Will COVID-19 hurt US movie releases?

The release of many Hollywood movies have been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The release of many Hollywood movies have been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Say goodbye to blockbuster season -- at least for this year.

After would-be summer hits from Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal already vacated their release dates, Sony Pictures announced Monday that its comic book adventure Morbius, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and virtually all of its upcoming tentpoles were being moved into the fall or beyond. It was an acknowledgment that the coronavirus pandemic is not expected to vanish anytime soon -- a grim reality that likely means that movie theatres will remain closed for the near future.

"When Sony pulled the plug on their films, that signalled the end of any hope of a summer movie season," said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. "If magically a vaccine comes out in June, then maybe that won't be the case, but I don't really expect that to happen."

Historically, summer movie season has been the most profitable stretch for the film business. The industry makes roughly 40 per cent of its annual revenues between May and August, a period of time in which studios are likely to debut new installments in their biggest properties. The four-month frame brings in roughly $4 billion each year, according to Comscore.

The public health crisis -- one that is estimated to result in hundreds of thousands of deaths -- is of paramount concern. However, the likely postponement of several major releases will put a further financial strain on an already imperiled entertainment industry.

On paper, this summer looked like a solid one, with the likes of Disney's Black Widow, Universal's Fast 9, and Warner Bros.' Wonder Woman 1984 all slated to open. Each of those films have subsequently been shifted. "Fast 9" opted to move out of 2020 entirely, planting its flag in May 2021, while Wonder Woman 1984 optimistically pushed from June to August, a date that some insiders suspect may be premature.

A few stragglers, such as the Christopher Nolan sci-fi adventure Tenet and Paramount's Top Gun: Maverick have yet to postpone their June or July releases, but it seems unlikely they will hit theatres as scheduled.

For now, Hollywood studios are scrambling to figure out when to debut other major movies that vacated their opening weekends -- a group that includes Warner Bros.' musical In the Heights, Disney's Mulan and Paramount's A Quiet Place 2.

"There are lot of moving parts," said Jim Orr, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "It's not about just dating a movie and we're done. You'll see titles moving around to accommodate all kinds of things -- production delays, financing. We're still trying to figure out what the domestic film landscape will look like. But it's very doable."

Analysts and studio executives note that once life begins to return to normal and people stop self-quarantining in their homes, they may not instantly rush back into crowded public spaces like theatres.

"People are going to err on side of caution," said Eric Handler, an exhibition industry analyst with MKM Partners. "Maybe theatres only fill every other seat at first. It's going to be a gradual ramp-up, but we don't know what the world is going to like like when we start venturing back outside and into our old lives."

Australian Associated Press