Hollywood is abandoning movie theaters at the wrong time

After a rough two years in which the COVID pandemic and the rise of streaming services contributed to a record decline in audiences going to movie theaters, Hollywood is seemingly coming back. Franchise tentpoles like Jurassic Park Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru posted healthy opening weekends, while Marvel recovered from the pandemic low of Eternals and is once again posting worldwide grosses for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder that flirt with $1 billion (or soon will be). And above all else, Top Gun: Maverick continues to make money week after week, becoming Paramount’s biggest hit since Titanic.

All that progress, however, is increasingly likely to stop in August, when a dearth of product will threaten the recovery of the theatrical experience–and the sustainability of Hollywood’s traditional business model. The already dire situation got even worse, with Warner Bros. recently pushing back the Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot and MGM opting to release the Sylvester Stallone-led genre film Samaritan on Prime Video. While both films are not guaranteed blockbusters, their absence is all the more pronounced with what’s left on the theatrical calendar for August, September, and even October: cheap horror films, indie movies with little hope of crossover appeal, and re-releases of past hits like Avatar, Jaws, and E.T.

It didn’t have to be this way. This lull has been apparent to insiders and the entertainment press for a good while now, and the situation is made worse by streamer-owned studios opting to feed their content pipeline rather than support the exhibition business that keeps the Hollywood eco-system going. It’s still not too late for some studios to fix an easy problem, but with the last of the summer blockbusters set to debut, time is running out fast to do so.

How we got here

Like everything else, the movie industry was crippled when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020. Unable to release their movies, Hollywood kept delaying their big releases (Paramount with Top Gun, MGM with No Time to Die) or relegated their product to their new streaming services (virtually every major studio except Sony). To bolster their then-struggling HBO Max service, WB did the unthinkable: They released their movies in the few theaters that were open and premiered them on their service simultaneously. Disney didn’t even bother to do that with their Pixar movies, forgoing theatrical altogether (save for a dozen or so movie houses) for Soul, Luca, and Turning Red.

2021 was better if a bit scattershot. Waves of variants and lagging vaccination and booster shot rates caused most studios to be skittish, with most months having just one or two significant releases. Sometimes, this strategy worked (Free Guy and Shang-Chi were genuine hits with great word-of-mouth), and sometimes it didn’t (The Suicide Squad, Snake Eyes, and In the Heights were, at best, disappointments). The holiday season was really the first time theatrical resembled pre-pandemic times, with a multitude of hits (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Encanto, Sing 2) and one genuine blockbuster (Spider-Man: No Way Home).

Tom Holland's Spider-man poses unmasked, preparing to fight the Green Goblin.

It was Spidey who brought in a wide variety of people and made a movie theater, rather than a streaming service, the place to see a movie. It helped that Sony didn’t have an in-house streaming service to send it to, which allowed the movie to play well into 2022, becoming the third highest-grossing movie of all time, and was the clarion call for audiences and the industry that movie theaters were back. With a solid spring of hits (Scream, Jackass Forever, The Batman, Uncharted, Sonic 2, The Lost City), Hollywood was on its way to pre-pandemic levels of business, and that’s thanks to movie theaters being open and having appealing pictures to satiate hungry audiences.

A summer of hope Tom Cruise flys a plane in Top Gun: Maverick.

The good times continued into the summer, which officially started with (what else?) a Marvel movie. While more divisive than the usual MCU flick, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness reaped huge grosses in its opening weekend, ultimately topping out at just over $950 million worldwide. Not bad for a film about trauma and ennui disguised as a superhero movie. Another franchise tentpole, Jurassic Park Dominion, weathered terrible reviews and nearly matched its predecessor, the equally critically reviled Fallen Kingdom. Dominion is now at $800 million, a number virtually unthinkable just a year ago.

Perhaps the most surprising hit of the summer (if not the entire year) is a sequel to a 36-year-old movie, Top Gun: Maverick. With no superheroes, dinosaurs, or minions in sight, this film, delayed two years due to star Tom Cruise’s insistence that the theatrical experience is, er, paramount, debuted above expectations and kept on drawing in audiences of all ages. It’s now 2022’s highest-grossing movie at $1.1 billion dollars, and that’s without key markets like China or Russia.

Michelle Yeoh stands in front of her character's husband and daughter in a scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Mix in indie hits like Everything Everywhere All at Once (really a spring release, but like Maverick, it keeps going and going at the box office), animated fare like The Rise of Gru, adult dramas like Elvis, and genre films like The Black Phone and you have a healthy season of moviegoing. And the near future looks bright, with the recent launch of Thor: Love and Thunder exceeding all previous Thor movies (even Ragnarok, which benefited from pre-Infinity War buzz and had popular characters like Loki and Hulk in it) and the 1-2-3 punch of Jordan Peele’s sci-fi horror Nope, the animated DC League of Super-Pets, and the Brad Pitt action-thriller Bullet Train all due for release in rapid succession.

An empty fall Brad Pitt clutches a briefcase in Bullet Train (2022)

Why then does the theatrical release calendar resemble a graveyard after Bullet Train hits movie houses on August 6? From August 13 to October 14 (when Halloween Ends debuts), there’s absolutely no surefire hit slated for theatrical release. Recently, there was one: Salem’s Lot. That movie, based on one of Stephen King’s earliest and best novels, had the potential to be this year’s IT, with the same studio (WB) handling the production and marketing and the concept (vampires take over a small town) easy to digest. It was perfect for September, a month that lends itself to big-budget horror and contemplative dramas.

With that film’s mysterious removal, we’re left with a slate of movies that, while interesting, will not keep up the momentum from earlier in the year. A brief rundown is all you need to understand the problem. In August, there’s a comedy starring Diane Keaton (Mack & Rita), an Idris Elba action movie (Beast), a Dragon Ball Z anime (Super Hero), an IMAX-only re-release of E.T., a Sony horror movie (The Invitation), and a psychedelic magical fantasy starring Tilda Swinton and, returning for double duty this month, Idris Elba (Three Thousand Years of Longing). Makes you wish for Eternals, doesn’t it?

September and early October are a bit better, but not by much. Sony is re-releasing No Way Home to get it over the $2 billion gross mark while 20th Century Studios is launching a creepy and promising low-budget horror film Barbarian in the place of Salem’s Lot. Then there’s a grimly serious Viola Davis historical action epic (The Woman King), a re-release of Avatar to drum up excitement for the forthcoming sequel, a slightly surrealistic 1950s-set mystery starring Go to Source