The pandemic causing delay after delay at the movies

Cairns on Cinema

John Cairns

Welcome to another Cairns on Cinema column for November. Normally, November marks the start of the traditional end-of-the-year blockbuster season, when the cinemas take advantage of the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas holiday period and do roaring business.

But unfortunately, this is 2020, and COVID-19 is still on the loose. In fact, it’s worse than ever in Canada as a number of parts of the country — Manitoba and southern Ontario in particular — are in lockdown. 

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Under the latest round of restrictions in Ontario, which restricted movie audiences to 50 people maximum, Cineplex announced last week that a number of its cinemas there weren’t reopening. In Manitoba, the chains didn’t have any choice — the province ordered all of them to shut down under its sweeping Code Red restrictions.

Right this country, cinemas are either closed or barely open. The ones that are open are suffering from the combined weight of COVID-19 attendance and social distancing restrictions as well as the lack of new blockbusters from Hollywood. This shortage of product combined with the restrictions is spooking customers and keeping them home in droves.

It’s not for lack of trying in Hollywood. They’ve attempted to put out some new releases this fall into the cinemas, but those have landed with a thud.

Below, take a look at the top five domestic movie grosses in North America since the cinemas “re-opened” in August (numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo as of last week):

Tenet $55.1 milllion Warner Bros.

The New Mutants $23.6 million 20th Century studios

Unhinged $20.7 million Solstice Studios

The War with Grandpa $13.6 million 101 Studios

Honest Thief $11.3 million Open Road Films

My first reaction when I looked at these numbers was to say “this is a pretty typical opening weekend.”

Except — these numbers cover the entire period August to November! That tells you all you need to know — it has taken three or four months for all these top movies to earn what used to be the typical haul for an entire weekend!

The numbers for Tenet were particularly disappointing when it came out. This was meant to be the movie that was going to lead the “re-opening of the cinemas” after the pandemic, but its wide release on Labour Day weekend brought in a miserable haul of about $20 million.

Those numbers frightened Hollywood and gave the studios cold feet about releasing any blockbusters this fall. Since then the dominoes have started to fall, with news of one release after another getting postponed again for the umpteenth time.

In retrospect, though, you have to look at Tenet’s numbers and say “what did you expect?” Cinemas may have been open again, but still had a ton of restrictions imposed and customers still had cold feet. Given the whole climate, I’d say a domestic haul of $55 million for Tenet is pretty good.

As I said, Hollywood’s plans to send their blockbusters back to the cinemas this fall went up in smoke, and there have been major implications for the cinema chains.

The announcement came down that the big new James Bond release No Time to Die, marking the finale for Daniel Craig in the Bond role, had delayed its release yet again to April 2, 2021. Needless to say, the chains have not taken this news well. They were counting on Bond to give them a much-needed shot in the arm financially in November, but with the pandemic still rampant you cannot blame the distributors for thinking about the bottom line. 

This news came on the heels of word that releases were being pushed back yet again for Wonder Woman 1984 (to Dec. 25) and Black Widow (to May 7, 2021). Given how things are going, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Wonder Woman 1984 gets pushed back yet again. (Update: it was just announced their Dec. 25 release date is still on, but Warner Bros. are also releasing the movie directly to HBO Max.)

The main fallout to all this bad news came when the Cineworld chain announced it would temporarily close all its UK locations as well as its “Regal” cinema chain in the USA. The bottom line is: if you don’t have the big-draw movies, you can’t expect the customers to show up.

You also certainly can’t expect customers to show up if cinemas keep on having to close down due to pandemic restrictions in hard-hit states and provinces. This latest spike in COVID-19 numbers has been positively depressing. Of course, for Bond fans they received a double whammy this month, as they have to also process the news of the death of Sean Connery.

Anyway, this is where we are as of mid-November, in a holding pattern as usual. Basically, we’re seeing a number of limited releases and a scant few wide releases, and the ones that are theatrical wide releases aren’t exactly expected to reach that big of an audience.

The movies that seem to be making the biggest splash right now are ones that are being released to SVOD — “streaming video on demand”. Among those is the notorious Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

It was released on Prime Video Oct. 23, and according to Amazon has reached tens of millions of viewers. It ranks second to Hamilton for SVOD releases this year.

I feel compelled to end this depressing column on a good note, for a change, so here’s something to feel good about: the vaccine is coming. When the big news came from Pfizer that their COVID-19 vaccine candidate had an efficacy of 90 percent, shares for AMC, Cinemark, Marcus Theatres and IMAX all went way up. And then Moderna came out with their good news about their vaccine.

Hope is on the way, and not a moment too soon!

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