Sunday Strategist: In Pandemic Hollywood, Tomorrow Never Dies

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Honestly, the title probably didn’t help. No Time To Die, the latest James Bond vehicle, graciously ceded its April 2 theater debut to coronavirus jitters, instead planning to drop the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. 

Fans had requested the delay, but for Eon, MGM and Universal the risk of a box office disaster was probably too great. “That’s their big movie this year,” said Comscore movie analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “I don’t think they can take any chance with it.”

Hollywood scheduling is one of the more fascinating strategy exercises in contemporary business. Studios and distributers are in a perpetual staring contest to slot their most promising movies on open ground or at the very least make sure they don’t open on the same day as similar fare. The respective superheroes from Marvel and DC Comics, for example, will never really slug it out, primarily because they bigfoot a weekend years in advance. (Get ready for Avatar 5 on Dec. 17, 2027; it’s already on the calendar.)

“It’s always a chess game,” Dergarabedian explained. “And there’s a little bit of magic to it.”

The U.S. box office has actually been pretty resilient, up for the year and posting good numbers even through last weekend. But theaters are shuttered across China, soon to be the world’s biggest movie market, and much of Europe. Production schedules are in tatters 

Some would say Bond should never have been planned for April anyway. Historically, the franchise has dropped in November. But the studio was hunting for white space. Now, Bond must survive in one of Hollywood’s most cutthroat weekends, going up against Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and days after the release of Godzilla vs. Kong.

Meanwhile, a slate of blockbuster bait is lined up (and may eventually be subject a similar shift) including Black Widow (May 1), the ninth Fast and Furious vehicle (May 22), the Wonder Woman sequel (June 5) and Top Gun: Maverick (June 25). 

Make no mistake, every consumer-facing executive—from convention planners and cruise ship bosses to smartphone salesman and lobster fishermen—is facing the same calculus at the moment.

The returns are certainly diminishing as crowds thin out, however the spoils—or at least the share—could increase for those who stay in the game. Savvy strategists aren’t just trying to gauge demand but also divine the strength of their rivals’ stomachs.

Indeed, shortly after Bond decamped, the puzzle pieces started moving in Hollywood. Trolls World Tour bumped its U.S. debut up by a week to fill the space 007 left open, while Saint Maud, an A24 horror film, delayed its launch to do the same.

As they say on Game of Thrones: chaos is a ladder.

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