What if they held an Oscar season and nobody came?
That’s pushing the matter a little. There will be new movies arriving in theaters this fall — and, more tellingly, on demand — but 2020 has become the Year Without Blockbusters, and 2021 remains an enormous question mark. Here’s what we might have been seeing over the next few months that have been bumped to next year: a new James Bond, a “Top Gun” sequel, a remade “Dune.” Steven Spielberg’s redo of “West Side Story” and a film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” A new Wes Anderson movie. A superhero film directed by Chloe Zhao of “The Rider.”
But Zhao also directed “Nomadland,” a breakout hit at the big fall festivals and a likely Oscar nomination for star Frances McDormand, and that is scheduled for a December theatrical release. Again: There will be new movies this fall, just not from the major studios. And the longer the coronavirus pandemic rages on minus any coherent containment plans and the longer movie theaters remain closed in key markets and the chains inch toward insolvency, the faster a process that was already underway will speed up: the transition of the entertainment industry away from public presentation.
You may think I’m exaggerating. On Oct. 12, The Walt Disney Company announced a vast corporate restructuring spurred by the success of its Disney+ streaming platform, which now has 60 million subscribers. With the creation of a new Media and Entertainment Distribution group, the most powerful entertainment company on the planet is announcing that streaming, not theatrical, is the horse that pulls the Hollywood cart. It’s no coincidence that the company’s latest Pixar release, “Soul,” went from a Thanksgiving brick-and-mortar release to a Christmas Day debut on Disney+.
Is this the death of moviegoing? Hardly, although it’s ironic that independent arthouses seem to be weathering the storm somewhat better than highly-leveraged exhibitors like AMC and Regal, the latter of which has indefinitely shut down all its US theaters (including the Fenway, in Boston). The indies are still able to virtually showcase new movies from the festival circuit and abroad, while the chains are starving from lack of A-list theatrical oxygen. The current box office leaders are a mix of off-brand superhero fare (“The New Mutants”); aging stars anchoring B-grade suspense (“Unhinged”), comedy (“The War With Grandpa”), and action (“Honest Thief”); one would-be blockbuster running on fumes (“Tenet”) — and “Hocus Pocus,” a 1993 Bette Midler Halloween re-release currently sitting at number three. Overall US theatrical grosses are down nearly 80 percent over 2019.
Theater owners are tearing out their remaining hair, especially livid at New York governor Andrew Cuomo for keeping theaters shuttered in the critical New York City market while restaurants and gyms have reopened. But consumers? On the average, they don’t care too much, since they’re getting what they need at home: TV series and new movies on HBO, Amazon, Netflix, and elsewhere. COVID-19 is forcing studios to drastically reduce the amount of time before a theatrical film comes to video on demand, and the streaming behemoths, fat with cash, are buying up festival winners and bankrolling their own productions. There’s too much to watch, actually — we all know that. It’s how we watch that is undergoing a grand mutation, one that may not dramatically revert once the crisis has passed.
In the end, some of the best movies of the year won’t show up in theaters at all, a fact of life that is forcing critics’ groups to reconsider what they call a “movie” and awards shows to frantically rethink how and what they celebrate. While the Oscars have been postponed to April 2021 and will consider streaming titles eligible for nomination, there have been some calls to cancel the show entirely — a premise that assumes a season without the major studios is the same as a season without cinema.
That’s absurd, and the best way to deep-six it is to look at some of the films coming out in the next few months, in theaters or directly to the streaming market. There are big stars: Tom Hanks as a Civil War veteran crossing the country in “News of the World,” and Anthony Hopkins giving a brilliant late-life performance as a man succumbing to dementia in “The Father.” There are adaptations of big books: Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” starring Amy Adams, on Netflix. There are documentaries about intriguing people dead and alive: “Belushi” (as in John) on Showtime and “I Am Greta” (as in Thunberg) on Hulu. There’s even a lone superhero movie: “Wonder Woman 1984,” starring Gal Gadot, was originally slated for a summer release and will now hit theaters Christmas Day. It’s the one big-studio franchise blockbuster still holding onto 2020 by its fingernails.
Without the majors sucking up all the air, three of the better new movies of the year may find a deservedly wider audience. “Promising Young Woman” is a hell-raiser of a drama about a woman wreaking vengeance on date rape-minded men; star Carey Mulligan is phenomenal in the lead and writer-director Emerald Fennell is one to watch. Oscar winner Regina King makes her directing debut with “One Night in Miami,” which puts a young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in the same hotel room for a night of soul-baring. And there’s the above-mentioned “Nomadland,” featuring McDormand as a factory worker’s widow cast off from the American Dream and living the van life across a hardscrabble western landscape.
In case you hadn’t noticed, all three of these movies are directed by women and two center on them. Maybe there’s something to be said for a year without blockbusters, after all.