MOVIES

The DC Traffic Jam: Why It’s So Hard to Release Christmas Movies

Warner Bros. Discovery, continuing its newfound status as entertainment ecosystem disruptor, announced several theatrical release date changes this week, with DC Comics sequel “Shazam!: Fury of the Gods” moving its Christmas 2022 date to March 17, 2o23. It replaces “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which will now open on December 25, 2023.

“Shazam” director David F. Sandberg tweeted that the reason his film’s delay wasn’t the studio; it was “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which gobbled up the IMAX screens in December. (WBD didn’t see that coming?) All in, it’s probably a win for “Aquaman;” the FX could probably use the extra nine months and it gets a higher-profile new date.

For now, however, the release calendar lost what would probably have been the second-highest grossing film released in December (next to the IMAX-hogging “Avatar,” of course). It also suggests a problem for all releases calendars of Christmas future: More films require more IMAX screens.

Christmas is a sensitive date that demands careful consideration. While the loss of “Shazam” leaves more room for November openings like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Strange World” (Disney), “The Fabelmans” (Universal), and “Devotion” (Sony), the 2022 holiday season already looked thin. As of now, these are the wide-release films from December 14 on:

December 14: “A Man Called Otto” (Sony)
December 16: “Avatar: The Weight of Water” (Disney)
December 21: “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Universal) and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Sony)

Joining those four are these four limited/expanding releases:

December 9: “Empire of Light” (Searchlight) and “House Party” (Warner Bros.)
December 16: “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies” (Focus)
December 25: “Women Talking” (United Artists)

The lack of product is a stark reminder of the challenge theaters continue to face; it also reflects how release strategies continue to evolve for a brief holiday period that has perhaps 9-13 lucrative days. Unlike the rest of the year, film openings can’t be spaced out to maximize seating and show times, and to minimize audience cannibalization. Winter weather and competition from other activities also can be risks.

avatar way of water underwater

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

20th Century Studios

The biggest change came in 2015, when Disney relaunched the “Star Wars” franchise with “The Force Awakens.” It was unusual  to schedule an established franchise for Christmas since these films usually need multiple screens over a period of weeks. Today it’s a norm; in 2021 “Spider-Man: No Way Home” had the slot and this year it’s “Avatar.”

Even back in 2009, there were only seven wide studio releases. Three were comedies (two live-action, one animated), a genre all but absent in theaters today. In 2019, seven new releases played in over 2,000 theaters, with three of them (“The Rise of Skywalker,” “Jumanji: The Next Level,” and “Little Women”) ultimately grossing over $100 million.

“Shazam” could have been a $100 million+ release in a year that needs them badly. Its absence will hurt theaters, but the damage might not be as severe as feared if James Cameron’s film performs to maximum potential. The first “Shazam” grossed $140 million domestic with an April 2o19 debut; the original “Avatar” took in $900 million adjusted. Last year, with “Spider-Man” grossing $614 million through New Year’s weekend, grosses were a respectable 80 percent of Christmas 2019.

All that said, this year’s Christmas problems may be modest to what lies ahead. In Christmas 2023, we’ve now got “Aquaman,” Disney’s “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron,” Paramount’s “Star Trek” reboot and the next “Ghostbusters” from Sony. Earlier this month,  Cineworld and IMAX announced that 52 IMAX locations worldwide footprint will be upgraded or opened by 2026. That doesn’t seem like nearly enough.

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