Last year was an unprecedented one in many ways, what with the COVID-19 pandemic grinding the world to a halt overnight. The film industry was one of many to suffer tremendous economic hardships as a result of severe global lockdowns and social distancing measures. Global cinema revenue experienced a 71.5% loss in revenue compared to 2019, equating to roughly $32 billion lost.
The virus has altered our viewing experience of films. Additionally, the pandemic has also brought forth a seismic shift in how films are made that will be felt for years to come in the industry.
In a year defined by chaos and turmoil, audiences and the industry will remember these films as releases as the most impactful in the world of cinema.
Perhaps the most ambitious film to come out last year was also the riskiest. Christopher Nolan — director of blockbuster hits like “The Dark Knight,” “Interstellar,” and “Dunkirk” — chose 2020 to release one of his most unconventional films during the height of the pandemic.
A non-linear, confusing, and often obtuse time travel story starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, “Tenet” was predicted by many going into 2020 to be one of the year’s biggest box-office successes.
Instead, Covid-19 disrupted the studio’s plans. Like many other films this year, Tenet faced repeated delays over the summer.
The film became one of many that face repeated delays over the summer and beyond. Yet, instead of pushing the film back indefinitely or at least to 2021 like many other big-budget movies, Nolan and Warner Bros. pushed ahead with a wide theatrical release in August.
Unfortunately, due to the risks associated with catching the virus in confined spaces, “Tenet” failed to bring audiences to movie theaters.
It grossed $363 million worldwide, which failed to recoup combined marketing and production costs to lose Warner Bros. up to $100 million. Unfortunately, Tenet became the canary in the coal mine that warned the film industry of the dangers in opening up too early, ensuring that other filmmakers would not make the same mistakes.
“Trolls World Tour”
The most unconventional entry on this list by far, “Trolls: World Tour” is by all accounts the definition of a generic kids movie. Nonetheless, thanks to its perfectly timed release date and some controversial decisions by Universal Pictures, it set the tone for the industry in 2020. The story follows two trolls who discover different tribes from their own who each represent a different genre of music. The tribes must all unite and work together to overthrow the queen of the rock tribe, who seeks to eliminate all other genres. To put it plainly, the story is unremarkable.
Yet, “Trolls: World Tour” was released in April, the height of the pandemic’s first wave. Universal made the brazen and almost reckless decision to release the movie only to limited theaters and on VOD the same day. Some theaters were outraged by the decision, with AMC boycotting future Universal movies in protest. Nevertheless, Trolls: World Tour proved that maybe studio films didn’t need cinemas to succeed, and that it was, in fact, the opposite.
By August, in addition to grossing $44 million from theaters, the film—off of a roughly $100 million budget—would go on to make at least $150 million from rentals, quickly breaking records for the most streams on a release weekend by any company. As more distribution rollouts are expected to follow suit, it remains to be seen whether this method will prove to be a bad thing for consumers, as well as the industry over time.
“Bad Boys 4 Life”
A long-overdue sequel to a franchise that hadn’t seen a new entry in almost 20 years, “Bad Boys 4 Life” was set to be an average if not unexciting movie to start off the year. The action film stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two cops fighting crime in Miami. Off a budget of $90 million, the film grossed $426.5 million and became a profitable success for Sony Pictures.
However, the viewers will remember Bad Boys 4 Life for something entirely separate from its creation or reception. Many expected blockbuster hits like Marvel’s “Black Widow” or “The Eternals,” or even another entry on this list, Nolan’s “Tenet,” to be the most financially lucrative films of 2020. Instead, a sequel to a 17-year-old action movie that didn’t even gross half a billion dollars will forever be ranked the #1 highest-grossing film of 2020—a true Hollywood underdog story if there ever was one.
“Wonder Woman 1984”
Initially scheduled to be released in 2019, then delayed multiple times throughout 2020, “Wonder Woman 1984” was poised to be a hit for the DC Extended Universe. Its predecessor, “Wonder Woman” was praised for its grim portrayal of World War I, and is to date the most critically acclaimed film in the DCEU franchise, as well as the third-highest grossing overall. It was notable for being one of the first mainstream superhero films directed by a woman.
Director Jenkins was given extensive creative control and far higher pay on “Wonder Woman 1984,” an equivalent to many male directors at the same level.. With extensive marketing and a huge budget, the film was set to be DC’s tentpole film of the summer and reinvigorate interest in the DCEU after its last few films received a lukewarm reception.
However, “Wonder Woman 1984” will instead be remembered mainly for its release’s unusual and unfortunate circumstances. In an unprecedented move, Warner Bros. announced their decision to make movies released in 2020-2021 available for streaming on the very day of their release. This action, coming from a major Hollywood studio, outraged actors and filmmakers alike.
In the end, “Wonder Woman: 1984” received reviews that were mixed at best and became the lowest-grossing film of the entire DCEU. That being said, its numbers on HBO Max remain unannounced, meaning it could have been a potential hit for home viewers. Only time will tell if Warner Bros’ gambit will pay off in the long run and whether it was worth it to go all-in on their streaming service.