Peter Travers: The Year the Summer-Movie Season Died

In any other year, this space would be reserved for a preview of potential summer hits: Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part II, Top Gun: Maverick, Wes Anderson’s A-list comedy The French Dispatch. Now the pandemic has chased these films deep into the fall and next winter, when audiences might feel safer about crowding into a cineplex. Other films were sheltered in place and shuffled into next year. So scratch the chance to see F9, the latest chapter in the Fast & Furious franchise, in 2020; ditto Jungle Cruise, starring the Rock and Emily Blunt, and the much-anticipated Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights. Meanwhile, some analysts estimate that the global box office could lose $5 billion as a result of the pandemic. And that’s just the beginning.

Here’s a shocker: Only three studio blockbusters are still scheduled to open in theaters this summer. First up is Christopher Nolan’s time-travel epic Tenet (July 17th), starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and state-of -the-art VFX that’s tailor-made for IMAX screens. Not far behind is Disney’s live-action version of Mulan (July 24th). And on August 14th, Wonder Woman 1984 finds Gal Gadot donning Reagan-era fashions in addition to bulletproof bracelets and taking on Kristen Wiig’s feline supervillain Cheeath. That’s slim pickings for people jonesing for an abundance of summer-movie fixes — and for a Hollywood drowning in red ink.

And as for those big movies going directly to VOD — Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, starring Pete Davidson; The Lovebirds, an action-filled rom-com with Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani — they are no consolation for theater chains such as AMC and Regal Cinemas, which see the direct market as a betrayal of the theatrical experience for the sake of a quick buck.

Deprived of the thing they love, moviegoers are undergoing their own version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief:

-Denial: Pretend that Hollywood studios and theater owners have already figured out how to return to business as usual. They haven’t.

-Anger: Theater owners are fuming about having to reduce capacity (and profits) by at least half to enable social distancing inside the multiplex. And how will you react to invasive health checks — such as mandatory masks and rubber gloves, temperature checks, release forms, and wiping down your own seat with sanitizer (since the virus can live on surfaces for days) — as you enter theaters? A deep clean can be done between shows … but what about during?

-Bargaining: Sure, I’ll wear a mask. I won’t touch my face. (How do you avoid that while eating popcorn?) I’ll try not to think that people around me might be infected or pay attention to the hovering cleaning staff wearing protective gear. I won’t be bothered that my movie date night has taken on the antiseptic aura of a hospital visit.

-Depression: The ultimate downer stems from CDC predictions that a second wave of infection might sweep in later this year, jeopardizing major year-end movies such as Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story and Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune, starring Timothée Chalamet.

-Acceptance: Face the fact that 2020 is already a bust in terms of quantity and quality. There’s no way it’s going to improve if the lingering coronavirus puts the movie year on life support.

Here’s a look at the new normal: Until scientists come up with a vaccine and we can chomp our popcorn with complete peace of mind, chaos reigns. It will be audiences demanding safety guarantees before again venturing into theaters in large numbers. It will be Hollywood pushing for similar assurances to get filmmaking back up to speed after COVID-19 concerns brought production to a standstill. For actors and crews on sets, that will mean daily testing. Digital wizardry can help with faking crowd sequences. But how do you shoot sex scenes without putting actors in hazmat suits? Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) is heading a Directors Guild committee to address those concerns. Good luck with that.

Is it worth the trouble? There’s something about the American spirit that won’t take no for an answer. It’s not denial, it’s perseverance. Watch that scene from the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels in which shackled prisoners gather to laugh out loud at a Disney cartoon. There’s a reason it still resonates. Moviegoing is a communal experience.

The question is: Will we ever laugh again at the multiplex — so blissfully unaware of the terrors in the world outside? Of course we will:  It’ll take more than a few knockout punches from a virus to permanently kill the habit. A quarantined Stephen King summed up that never-say-die feeling in a tweet: “God, how I wish I could go to a movie tonight. Popcorn, Junior Mints, big old soda, sitting in the third row and watching some action flick or a goofball comedy. I’d love that.” The theaters will open again. The crowds will eventually come back. And then we’ll be right there alongside one another, taking it all in together.

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