-August corridor."

Studios have options for these releases beyond simply delaying them. Warner Bros. has already made its entire 2021 slate day-and-date, which means all its movies will arrive in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day. Disney, too, plans to release "Raya and the Last Dragon" in theaters and for $30 on Disney+ on March 5.

"With the current state of the union, I'd say there's a 95% chance 'Black Widow' follows in the footsteps of 'Mulan' and 'Raya,'" said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations.

"Hopefully, next fall will be a more normalized environment for movies to return full tilt to theaters," he said. "Until then, it's the wild Wild West."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.