Expect More Blockbusters to Be Delayed, Universal Boss Says

The crowded schedule of blockbusters in 2021, which includes “Black Widow” and “F9,” probably won’t stay that way for long.

Many of the films slated for theatrical release in the first half of the year will likely be delayed again, according to Universal Filmed Entertainment Chairman Donna Langley. And disruptions are likely to continue in some form through at least the remainder of 2021, she said Thursday in a Q&A with Bloomberg News.

Ultimately Hollywood will bounce back, but it might look different, she said. For example, the pandemic accelerated demand for streaming services, and Universal has permanently altered its film-release pattern to allow movies to reach online audiences sooner.

At the same time, some things will remain the same. Langley said she plans to steer clear of debuting the studio’s 2021 films on the streaming platform Peacock, also part of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, unlike what competitor Warner Bros. is doing with its AT&T Inc. sibling HBO Max.

Accelerated Trends

“There were so many trends in our business that were already happening, but the pandemic accelerated that need for innovation in order to survive and thrive,” Langley said. “We have addressed how to best get our product to the consumer in a way that works for them, and that is still a large priority.”

Langley’s comments reflect a difficult reality that’s set in across Hollywood in recent months. Many in the business thought the Covid-19 vaccine rollout that started at the end of last year meant U.S. theaters could broadly reopen by early to mid-2021. Instead, the world is still fighting a mighty battle against the pandemic. In Los Angeles County, where Universal films much of its entertainment content, productions have extended their planned holiday hiatuses due to a spike in Covid cases.

That’s thrown another obstacle in front of studios trying to decide what to do with their big franchise movies that are ready for release. Those types of films reliably perform well at the box office, and studios depend on them to offset other films that lose money. But with domestic cinemas mostly closed, and the open ones capping ticket sales to ensure social-distancing rules are met, there’s little hope of releasing a box-office smash right now.

A few films scheduled for the first half of 2021, including Warner’s “The Many Saints of Newark,” have already been delayed. Other highly anticipated films, including Fast and Furious installment “F9” and the new James Bond movie “No Time to Die,” are at risk of moving, too. “As far as Universal goes, we are analyzing the landscape as we speak and of course had anticipated that this is a likely scenario, and have assessed alternate dates for all of our titles if that proves necessary,” Langley said.

Agreements Recast

Against that backdrop, efforts to recast old agreements with movie theaters -- in which studios give them the right to exclusively show new movies for about three months -- became more important. Universal has signed deals with three chains, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., Cinemark Holdings Inc. and Cineplex Inc., to shorten the wait time to 17 days. After that, the studio can sell the film to online audiences through what’s called premium video-on-demand.

Langley suggested the studio would continue to sign agreements like that with other chains, and said she thinks those arrangements will see Universal through the pandemic and beyond. While many have worried that theaters won’t survive the combination of Covid-19 and the rise of streaming, she said they’re still important to Universal’s business model.

“We believe in this distribution model,” she said. “Not just because it allows us to better monetize our slate, but it benefits exhibition when they share in the revenue.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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