Hollywood sets up for non-US debuts by summer blockbusters

Hollywood is preparing to tear up its playbook for releasing billion-dollar blockbusters, as the pandemic forces big movie studios such as Disney and Warner Bros to lean more heavily on cinemas outside the US. 

After repeatedly postponing the release of Tenet, a $200m-budget thriller directed by Christopher Nolan that would have been the first big post-lockdown release, Warner Bros is now privately committing to a late-August debut in markets that are ready, according to people familiar with the matter.

Meanwhile, Disney on Thursday pulled its release date for Mulan, which was slated for August 21, dealing another blow to cinema operators who are banking on the movie to help revive attendance.

But the company said it had “paused” its plans in order to explore how to “most effectively bring this film to audiences around the world”, hinting at potentially using new approaches to roll out the film in different jurisdictions.

The fates of Tenet and Mulan underline how a gulf between infection rates in the US and the rest of the world is forcing Hollywood studios to radically rethink their strategies. 

Industry executives said it may mean the two biggest Hollywood movies of the summer might first air in cinemas outside America, after more than a decade in which studios have insisted on a dramatic simultaneous global release for blockbusters.

“There’s been a change in thinking at the studios,” said Rich Gelfond, chief executive of the cinema group Imax. “If you had asked them a month ago, they would have said that unless California and New York are both open, there won’t be blockbuster releases.

“But many of the studios have come to the conclusion there’s not going to be a perfect world . . . they will do the best they can and open where they can.”

Executives anticipate that, post-Covid, big blockbusters will still be shown in cinemas, while mid-budget movies will probably move to streaming. A movie with a budget above $100m-$150m would still need a theatrical release, said the chief executive of a big cinema group. 

The recent success of Peninsula, a Korean-language film that debuted in South Korea on July 15 and made more than $20m in the box office, caught the attention of executives in Los Angeles. 

Some executives have also been following the strong performance of the Oscar-winning Little Women in Denmark, where it happened to be released after lockdown, almost half a year after it was rolled out in the rest of the world.

Tim Richards, the chief executive of Vue International cinema chain, said it showed the “incredible pent-up demand” for new films. “The consensus in the industry is that it did pre-Covid numbers,” he said. “Right now in Denmark we are tracking at around 90 per cent of the three-year pre-Covid average.”

Until the digitisation of cinema projection in the mid-2000s, Hollywood would typically release big movies in the US before the rest of the world. Studios moved to a single global release date to reduce the danger of piracy and maximise marketing impact — issues that will re-emerge with a more gradual release schedule.

“The studios’ overwhelming preference is global day-and-date release . . . but with the US being slightly behind, we are hoping that the studios recognise we are ready to go [internationally], and there is an audience desperate to see their movies,” said Mr Richards.

“What we are hoping is that they will consider differential release dates in different countries and possibly different US states, depending on who is open. It makes a lot of sense for the studios to get their movies on our screens.” 

Mooky Greidinger, chief executive of Cineworld, America’s second-largest cinema operator, said: “I believe the world will become a normal place again. If it’s going to take another 2 or 3 weeks, that is really not so much the point.”