Movie Studios Make a Weak Commitment to the Theater System: A Case Study in Crisis Comms.

For the first time in five months, movie theaters in 44 states will reopen their doors. The two biggest movie theater chains, AMC and Regal Cinemas, have taken multiple precautions for moviegoers like requiring masks, upgrading ventilation systems, and capping theater capacity. Though theaters won’t have many big films to show for a couple of weeks, AMC and Regal will offer old blockbusters like “Inception” and “Black Panther” at a heavily reduced price (15 cents at AMC and $5 at Regal).  While this is good news for the movie industry and its employees, movie studios have had their hands full with communicating how to release their films up until this point. Some have gone straight to pay-per-view digital release or streaming services while others have adjusted their theater release dates.  In an industry where the big screen continues to be king when it comes to qualifying for prestigious awards, it has been fascinating to watch major studios like Disney and Warner Bros. navigate the last six months. Some studios were proactive in making decisions based on the unknowns surrounding the pandemic’s length and severity while others sat back and waited to be forced into a decision.  Take Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated film “Tenet.” Warner Bros. did not decide to push the film’s release until early June. When they did, they optimistically only pushed the release by a month and a half. Then, just two weeks later, the studio bumped the film to the end of the summer. Then, one month later, “Tenet” was delayed indefinitely. A few weeks after this announcement, a release plan was unveiled for the film on July 27. “Tenet” would be released on August 26 in more than 70 countries and open in the U.S. during Labor Day weekend. Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich said this is the best course of action given the uncertainty of the pandemic in the U.S. Feeling whiplash? Us too.  Though “Tenet” flirted with the idea of releasing the film to digital and online formats, Christopher Nolan said “Tenet” was a film “‘most designed for the audience experience, the big screen experience’ out of all his directorial projects so far.” Conversely, MGM’s decision to push the premiere of the new James Bond film “No Time To Die” to November 2020 was better articulated. MGM was the first studio to delay opening weekend for the 25th installment in the James Bond film series. Instead of citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the cause of the delay, the statement mentioned its “careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace.”  Though they had different strategies for handling the delay of a flagship movie, Warner Bros. and MGM did have one thing in common: both refused to consider streaming platforms for the release of their films. Disney and Sony adopted a different strategy.  Sony made the decision to delay nearly all of their films to 2021; the exception to this decision was “Greyhound,” the Tom Hanks war drama. While initially just taken off the studio’s schedule entirely, it was announced in late May that Apple paid Sony about $70 million for 15 years of streaming rights to the film. Both Sony and Apple decided not to put out a statement about this decision. On the other hand, early this year Disney announced they would push the highly-anticipated “Mulan” premiere to July 24...then announced another push to August 21...then finally decided to pivot to a Disney+ release. Disney then began pushing full force on marketing and media, showcasing sneak peeks and new trailers to try to drum up in-person, premiere-level press.  Disney was careful when it made this announcement, clearly signaling its commitment to the theater industry. Its CEO, Bob Chapek, stated that "Mulan is a one-off. That said, we find it very interesting to be able to...learn from it and see what happens, not only in terms of the uptake of the number of subscribers that we get on the platform but the actual number of transactions on the Disney+platform that we get.”  Why Does This Matter? To try and accommodate the pandemic and allow for more theatrical releases, the Academy Awards will take place in late April 2021—the latest the Oscars have ever taken place.  In the last decade, streaming giants like Netflix have poured millions into high-quality, household name movie projects, like the Martin Scorcese-directed “The Irishman,” in an effort to garner the Academy’s attention. To abide by the rules for consideration, they have often given their films limited runs in theaters—that may all change this year. With theaters only just opening, it will be impossible for all award-worthy films to secure theatrical releases. This could not only change the tune of producers, actors, and directors who have previously and publicly pushed for these screenings, but also film history.  Historians will look back on this year in film as an anomaly and potentially a breaking point that forces film aficionados and casual fans alike to embrace streaming platforms as equals to the theater system.  The Takeaway While we may not be confronted with a global challenge on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic again anytime soon, there are a few important lessons that studios and communicators alike should take away from these case studies: 
  1. Expect the unexpected. No one could have anticipated how long this pandemic would last. For that exact reason, studios should have taken precautions to ensure that they would not have to change release dates more than once or twice. When setting an event or launch timeline, plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised by the best. It makes your organization look savvy and adept at predicting and navigating changes, as opposed to looking forced into a decision. 
  2. Take control of the narrative. Decide how you want your organization to be perceived. COVID-19 made studios appear flaky and unsure of their priorities and future, only reacting to the situation they were presented with and leaving audiences unsure of where they stood not only on release dates, but on the importance of the studio system as a whole. Clear and concise commentary, even if you are just speaking to the uncertainty of a situation, will always appear stronger than choosing to say nothing at all. 
  3. Don’t hide your mistakes. If you make a mistake or need to message around a change, it’s often best to be transparent about it. Trying to sweep things under the rug or ignore something altogether will ultimately end up coming back around to bite you. When studios found themselves forced to embrace streaming platforms for economic reasons or choosing to remove films from their release calendar, these decisions should have been clearly explained through statements and interviews. 
Communicating anything amid a crisis is difficult. That’s only been amplified this year through an unprecedented pandemic of global proportions. While no one should be expected to navigate something like this perfectly, it is possible to grab your communications strategy by the reins and choose how to message and move your organization forward into our “new normal.” Be bold and don’t be afraid to “fail forward” as we all navigate what comes next.  


We impact outcomes.
Let’s talk.