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For the past year and a half, there’s been little to do about the state of cinema besides hand-wring. Obviously, we’ve done our fair share. And really, what else is there? When Covid-19 crash-landed on Earth, theaters shut down, and that was pretty much the least of the world’s problems. Since then, film lovers have spent a lot of time with video-on-demand and Hollywood has devoted its attention to, well, figuring out what the hell to do. Should they hold all their releases until theaters can fully reopen? Throw everything on streaming? Something hybrid? At this point the industry has tried almost everything—with varying results.
At the heart of this—at least now, during what would traditionally be summer blockbuster season—are two key players with two rather different approaches: Warner Bros. and Disney. The former announced back in December of last year that it would be releasing its entire slate of 2021 films on its streaming service, HBO Max, the same day those movies hit theaters. Disney, meanwhile, started the year exploring a model where it released movies in theaters but also offered them on Disney+ at the same time for 30 bucks a pop. Whether any of these gambits succeeded or failed is hard to qualify—both have increased their streaming subscribers; neither has had a film that cracked $100 million domestically in its opening weekend. Like everyone, their status quo remains getting by.
Which is why something about the new Eternals trailer feels like hope. Not to be too woo-woo about it, but in addition to the fact that it looks gorgeous, the final teaser also has the air of an Event Movie, a title on par with Avengers: Endgame or the first Wonder Woman. Featuring the most stacked cast in a Marvel film to date (Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Atlanta's Brian Tyree Henry, Crazy Rich Asians' Gemma Chan, Game of Thrones' Richard Madden and Kit Harington), the movie is directed by a minted Oscar-winner—Chloé Zhao—and is hitting on the non-popcorn-season date of November 5. Marvel’s mission creep, you can’t help but wonder if it’ll save movies—or at least save movies in 2021.
By the time it drops, it will have had some runway laid out before it. Earlier this summer, Marvel’s Black Widow did pretty well when it hit theaters and Disney+ on the same day. Free Guy managed to beat box office projections, despite being a theatrical-only release and arriving as Covid-19’s Delta variant was beginning to surge. Next up: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will become Marvel’s first exclusive theatrical release in two years when it drops September 3. It’s expected that Eternals will be a theaters-only release as well; cineastes and comics fans can only hope theaters will be able to offer it on a lot of screens to allow for everyone to get a socially distanced viewing.
Eternals, of course, won’t be alone. In a near-collision of the strategies of Disney and Warner Bros., the film comes out a mere two weeks after Dune—the other fall release begging you to see it in theaters. Dune director Denis Villeneuve has been pretty adamant that fans experience his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic on the big screen, even penning a letter in Variety decrying his studio’s decision to release the movie on HBO Max. “Warner Bros.’ decision means Dune won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable,” he wrote. The question of money won’t be answered until October, but when it comes to whether or not Villeneuve’s movie should be watched in a theater, Eternals director Zhao, who saw an early screening of the film, has thoughts. “It gives me hope that a filmmaker like Denis is able to really harness his vision and put together something so incredible, so cinematic,” she told Sight & Sound magazine. “I’m just blown away by the experience I had in that room. But I’m terrified about how many people are or aren’t going to have that experience like I did, in a theater, and what that means for the future.”
Therein lies the hard part. Even as studios are changing their release methods, audiences are continuing to change their viewing ones. Some are clamoring to be back in cinemas, others—who’ve grown accustomed to their own flatscreens and not sitting next to loud-chewers who text throughout an entire film—perhaps aren’t. Whether Eternals or Dune can persuade them to go out to the movies, and whether Covid will allow them to safely do so, will ultimately determine whether the next Eternals or Dune will get made. They pay for their massive budgets with ticket sales, after all. They have the power to change things for eternity.