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Plenty of industries were rocked by the COVID pandemic in 2020. But few felt the monumental impact as deeply as the movie industry. Theater doors slammed shut in March and remain closed in many parts of the nation some nine months later (inducing here in New Mexico). The summer box office evaporated, with big-budget tentpole releases pushed back to a later date. The Thanksgiving/Christmas box office also failed to materialize, with major studio films either bumped again to vague 2021 dates or grudgingly dumped to various streaming services. This meant that the slow, steady decline of theatrical releasing ramped up significantly in 2020. With no movie theaters to speak of, home viewing/streaming/pay-per-view/VOD became the only game in town. Depending on what happens in the near future, 2020 may be regarded as the year that movies and TV became one and the same.
When the dust settles and the books are closed on 2020, the number one film of the year will be Bad Boys For Life. The belated sequel was released to theaters in January, just before the pandemic settled in. By the time it completed its run in March, it had raked in $206 million. By way of comparison, 2019’s number one film, Avengers Endgame, made $858 million. Add in worldwide box office, and the numbers are even more stark. Bad Boys For Life made $2 billion worldwide. The last time the top box office winner of the year made less than $10 billion was 2008. And you have to go all the way back to 1983’s Star Wars: Return of the Jedi to find a box office topper that only made 2 billion worldwide.
After March, when the pandemic really settled in, indoor theaters were considered no-go zones—what with their close seating, recirculated air and two-hour-plus use time. That left America’s long-forgotten, open-air drive-ins to carry the torch. Something in the neighborhood of 325 drive-in theaters remain in the United States, leftovers from the car-loving era of the 1950s. (Las Vegas’ Fort Union Drive-in is the only one left in New Mexico.) Drive-ins kept moviegoing alive by screening old favorites. (Jurassic Park, Jaws and Ghostbusters got a real workout this year). Demand was so great that some cities actually started seeing new (temporary) drive-in theaters erected. (Here in N.M., we got The Drive-In at Balloon Fiesta Park, Albuquerque Film & Music Experience’s parking lot screenings at O’Neill’s Pub and Motorama at the Santa Fe Downs.) Some old-time entrepreneurs even revived the old practice of “roadshow” screenings. Three classic Godzilla films made a tour of East Coast drive-ins in October. At the same time, Z-grade movie producer/distributor Sam Sherman dusted off prints of his ’70s schlock flicks Dracula vs. Frankenstein and The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and toured many of the same Deep South drive-ins he did 50 years ago.
Eventually, of course, movie theaters started to reopen in late August/early September. Warner Bros. tested the air by using Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action flick Tenet as the canary in the coalmine. It did not go well. With less than half of movie screens open in America, seating limited to half or a quarter of capacity and citizens wary of gathering en masse, Tenet earned just $57 million. It cost roughly $200 million to make, not counting advertising and distribution. That ain’t good. With Tenent confirming Hollywood’s worst suspicions, no other studio was willing to sacrifice one of its major films to the shaky, half-open box office. By the end of summer, Disney sent live-action Mulan and animated Soul to its Disney+ streaming service and Warner Bros. set a Christmas premiere date for Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max.
Although the major Hollywood studios are still counting up their losses, independent distributors did surprisingly good business this year. With the majors unwilling to risk 100 or 200 million dollar films in theaters, the few theaters that did manage to open had little new product to showcase. The minor studios were more than happy to fill the gap, however. IFC’s witch-next-door horror drama The Wretched came in as the sixth biggest moneymaker of summer 2020 with $1.8 million. Cheap horror thrillers, normally pushed out of theaters in summer by big action flicks and superhero franchises, had a field day, in fact. IFC’s The Rental and Relic, Quiver’s Becky, Well Go USA’s Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, Global View Entertainment’s Followed, Neon’s She Dies Tomorrow, Saban Films’ The Silencing and We Summon the Darkness are just some of the low-budget shockers that topped the box office in 2020 while often playing on less than 50 screens nationwide.
What the future holds is still unclear. We may emerge from this pandemic stronger and more confident than ever. We may pretend none of this ever happened and go back to the exact same economy we had before. But for the entertainment industry, that seems a less likely outcome. Over the course of 2020 people got used to staying at home and consuming their entertainment via TV/computer/iPad/etc. Subscription streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and HBO Max saw their numbers swell. In October The Walt Disney Company said it would be switching the bulk of its business attention to streaming. And Warner Bros. announced (to some industry shock and awe) that all of its 2021 box office releases (including Dune, The Suicide Squad, In the Heights and Matrix 4) would be opening “day and date” on HBO Max and in movie theaters—whichever movie theaters remain open when the pandemic finally fades, that is. Albuquerque’s Cinemark Movies 8 and Movies West have already shut their doors for good. Expect others to follow suit in 2021.