Cinema’s slow restart is a big chance for smaller films

With big blockbusters still staying away over ticket sale fears, lower-budget movies are taking the chance to stand out in a reduced market, says Huw Fullerton.

An image from Black Water Abyss

The cinema experience is back! From July 4th moviegoers will once again be able to grab their popcorn, cram themselves in comfy, high-backed seats and enjoy a movie the way it was intended, on the big screen. There’s just one problem (apart from the raging pandemic and possibly inadequate safety precautions) – there won’t actually be many films to watch beyond a few classic re-releases.

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Even with cinemas set to reopen, the release schedules are looking pretty thin as big studios play it safe. Disney’s Mulan is at time of writing set to be released in late July a few weeks after the multiplexes first open their doors, but the Hollywood Reporter suggests that it could be moved again over fears of low turnout, hot on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet being shifted from July to August.

Meanwhile, other big films including Black Widow, A Quiet Place II and Wonder Woman 1984 have been pushed to the autumn.

Clearly, these are dark times for the movie industry – but in some areas, this barren landscape of releases also offers a unique opportunity. What if your movie wasn’t a multimillion-dollar behemoth needing to turn a vast profit? What if you’d made a small film on a low-ish budget that was only expected to be a moderate success anyway? And what if, suddenly, you were able to supply the first cinema experience anyone had enjoyed in months?

In other words, for a film with less to lose the reopening of cinemas offers a golden opportunity to stand out in a way they never would have before. Already, a few are taking advantage.

Unhinged, a thriller made for $33 million starring Russell Crowe, is now set to be released on the 10th July in the US and the 17th in the UK, with the studio “welcoming enthusiastic filmgoers to re-engage the big screen experience”. Just for contrast, Wonder Woman 1984 was made for $175 million – clearly a bigger risk of losing money if people don’t turn up.

Elsewhere, comedy The Broken Hearts Gallery was recently set for the same 17th/10th July UK/US release date, with the low-budget rom-com becoming one of the first films released by a major studio (in this case, distributors Sony) since the pandemic began.

“We have faith in a theatrical rebound, and we look forward to being there right out of the gate with our exhibition partners’ anticipated reemergence, as — and when — safety guidelines are met,” Sony’s Josh Greenstein said.

Black Water: Abyss, a self-described “Killer croc thriller” and sequel to the super low-budget Black Water will be released even earlier on the 10th July, with Altitude Films noting that it is “one of the first films to be released in UK and Irish cinemas when they re-open post-lockdown” and adding that “sheer terror is back where it belongs: on the big screen”.

Among the other films first released in cinemas are drag club comedy Stage Mother (on July 31st), Gerard Butler action movie Greenland in August along with period drama The Secret Garden, horror movie The Empty Man and the long-awaited Bill & Ted sequel starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Some of these films are bigger than others, but it’s fair to say they’re all on the lower-budget side of mainstream filmmaking, and might once have struggled to stand out among the planned summer releases.

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Really, it’s easy to see where the studios are coming from. Their delayed blockbusters have large budgets, and need to make a massive amount of money just to recoup their costs, let alone turn a profit. If Wonder Woman 1984 makes 100 million, it’s a bomb – but if Unhinged does it, it’s tripled its budget and made a profit.

With that in mind, releasing these smaller films is low-risk. They might even do better than they would have pre-pandemic, with audiences desperate for some sort of silver screen experience and willing to try movies they usually would have skipped over in favour of something bigger.

Meanwhile, the big studios can watch audience behaviour as these first films are released, and adjust their other releases accordingly. After all, you only get one chance to make a cinematic debut – and with the risk of further outbreaks and reduced ticket sales, it could be that we’ll have to get used to a slightly more modest collection of movies at the multiplex.

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