Disney has massively overhauled its North American release calendar, delaying its biggest films until well into next year, in a clear sign it believes there's little movie business to be had in the United States while the coronavirus pandemic remains unchecked.
Although it has not yet confirmed its plans for Australia, it is almost certain this territory will follow suit, with revised release dates here likely to be revealed within the next couple of weeks.
The studio, which accounted for one-third of North American box office in 2019 – a figure that rose to almost 40 per cent when Fox, which Disney now owns, is factored in – is postponing its biggest films to at least May 2021, with one being bumped to December next year.
Australian director Cate Shortland's Marvel movie Black Widow, which was due to open here at the end of October (and in the US in early November), is now slated for release next May. That's a full year after its original pre-COVID release date of May 2020.
West Side Story, Steven Spielberg's version of the iconic musical, has been pushed a full year to December 2021.
And The Eternals, Chloe Zhao's Marvel film about an immortal alien race on Earth – which stars Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan and Salma Hayek, and reunites Game of Thrones stars Richard Madden and Kit Harrington – won't be released until November 2021, also a full year after its original release date.
Collectively, the rescheduling of these three major releases points to a harsh truth in the movie business: the pandemic has wiped a full year from the Hollywood release calendar.
The moves come as COVID-19 case numbers once again rise in many areas of the US. At least 27 states have shown an increase in the seven-day average of new confirmed cases. The virus has claimed the lives of at least 200,000 Americans to date.
That has kept theatres closed and moviegoers at home. Cinemas in New York and Los Angeles, the country's two largest markets, are still shut down by government order. Meanwhile, fears of a new wave across the Atlantic have emerged; the United Kingdom has announced a tightening of restrictions amid rising numbers.
In Australia, box office year on year is down 53.5 per cent, with cinemas in Victoria, the hardest-hit state, currently not slated to re-open until November 23.
It is notable that Disney has not moved any of its big titles to the Disney+ streaming platform, as it did for the much-delayed Mulan. The company has not released numbers on digital purchases for that film, but it has been plagued by poor box office in China, where it was released theatrically shortly after it became available in Western markets via streaming.
Among the many possible explanations for its failure to perform to expectations in China is an upsurge in piracy, presumably spurred by the high cost of purchasing the film online ($35 in Australia, on top of the cost of a subscription to the service) and the high transmission quality.
Two significant Disney movies do, however, remain on schedule for the next six months. Death on the Nile, the latest Agatha Christie adaptation from Kenneth Branagh, has been pushed from October to the week before Christmas. And The King's Man, a spy-comedy sequel that had previously been moved from September to February, is staying in that month. Both were originally Fox titles.
Disney has so far left the Pixar animated movie Soul, from Up director Pete Doctor, in its scheduled November slot (the 20th in the US, the 26th in Australia).
Unsurprisingly, the Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been pushed from May 7, 2021 to July 9, 2021. That movie, which is being shot in Sydney, has been hit by production delays due to the virus.
Disney's reshuffle means the biggest Hollywood film remaining on the schedule for November is No Time to Die, the latest instalment in the James Bond series. The MGM/Universal release remains dated for November 12 in Australia (and November 20 in the US), but many experts believe it too will soon be moved.
The delays are expected to be devastating to theatre operators, who must now go well over a year without the release of a major new Disney film after normally seeing such releases on average every few months.
The US box office spun out $US11.4 billion ($A15.8 billion) in revenue in 2019. So far this year it has accumulated less than 10 percent of that figure.
With The Washington Post