Well, we did it everyone. We made it to the year 2021. After suffering through what will no doubt be described for a long time as one of the worst years in history, we are hopeful that the following year will be significantly better. Of course, the changing of the calendar alone doesn’t mean much overall. The dark cloud of 2020 is going to be hanging around us for some time still, and we are likely going to be seeing a lot more problems extend into the first couple of months of this year. But, a light at the end of the tunnel is before us, with a new administration set to take office in the coming weeks and a vaccine starting to disperse out to the population. It will take time, but we are beginning to take steps in the right direction. One area that is still stuck in limbo however is the future of movie theaters in the United States. Only a year after hitting all time highs in 2019, the theatrical industry spent most of 2020 on life support, with it’s future uncertain given the rising competition from streaming, which had a landmark year. The recently signed into law stimulus bill will indeed provide help to independent movie theaters across the country, but the big chains which make up the dominant number of screens are still going to face a grim outlook in 2021. AMC, the largest chain, has stated that their reserves of cash are going to run out sometime this month, making bankruptcy almost imminent. And if AMC can’t pull itself out, it could cause a ripple effect across the entire theatrical industry as a result. We may be seeing the after effects of 2020 play out for many years when it comes to Hollywood and it’s relationship with the theatrical market. As of right now, it’s still uncertain if any of it will return back to normal. And this is reflected in the wait and see position that the industry is taking with their planned releases over the next year.
As I’ve done for most of this year, I will be foregoing my usual breakdown of the upcoming movies in any given season, based on the “must sees” and the “ones to skip”, and instead just spotlight the important movies that have the best shot of getting released this year. Unlike my last couple seasonal previews, which sadly never panned out like they were supposed to, I am going to instead focus on the movies that I believe are going to have the best shot of being released over the next few months, mostly through Winter and Spring. A lot of these are still tentative dates that could shift once again like everything else from 2020, but there are a couple that are indeed set in stone thanks to convenient and still controversial hybrid releases in both theaters and streaming. It remains to be seen if any of that will work, and it may also all depend on the state of the theatrical industry moving ahead through the rest of the year. In any case, let’s take a look at the hopefully and finally set in stone movie releases of early 2021.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (MARCH 5)
Let’s begin with one movie that will for certain meet it’s intended release date. Disney’s latest animated feature was originally intended for a November 2020 premiere, but the decision was made early enough in the reshuffling of movies to give Raya and the Last Dragon a safe haven in Spring of 2021. The move wasn’t that far off from where it had been, and it is coming out in the month of March, which has been beneficial to Disney films in the past (2016’s Zootopia for example). Not only that, but it also allowed time for Disney’s new experimental release plans to play out, and help them learn what works and what doesn’t. What we’re going to see from Raya is the first wide release from Walt Disney Pictures in movie theaters since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it will be part of a hybrid release similar to what Warner Brothers announced for all their 2021 films in a now notorious decision. While Warner Brothers received pushback from it’s wide ranging decision, the announcement of Raya’s release was largely accepted, mainly because it’s the only one that Disney planned this for (so far). It will be premiering on Disney+ the same day as theaters, in what looks like the same Premiere Access feature that they used for Mulan (2020). It’s unclear if it’s an extra premium cost in addition to the subscription price, but the beneficial thing is that it does give more options to Disney to get their movie seen just in case the pandemic still hasn’t subsided. And hopefully it works out not just in Disney’s favor, but also for the movie theaters playing it as well. This looks like a nice big animated epic that would ideally play on a large screen, and the Southeast Asian setting looks unique and colorful. I like that the Asian influence behind this movie is also reflected in it’s creative team, with a script from the writer of the hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and a cast that includes Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran and comedian Awkwafina. Given Disney’s track record, it will hopefully be an early boost that the theatrical industry needs.
NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 2)
Poor old 007. One of the first inclinations of the severity of the year we were about to face happened when MGM and Sony suddenly pulled their hotly anticipated new Bond sequel off of the calendar. It was the first domino to fall and set the standard for the 2020 theatrical year, where no major blockbuster managed to land it’s intended release. No Time to Die, the 25th film in the long running James Bond franchise, is a significant film for the series in that it’s the first to be directed by an American (True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga) and also the final franchise film starring Daniel Craig as 007 (his fifth overall). The fact that we’ve seen been left to wait longer for the chance to see this turning point movie in this beloved franchise has only increased the anticipation of fans tenfold. Unfortunately for MGM, they don’t have the financial stability to launch their own streaming service the same way that Warner Brothers and Disney has, so they’ve been left with the unfortunate position of having to wait for theaters to return back to normal in order to maximize box office returns that will offset the $200 million-plus budget they spent on this movie, or try to sell it off to another streamer at an astronomical price. Since the former is not looking like a sure thing any time soon, MGM did attempt to sell off their movie to Netflix for half a billion late last year. Netflix of course scoffed and it’s unlikely that anyone else is going to match the same price. Tentatively, we’re looking at an April release in theaters, which could again shift given the state of the market a few months from now. MGM may even put their entire studio on the market again, with the hopes of another studio conglomerate with a foothold in streaming taking them in. In all likelihood, I’d say we may be looking at another long wait for this next adventure for James Bond, which is a shame because it’s the kind of high adventure entertainment that we sorely need right now.
THE KING’S MAN (MARCH 12)
Another 2020 orphan, this film saw just as many delays as James Bond did las year. The big difference is, being a 20th Century Pictures property, it has the benefit of being part of the Disney Company’s slate of releases, and has the benefit of a fall back plan with streaming, in case things don’t go well over these next couple months. That being said, Disney and the former house of “Fox” are still committing to that early March release. Perhaps it’s because that even though this is a franchise that has seen success in the past, it’s also one that has lowered expectations due to a lackluster performance in it’s last entry. This new film seems to be something of a soft reboot of the franchise, still taking the spy thriller tropes and dressing it up in a high class gentlemen-ly world, only this time it’s set in the distant past (World War I from the looks of it) with a completely new set of characters. Director Matthew Vaughn is still behind the camera, but stars Colin Firth and Taron Edgerton are out, and it remains uncertain if the franchise can survive following this new tract. Hopefully, a reboot is just what this franchise needs, after the bloated sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) left many disappointed. This one acts as an origin story of some kind, but it may also just be the launching point of where the series may go from here out. It is nice to see actor Ralph Fiennes in a more heroic role after usually finding himself playing the heavy in most films. And it will be neat to see this group of well-dressed super agents going up against historical figures such as Kaiser Wilhelm, Mata Hari, and Rasputin to name a few. Whether or not Disney and 20th Century can stick to the March release date is uncertain, because as of now there are only plans for this to be in theaters. If that option remains unavailable, they at least have more of a softer landing than James Bond does in finally getting released, whether it is later in the year, or on any of Disney’s streaming platforms.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (FEBRUARY 12)
Though Wonder Woman 1984 was the first movie put out by Warner Brothers under their year long plan to release all their movies under the hybrid model, Judas and the Black Messiah may be the movie that tests the long term effects of this plan the most. Originally set for an end of the year Awards season release, this likely Oscars bait film was moved off the calendar before being given this hybrid release in February, still making it eligible due to this year’s extended Awards deadline. We knew that Wonder Woman would do very well in both formats, but it will be interesting to see what audiences choose with this movie. Oscar films usually never light up the box office in their opening weekends, but instead they build success over time with word of mouth. With this movie premiering on both HBO Max and in theaters the same day, it may indicate a shift in the release patterns for movies like this in the future. Will movies get more buzz from playing on the small screen, or is it the big screen that will ultimately measure it’s success. There’s no doubt that regardless of how the movie performs, it will still get Oscars attention. If it wins any awards, it may even bring more eyes to the movie in general. But, given the way it’s released, it might change the way these kinds of movies find an audience forever. Gone will be those long tail success stories of those “little movies that could” which become a success over a protracted period of time. In any case, it’s an exciting looking movie that definitely speaks to our time right now, and will certainly feature some monumental performances from actors Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. And the story of a mole planted by the FBI to spy on the activities of the Black Panther Party will no doubt spur some much needed conversation about the politics of race in America. My hope is that the hybrid release of this movie doesn’t diminish the theatrical market that movies like this have thrived in before. Movies like this especially are ones that should be experienced communally in a theater and not just alone in your living room watching the TV.
TOM AND JERRY (FEBRUARY 26)
Here we have another movie releasing under the hybrid plan from Warner Brothers. But unlike Wonder Woman or Judas and the Black Messiah, this is movie where I don’t think the audience will be as evenly split over the different options. My guess is that this movie is going to only succeed through one way or the other. It may fail completely at the theatrical box office, but could do well on HBO Max instead, relieving audiences of the embarrassment of paying for a ticket. On the other hand, it may be the kind of movie that justifies parents taking their children out of the home and to the theater, as the family options have been pretty scarce theatrically over the last year. In either case, this movie is going to be yet another test for the hybrid model, but more in the case of seeing if a movie can sink or swim in this new world. As a childless adult, I can tell you that my inclination is that this will be one to pass on, and it can be easy for me to just ignore it, or catch it on streaming if I’m ghoulishly curious. But, for families that want something new to show their kids, this movie is certainly the kind of thing that will appeal to them, and maybe even convince them to go out to the theaters again. It will be interesting to see how well it performs on both ends of it’s premiere. I highly doubt this movie will be the one that saves cinemas in the end, but hey, I also underestimated Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and that proved to be one of the year’s few box office hits. The movie in general looks pretty bad, though I do appreciate that the animators of the titular duo are trying to emulate the style of the original cartoons. It just feels wrong that they have to coexist with a live action world ala Roger Rabbit style. I could be wrong about this movie, but I’m pretty certain that this will appeal solely to little children and almost nobody else.
A QUIET PLACE PART II (APRIL 23)
Another one of the early victims of the pandemic’s swift decimation of the theatrical industry, A Quiet Place II finds itself in a much different position to assert itself than it did a year ago. This sequel to the surprise hit original finds actor John Krasinski returning to the director’s chair but not into his lead role from the first film, which given what happened in the movie makes sense (spoiler). His real life spouse Emily Blunt returns with a more central lead role this time, continuing on in this horror narrative of survivors trying to live in a world inhabited by hearing sensitive monsters. It will be interesting to see if the movie can repeat the success that the original enjoyed. It is far more likely to do so in a critical sense, but, A Quiet Place Part II may also surprise at the box office as well. As we’ve observed during these pandemic months, while the overall box office has remained very minimal due to the social distancing restrictions, one of the bright spots in the market has been movies from the horror genre. Horror movies like Universal and Blumhouse’s Freaky (2020) were generally the top grossers at the box office, and they generated small but not terrible returns, which is pretty incredible given what movie theaters have been going through. Given it’s late Spring release, which could be after a long down turn in virus infections due to the vaccine rollout, and a continued loosening of restrictions in the process, A Quiet Place Part II could be primely positioned to be the first box office hit of the year, and maybe even strong enough to save theaters in general. It’s hard to say if this may happen, but horror movies have a great theatrical track record, and it just might be enough to make the movie a success. Though the wait has been long, it might actually be fortuitous for A Quiet Place Part II in the end.
So, there you have my outlook on the movies that are going to roll out, hopefully, in this early part of 2021. Some are certainly going to be released no matter what, like Raya and the Last Dragon as well as the handful of Warner Brothers titles, but others like No Time to Die and The King’s Man may unfortunately find themselves uprooted again. The one good thing is that the pandemic that caused all the mayhem throughout 2020 is thankfully going to subside the further we head into 2021. Hopefully, the movie theaters can bounce back too, but it will no doubt take time. The last pandemic of this scale that we faced as a culture happened when movies were still in their infancy, and movie theaters were as big of an industry as they were back then. This was as close to an apocalyptic scenario for the movie theater industry as anything they have ever faced. Not even the advent of television brought movie theaters to the brink like this, because even through all the competition before, movie theaters have never had to close their doors on this kind of scale. The pandemic relief bill will certainly help the small chains and independent movie houses survive (which is great), but the large chains are still going to struggle for a while, and it may be the case that we’re going to see a much more diminished theatrical market for the next several years and maybe even forever. It will certainly cause us to reconsider what a blockbuster hit will be in the future, as we may never hit the heights of say an Avengers: Endgame (2019) ever again. None of the movies I mentioned are likely to be the movie that saves theaters, but some could do well enough to at least prove once again their value. The year has only begun, and we still have a lot to learn about what the future holds, but hopefully the start of 2021 will at least give us a few things to be excited about and hopeful for as we begin to inch back to normal once again.