The Impact of COVID on the Movie Industry

Benjaminn Bomzer

What a difference a year makes. In 2019, the highest grossing movie (Avengers: Endgame) made almost 3 billion dollars. In 2020, the highest grossing movie (The Eight Hundred) made just over 450 million dollars. Last year, 2019, was a gigantic year for the film industry. The total worldwide box office gross was a bit over $11 billion, with one of the movies that came out that year becoming the highest grossing film of all time. This year, by comparison, has resulted in companies losing billions of dollars, shuttered and closed theaters, and the still delayed release of several blockbusters. While 2020 was predicted to start off much slower than 2019, there was still a lot of excitement for a bunch of films coming out later this year [whether they be franchise films, superhero movies, standalones, etc ] that everyone was still excited for.

 But, during March of 2020, the threat of Covid-19 began to spread around the world, culminating in the complete lockdown of communities. This drastically impacted the movie industry because theaters were also shut down. With no theaters remaining open to show their films, studios were forced to move all of their movies to later dates. Throughout the duration of phase 1 of the lockdown [March to June], theaters remained closed, which resulted in a lot of money being lost for the spring season. With theaters being closed and no new movies being released, audiences began to return to outdoor drive-ins to watch older classics like Jaws and Harry Potter.  When businesses began to gradually start to reopen during June, movie theaters began to start testing the waters and see how willing people would be to return. They also began to show older films that were popular to see how many people would turn up. While these movies only made around a million dollars [sometimes even less], they were still a start to get audiences back. But, as the months went on, studios lost more and more money since none of their new films were being released.

 Finally, in August, Warner Brothers decided to take a risk. One of the most anticipated films of the year was an action movie called Tenet. It was directed by Christopher Nolan, who’s known to make experimental action blockbusters like Inception. Tenet had only moved its release date one month [from mid July to late August], and many people were curious. Would this bring audiences back to theaters, or would only a small group of people come to watch it? When the movie finally came out in late August, the latter proved to be correct. So far, the movie has made a bit over 300 million dollars worldwide. This might sound great, until it’s taken into account that Tenet’s budget was over 200 million dollars and the studio spent a bunch of money on marketing and promoting the film. So, Tenet actually lost money at the box office. With Tenet failing to make money at the box office, studios were forced to look elsewhere to find a way to release their projects. Over the past year, Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, has amassed 50 million subscribers. After months of not releasing any of their new movies and Tenet’s underwhelming box office performance, Disney came up with a new strategy. They would release one of their biggest films of the year, Mulan [a live action remake based on the 1998 classic] on their streaming service, with a price tag of $30 in early September. Released to mixed reviews and political controversy, the film has only made about 66 million dollars so far. Similar to Tenet, Mulan also had a budget of 200 million dollars. So, the streaming option didn’t work out either. 

A short time later, studios began to move their release dates even further back [including No Time To Die from Thanksgiving to April of 2021, and Dune moving from December to October 2021]. Because of the box office flops of both Tenet and Mulan, it seems that studios are now afraid to release their new and expensive films during the pandemic because of the lackluster response that audiences give them. With no new films coming out, this begs the question: what will happen to movie theaters, and the industry as a whole, going forward? The 2021 Oscars have already been moved two months, [from February to April] and many people are speculating that the ceremony will be cancelled for that year altogether. 

Recently, Regal, a popular theater chain, announced that it will be temporarily closing over 500 of its US theaters. The CEO of Cineworld, Mooky Greidinger, said that it was “simply impossible to continue operations” with no new films being released. So, the future of movie theaters is still very much in question. Going to see a movie with a crowd on a huge screen is a very special experience, and one that millions of people enjoy. But, will they get the chance to continue doing that in the coming months? If there’s one thing that we’ve learned this year, it’s that nothing is for sure.