Commentary: ‘Black Widow,’ ‘West Side Story’ postponed again, this time to 2021. Theaters are stuck and closing again

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Like so much else in 2020 that doesn’t involve a couch and a remote, American moviegoing has become a hotly debated matter of risk and reward in a seriously flattened segment of the escapism economy.

The time-inversion Christopher Nolan thriller “Tenet,” which opened in the U.S. Sept. 3, was supposed to be the cavalry riding, in reverse, to the rescue.

It didn’t work out that way.

After four strained weeks and few other movies on offer, “Tenet” has made $36 million in the U.S. and Canada. It has pulled in a pandemically respectable $220 million in other countries — the countries that have managed this crisis more aggressively, effectively and humanely than we have.

On Wednesday, more grim news. Disney announced its latest round of release delays for several crucial titles, some to late 2021. That’s a long way from now.

And now, it’s a time of serious financial reckoning for multiplex owners as well as neighborhood theaters looking to stay alive and vital, at a time when many are wondering if we’ll ever get former moviegoing audiences out of moviestaying mode, even with the 2021 prospect of an effective vaccine.

On Wednesday, the latest anvils fell. Variety reported Disney’s postponement of the Marvel franchise action vehicle “Black Widow” from Nov. 6 to May 7, 2021. Another Disney title, director Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” moved from Dec. 25 (Merry Christmas!) to Dec. 10, 2021 (and Happy Wait-a-Year to you).

Other films are staying put, or for a few moving their release dates to an earlier slot, as the entire industry crosses its fingers. Disney/Pixar’s animated “Soul” remains in its currently scheduled Nov. 20 position. That’s the same date as the new James Bond film “No Time to Die,” at least as it now stands.

The Agatha Christie adaptation, “Death on the Nile,” is pushing its Oct. 23 release plans to Dec. 18, the same day “Dune” is scheduled, still, to give pandemic blockbustering a try. “Wonder Woman 1984” remains committed to its most recent target date: Dec. 25.

“If ‘Soul’ stays in October, if Bond stays in November, then we’re solid,” says Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson, who plans on reopening his Illinois and Wisconsin theaters back up Nov. 20. “If they don’t, we move on to December.”

Johnson sees “some positive news here. Disney, even with all their shifting of dates, did not move one thing to Disney+. I think their Disney+ experiment (most recently with “Mulan” migrating from a theatrical release to streaming, in North America) was just that — an experiment.” Johnson says he’s not spooked by “things moving around, because that means (the studios) are still committed to theatrical releases.”

There’s this, too, as one New York-based film executive put it to me this week: “In the rest of the world, people are going to the movies.”

But how many months can the largest chains, including AMC Theatres and Regal and Cinemark, get by with so few new movies on America’s 40,449 indoor screens?

In Chicago, Music Box Theatre general manager Ryan Oestreich represents two of those screens. The Music Box wouldn’t be screening “Soul,” or “No Time to Die,” in any case, pandemic or no. Its programming relies on specialty, art house, foreign and independent films, along with reissued classics. The staff is devoted to the preservation and tradition of all existing film formats.

The theater does, however, do business with several of the major Hollywood distributors, including Warner Brothers. A 70 millimeter print of “Tenet” continues its run in the Music Box’s 750-seat auditorium, currently capped at a spacious (or lonely, depending on your outlook) 50-seat capacity due to the state’s coronavirus restrictions.

“We’re all in a pretty dire position together,” Oestreich says of the largest multiplex chains as well as the independent exhibitors. “The majority of us reopened, and said we can do this, we can do it safely, and the studios and distributors will be giving us enough product to eke it out until a better day comes.”

This week’s release postponements portend a tough road ahead. “We’re supposed to be partners in this game,” Oestreich says, in a frustrated tone. He feels the studios are looking out for number one, while throwing tiny fistfuls of number two at the nation’s movie houses.

“Right now,” he says, “it feels like: See ya, movie theaters! You’re on your own! We’ll see you sometime in 2021. Hope you’re still there!”

With America’s two largest movie theater markets, Los Angeles and New York, still closed for business, that’s roughly 30% of a given movie’s potential business out of the picture.

What’s happening now, Oestreich says, reminds him of what happened a decade ago when the movie studios sped up and completed the conversion from film projection to digital. The studios couldn’t resist the financial advantage; for a 2011 Tribune story, I talked to Digital Cinema Corporation CEO Chris McGurk, who told me a studio might spent an average of $1,200-$1,300 to strike a single 35 millimeter film print, plus shipping costs. A “digital cinema package” ran about $100.

Theater owners who wanted to stay in business had to convert to digital or die. The studios cut a deal with the major multiplex owners to reimburse much of the cost of digital projection over a 10-year period. But 10 years is a long time.

What’s happening now, Oestreich says, feels like the forced digital conversion of 2008-2012, only worse. Theaters are stuck. They’re waiting for the studios to do what Warner Brothers did with “Tenet” a month ago: throw the dice. And see if U.S. audiences show some real, mask-wearing, moviegoing interest while America flails its way through the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the same day Disney reshuffled its release deck, a brief, bittersweet email made the rounds in Chicago. One of several independently owned neighborhood theaters, the Logan Theatre on the northwest side, announced its reclosing date, Sept. 24.

“We’re just not getting the attendance we need to keep the doors open,” says marketing and events director Jennifer Zacarias, who has worked at the Logan since 2012. The theater closed down March 16. It reopened, optimistically, Aug. 28, lured by the promise of “Tenet.”

They gave it four weeks.

“We plan on being back,” Zacarias says, “when we get enough new movies to sustain an audience. And when we get to a better place with this pandemic, so that increased capacity levels allow us to bring more people in.”

For now, closing down a second time was the only option, she says. “We have a staff to maintain, and all the other hard costs. Keep digging that hole, and eventually … “ A pause, and then: “Eventually, you won’t be able to get out of it.”


(Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.)


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