Disney, signaling coronavirus effects will last well into next year, announces months-long delays for its biggest movies

Disney massively overhauled its release calendar Wednesday, delaying its biggest films until well into next year, a sign that the huge entertainment company has determined that there is little movie business to be had in the United States while the coronavirus pandemic remains unchecked.

The studio, which is the driver of a large share of theatrical moviegoing around the world, is postponing its biggest films to at least May, with one being postponed until December 2021.

Originally scheduled for May of this year, then moved to November, “Black Widow,” the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, won’t be released until May of next year, Disney said.

“West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg’s version of the iconic musical that had been one of the most anticipated films of the holidays, has been pushed a full year from this December to December 2021.

And “Eternals,” Chloé Zhao’s take on the immortal alien race for the Marvel franchise, won’t be released until November 2021, a full year after its original release date.

Collectively, the trio of moves is indicative of a striking pandemic-related shift: the loss of a full year in the Hollywood release calendar. Every film scheduled for a particular month in 2020 will now come out on that same month in 2021.

The postponements amount to a formalization of what many experts feared and predicted in recent weeks: Americans are in no rush to return to movie theaters, and Disney and other major studios are unpersuaded they can change their minds.

The moves come as covid-19 continues to show renewed strength in many areas of the United States. At least 27 states have shown an increase in the seven-day average of new confirmed cases, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post. The virus has claimed the lives of at least 200,000 Americans to date.

That has kept theaters closed and moviegoers at home. Theaters 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.

Notably, Disney did not move any of the films to its Disney Plus platform, as it did for the much-delayed “Mulan” in the United States and much of Western Europe several weeks ago. The company has not released numbers on digital purchases for that film.

Most franchise films cannot be supported by digital releases alone, and while some Hollywood voices have called for an adjustment to the business model given the long-term challenges to theaters in the covid-19 era, they would not address the movies already made under the old model. For now, studios appear content to try to wait out the virus, although on a much longer timeline than initially anticipated.

Two significant Disney movies remain on schedule for the next six months — “Death on the Nile,” the latest Agatha Christie adaptation from its 20th Century subsidiary, has been pushed from October to the week before Christmas. And “The King’s Man,” 20th’s spy-comedy prequel that had previously been moved from September to February, is staying in that month. But both could easily be moved if Americans and citizens of other countries continue to show reluctance to return to theaters, or if theaters in many cities remain closed.

Disney did not address “Soul,” the Pixar release from “Up” director Pete Doctor that is on the calendar.

The remaining biggest film scheduled for November is “No Time to Die,” the latest installment in the James Bond series. The MGM/Universal release remains dated for Nov. 20, but many experts believe it too will soon be moved. Other studios, such as Paramount, previously had moved many of their films from 2020.

Americans’ reluctance to return to theaters was solidified this month when Warner Bros. released “Tenet,” the new Christopher Nolan action adventure, in theaters in cities that were open. The film has done well internationally, grossing $215 million since coming out a month ago. But it collected just $36 million over three weekends in the United States, an exceedingly modest sum for a filmmaker who usually grosses many times that.

Other studios had been watching carefully, with a rebound signaling it was safe to open films in 2020. But with those results, the largest studio has responded by backing off its plans.

Warner Bros. remains on track for the moment with two of its other big movies of the year: both “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Dune,” executives say, will come out in December.

The near-term effect on Disney’s bottom line will be considerable. Disney drew nearly $3 billion in profit from theatrical films last fiscal year; the latter number represented nearly 20 percent of its total profit.

Even harder hit could be theaters. The top five films at the domestic box office in 2019 all came from Disney, including juggernauts such as “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King and “Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker,” each of which grossed over a half-billion dollars in the United States.

The National Association of Theatre Owners did not immediately comment. But the news is expected to be devastating to theaters, which must now go well over a year without the release of a major new Disney film after normally seeing such releases an average of every few months.

The U.S. box office spun out $11.4 billion in revenue in 2019. So far this year, it has accumulated less than 10 percent of that figure.


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