The moves come three days after Warner Bros. said it would wait at least a few more weeks to release its Christopher Nolan film “Tenet.” And they come just hours after AMC, the country’s largest theater chain, said it would postpone its planned reopening to mid-August to be closer to the “Tenet” and “Mulan” releases. But unless Warner Bros. decides to push “Tenet” ahead on Labor Day weekend, as some say it could, the delays Thursday assure that movie theaters will have little reason to reopen until late September or October at the earliest, when another crop of movies is set to arrive.
Originally scheduled for late March, “Mulan” was one of the first major pictures postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it has served as a bellwether of the Hollywood uncertainty that followed. After several delays, the film landed in late August, where the prospect of a summer release provided at least some reassurance that the industry would not lose two full moviegoing periods because of the virus.
But surges in states including Texas, Florida and California have made such a release increasingly impractical. Disney executives have been closely eyeing theater closures in Beijing due to outbreaks there. With Chinese stars and locations, “Mulan” is expected to generate a lot of its box office in the country, and China this week began to reopen theaters in the capital at limited capacity.
Still, compared with rival Paramount, Disney stopped short of making wholesale changes Thursday that would have suggested it has given up on 2020 as a time of mass moviegoing. Though it pushed back movies in the top-tier Avatar and Star Wars franchises until 2022 and later, it kept Marvel’s “Black Widow” and Pixar’s “Soul,” both scheduled for November, right where they were.
It did not issue a 2021 date for “Mulan,” as it easily could have, leading experts to speculate that Disney would still like to release the movie in 2020.
And Disney did not yet say it was postponing “The New Mutants,” an embattled film in the X-Men series that could stay on the calendar for Aug. 28 and draw at least scattered moviegoers in some American cities. Theater owners have been clamoring for new releases from studios as they seek revenue in a dollar-starved 2020, and despite its years-long delays, the movie could at least temporarily sate that hunger.
Paramount, though, took more sweeping action. It had been using the last few months of the year as the place to hold its two big movies delayed by the pandemic. “A Quiet Place” was actually originally scheduled to come out ahead of “Mulan,” on March 20, and like “Mulan,” it already held a splashy prerelease premiere. Then shutdowns began to hit.
“Top Gun,” with its specter of a revival of one of the touchstone hits of modern movie history, was scheduled for June but was then delayed by the pandemic to Dec. 25. With the new move, Paramount stakes out a July date that well suits the film, if one that also can feel a long way off. It is the first major movie to be moved out of the lucrative Christmas window, an acknowledgment that the effects of the virus will be felt for many months to come.
The studio did leave “Coming 2 America,” its sequel to the Eddie Murphy-Arsenio Hall classic, on the calendar for December, along with several other movies. The decision for that film could come later, as the company begins to ramp up its marketing campaign in October and November. It’s also possible “A Quiet Place” could move up again to 2020 if the public health situation improves. The film, a smaller-budget crowd-pleaser, needs less of a long-lead marketing campaign.
The “Top Gun” postponement raises questions about whether other studios will follow by clearing out the holiday period and what theaters will look like if they continue to go without product for a year or more — or if they will be able to survive. This week, one theater owner called the idea of no new major movies for the rest of 2020 a “worst-case scenario.”
Disney’s announcement had a low-key quality reflective of just how much uncertainty has become the default position for U.S. businesses during the pandemic. Compared with the most recent “Mulan” delay a month ago — when studio Chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman said in a statement that the pandemic “has not changed our belief in the power of this film and its message of hope and perseverance” — Disney announced the change Thursday simply as part of a longer list of schedule moves.
Paramount, though, was more vocal about its intentions. In a joint statement, President of Domestic Distribution Chris Aronson and International Theatrical Distribution President Mark Viane said: “We truly believe that there is no movie-viewing experience like the one enjoyed in theatres.”
“We are committed to the theatrical experience and our exhibition partners,” they added, “and want to stress that we are confident that, when the time comes, audiences everywhere will once again enjoy the singular joy of seeing Paramount films on the big screen.”