We’ve reached mid-August 2020, and yet another weekend where all the movie theaters (at least around me here in Washington, D.C.) are closed due to COVID-19.
At this point, the pile of major blockbuster films that have failed to open stretches back six months, from Disney’s “Mulan,” originally scheduled for March 27, to this weekend’s once-again-delayed superhero film “Wonder Woman 1984.” With studios still closed, we could see even more movies pushed or released straight to video on demand. Hollywood’s pre-eminence on the world stage is eroding, fast, as the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis continues to ripple through society.
Ironically, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic also had a big impact on Hollywood, as independent theater owners went under and were bought out by the studios. The studios in turn used that consolidation of control of both content and the means of distribution and built the modern Hollywood studio system. Now the same thing is happening all over again.
This year’s blockbusterless summer is the first one since America more or less invented the concept in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” But from the beginning, movies have been an American-led phenomenon. Even before World War II truly established this country as a superpower, American films extolled the American dream across the globe. Much like England’s exporting of Shakespeare and its great writers created a facade of cultural dominance that hid the horrors of colonialism, America was already trying to take over the world culturally before nuclear weapons led to the Pax Americana.
Blockbusters — superhero films, action-adventure tales and Disneyesque fairy tales — have always been a big part of Hollywood’s recipe for domination. But as the global movie-going population grows, production studios are even more invested in international, rather than domestic, appeal. “Mulan,” for instance, was not just expected to be one of Disney’s biggest films of 2020 in the U.S., but a hit that would also play well in China, one of the last market holdouts against our country’s cultural hegemony.
Even so, the goal is always to open in America first. That is the promise Hollywood makes to its oldest fans: Americans will get to see the movies before the rest of the world. But the longer this pandemic continues, the more tempting it is to aim for the open theaters overseas. Mind you, Warner Bros. still wants “WW84” to have a big splash in America; its “worldwide” (read: American-centric) debut has been pushed back to the beginning of October. (This is itself an aspirational date right now, looking at America’s thousands of coronavirus deaths per day.) But “Tenet,” another film by Warner, opens in late August, only a couple of weeks from now — everywhere but here.
“Tenet” was supposed to be Warner’s ace in the hole for 2020, the latest film by auteur Christopher Nolan, a twisty-turny, spoiler-laden thriller, the type of cinematic eye candy directors like to tell you should ideally be watched in ridiculously specific theatrical conditions. Nolan had been pressing Warner to release his film in the U.S. as soon as possible, with rumors swirling he wished it to be “the movie that reopened America.” But as America fails to reopen, it seems it will instead be the blockbuster that reopens everywhere else.
For those who care about such things, it’s possible some United States-based Nolan fans will find pirate versions and watch while trapped at home. It’s not a producer's (or director’s) ideal conditions, but desperate times call for desperate measures. But such pirates are fighting a losing tide.
The truth is, unless the film is out on premium video on demand or an easy-to-use streamer, the majority of the public will not see the film ahead of the rest of the world. It will be a rare moment.
The change this is bringing to the most American of institutions cannot be adequately measured yet. Disney is attempting to split the baby, so to speak, by moving “Mulan” to its streaming service for the U.S. debut, at an extra (super-inflated) price, so it can go ahead and open the film everywhere else without America losing face. But it’s a risky maneuver, and one Warner is far less likely to pull off with its own HBO Max, which only has a fraction of Disney’s subscriber base.
It’s yet another sign of how much the world is shifting all around us. No longer the world’s crisis counselors, American leaders are watching as everyone else eats their lunch — or, in this case, popcorn.
No wonder production studios pushed for the end to the Paramount decree, which finally died this month. The 1948 Supreme Court ruling was the only thing preventing a return to the post-pandemic years of the 1920s, when a full vertical integration of content, actor, studio and theater created the world-dominating industry the first time.
Once again, none of this is ideal, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And after this blockbusterless summer, American production studios are increasingly desperate.