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In a parallel universe, audiences around the world are heading to the cineplexes Friday to see Marvel’s “Black Widow” as it kicks off Hollywood’s lucrative summer movie season.
Alas, not in this universe.
Audiences will have to wait until July 9 to see Scarlett Johansson reprise her role as the avenging super-spy, and even then, they won’t need to go to a theater.
Summer movie season, which usually kicks off the first weekend of May, will be delayed this year because of the pandemic. But the late start doesn’t mean that this summer is any less important than other years.
In fact, this could be one of the most crucial summers for Hollywood ever.
The summer movie season has been vital to the health of Hollywood ever since Steven Spielberg cleared out beaches with 1975’s “Jaws.” Since then, the season known for its big-budget blockbusters has helped propel the movie industry every year by bringing in a large chunk of studios’ annual ticket sales.
For example, the summer season has made up roughly 35% to 40% of ticket sales every year at the North American box office since 2005, which depending on the year generates around $4 billion in revenue, according to Comscore (SCOR). Except for last year, of course, where summer accounted for a paltry $176 million, or just 7%, of the year’s ticket totals because the pandemic upended the industry.
This summer is essential to studios’ bottom lines, as it always is, but the most crucial aspect may be in the optics.
After being delayed because of the pandemic, many major films such as “Cruella,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” “In The Heights,” “F9” and “Black Widow” are set to open this summer. The box offices of these films will be vital, but their financial performances will be critical in building enough buzz to lure people back into theaters.
With theaters still struggling to rebound and streaming gaining strength as a viable option to release films (cases in point: “Cruella,” “In The Heights” and “Black Widow” all have streaming options), how these films do with audiences could determine how studios release films for next summer, and beyond.
This summer will be a true test for Hollywood, one that will likely test the industry’s might as well as their magic,” Jeff Bock, senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations, told CNN Business. “If all goes well, folks will be lining up for blockbusters from May through Labor Day, but for studios and exhibitors to be truly successful, they’ll not only need debuts that knock it out of the park but a string of victories week in and week out.”
According to Bock, success builds momentum, and “that shows the kind of months-long sustainability cinemas regularly provided pre-pandemic.”
“To do that, Hollywood will not only need quality films, but well-received ones,” Bock said. “Chatter. Word of mouth. That’s going to be key this summer.”
Theaters aren’t yet at full strength, and with restrictions still in place studios may not be putting much stock in box office results yet. The movie theater industry is also arguably more global than it’s ever been, with China taking over as the No. 1 movie market worldwide. That means there are more markets to consider now, which have had different restrictions and reactions to the pandemic. No one is sure if audiences will return to theaters as they did before the pandemic.
There’s been a fair amount of hope lately, however. Films like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat” both found audiences this spring bringing in the top two openings of the pandemic so far — even with both films available on HBO Max. (HBO Max is owned by WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN.)
Are they the exception or the new norm? That’s what Hollywood and theaters will likely find out this summer.
Shawn Robbins, for one, the chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, is bullish.
“I absolutely believe that people will come back to the movies this summer,” Robbins told CNN Business. “Only a small number of blockbusters have been released directly into the home. That’s left the vast majority of event movies delayed until vaccines could have an impact and theaters could confidently reopen their doors. Those two things are happening as we speak.”
Robbins added that the box office results this spring exceeded expectations, and that should give theaters some confidence as summer kicks off around Memorial Day with “A Quiet Place: Part II” and “Cruella.”
“While there may be a complementary option in streaming, there is no substitute for the theatrical experience,” he noted. “The absence of going to the movies was not an organic development, after all. It was taken by necessity for a temporary amount of time while the worst months of the pandemic were battled and endured. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder.”
The fall and winter seasons are full of potential hits, too, which could help sustain theaters for the rest of the year.
Films like the new James Bond flick “No Time to Die,” Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” Marvel’s “Eternals,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Dune,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” are on the docket between September and December.
And if the summer is a busy one for theaters, it could lead to a bustling fall and winter, which then could pave the way for a strong 2022. Still, the path to Hollywood’s future, whatever that is, likely starts Memorial Day weekend.
“Theaters are struggling mightily. They need a consistent product that pays off not only at the box office but at the concession stand,” Bock said. “And that comes down to more than just the quality of films this summer. It comes down to lifestyle choices, which are much more difficult to predict.”