The Culture Business: Mark Harris
New York magazine|August 31–September 13, 2020
The Culture Business: Mark Harris
The Expendables What if the movie studios decide they don’t need theaters after all?

IN A NORMAL YEAR, major movies don’t get released on Labor Day weekend, since it’s too late to compete for summer’s bounty and too early for awards season. But with many of the nation’s theaters finally open again, this Labor Day will be defined by the premieres of two big movies that also represent a fork in the road: Together, they may determine not only what films we see but how we see them for the rest of this year and perhaps for much longer. One, Disney’s Mulan, will bypass U.S. movie houses completely and debut on Disney+ on September 4, more than five months after its originally scheduled opening in theaters. The other, Warner Bros.’ oft-postponed Christopher Nolan film, Tenet (opening September 3), is making a bet on the big screen.

For movie studios, it’s a stark moment of decision. With a huge backlog of films awaiting release and production restarting or beginning on others, Mulan and Tenet are raising the question: Does the year in movies have to include leaving the house?

If Mulan underperforms, theaters will live to fight another day. But if Mulan is a smash and Tenet wobbles financially or, worse, generates headlines about theater-based viral clusters a few weeks from now, it’s hard to imagine regular theatergoing— or major releases—resuming before the arrival of the New Year, a vaccine, or both.

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August 31–September 13, 2020