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‘Black Widow’ vs. ‘F9’: which summer movie blockbuster will blink first?

Disney’s “Black Widow” and Universal’s “F9” are poised to kick off summer moviegoing season. Yet it’s unlikely either blockbuster will actually arrive on schedule.

While neither film has been postponed, industry experts and insiders have been speculating that Hollywood’s next round of release date delays will begin to impact the middle of 2021.

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At this point, it’s almost expected that movies due out in the first half of the year will be moved yet again. With coronavirus cases rampant and the vaccine rollout going more slowly than many hoped, studios and by extension, cinema operators, are essentially in the same situation they were 10 months ago: audiences aren’t going to the movies.

Even with President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that the U.S. will be able to vaccinate 300 million people by July, it’s still too soon to tell how quickly Americans will be able to resume everyday activities.

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In the interim, however, ticket sales aren’t doing much to encourage studios. With 60% of U.S. theaters closed, the top 10 movies combined have brought in between $7 million to $12 million each weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. Compounding matters, conversations around reopening theaters in major markets like New York and Los Angeles have seemingly come to a standstill, and Hollywood players have been pretty clear that they don’t intend to open a buzzy tentpole without theaters on the coasts welcoming patrons.

After MGM announced in January that “No Time to Die,” Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond, will no longer hit theaters in April (it’s now slated for Oct. 8), it set off a small ripple. Universal pushed the Bob Odenkirk thriller “Nobody” to April, Paramount bounced “A Quiet Place Part II” to September and Sony bumped “Ghostbusters: Afterlife and “Cinderella” to November and July, respectively. (Meanwhile Warner Bros., seemingly operating in another universe due to its hybrid HBO Max agreement, moved “Godzilla vs. Kong” up two months from May to March).

Yet the two biggest movies positioned to open in the next few months, Scarlett Johansson-led Marvel adventure “Black Widow” (set for May 7) and “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9” (set for May 28), have not wavered. And it’s not because their respective studios are optimistic that they’ll be able to open them in theaters as planned. The decision isn’t if these titles should move, it’s more likely a matter of assessing where to move them.

However, it’s an especially significant decision because postponing “Black Widow” and “F9” signals to the rest of the film industry that moviegoing may be absent another summer season.

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There have been frequent rumors that “Black Widow” may keep its May release date and take a route similar to “Raya and the Last Dragon,” meaning it would premiere simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus for a premium price. On Disney’s quarterly earnings call on Thursday, Disney CEO Bob Chapek debunked that theory and stressed that the studio is “still intending [’Black Widow’] to be a theatrical release.”

According to insiders, that’s partially because Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, the lead architect behind the meticulously constructed Marvel Cinematic Universe, was opposed to a hybrid rollout. Having produced many of the studio’s highest-grossing movies, including “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” Feige’s opinion certainly carries considerable weight at Disney. But that doesn’t mean the powers that be can’t eventually convince Feige to change his mind -- or overrule him completely.

Sources suggest Disney has three to four weeks before having to make a decision about “Black Widow” and Universal has slightly more time for “F9” because it’s not expected to debut until three weeks after the Marvel film. “Black Widow,” in particular, represents its own set of complications because of the interconnected nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which now spans both feature films meant for theatrical distribution, and limited and ongoing TV series created for Disney Plus. Bumping “Black Widow” means that “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (July 9) and “Eternals” (Nov. 5) would almost certainly be shuffled around as well. It could also throw Marvel’s carefully planned roll-out of its Disney Plus shows into disarray as well -- after “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” in March, at least four other titles are set to premiere on the streamer this year.

Meanwhile, Universal plans to keep a traditional theatrical release for “F9” because “Fast & Furious” is among the studio’s most lucrative properties. Prior to the pandemic, the upcoming entry would have easily generated more than $1 billion worldwide. Under the current circumstances, getting ticket sales anywhere near that number would be a feat as unrealistic as any of the gravity-defying stunts performed in a “Fast” movie. Though Universal last year forged an agreement with major theater chains, including AMC and Cinemark, to put its movies on demand sooner than usual, even the most optimistic outcome would result in a money-losing proposition given the impaired theatrical marketplace. Too few countries have reopened movie theaters, and too few people are going in the areas where moviegoing has returned.

For now, Universal is waiting to see how the box office recovers in China, where the “Fast” movies are enormously popular. Hinging upon Asian countries, “F9” could end up opening later in summer, possibly in July or August, or down the line in 2021. There’s even a world in which it is delayed another year.

“Black Widow” and “F9” are no small propositions; they each carry nine-figure marketing campaigns on top of $200 million-plus production budgets. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which attempted to restart moviegoing last September and grossed $363 million globally, has fielded the strongest result yet for a coronavirus-era release. Months later, “Wonder Woman 1984” tapped out with a meager $154 million worldwide. If “Black Widow” and “F9” replicated those results, they would stand to lose millions upon millions.

One positive: “Black Widow” and “F9” both benefit from brand awareness, meaning the general public is already familiar with these franchises. Their respective studios don’t need to reintroduce the characters to audiences the same way they would have to with an original property. And, unlike James Bond, who has lucrative partnerships with Heineken and Audi, among others, neither “Fast” nor “Black Widow” have significant consumer product tie-ins, which makes it easier and less costly for them to pick up and move to a new date.

The eventual retreat of “Black Widow” and “F9” may have serious implications for the movie business. Several titles, including Ryan Reynolds’ sci-fi adventure “Free Guy” (May 21), Paramount’s “Infinite” starring Mark Wahlberg (May 28), Sony’s “Venom” sequel (June 25) and “Top Gun: Maverick” (July 2), remain on the calendar. But plans could be amended should “Black Widow” and “F9” wave the white flag on summer.

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What’s tricky is the back half of the year has become so stacked, there’s hardly any room to slot in new titles without pushing others back. Starting in fall, blockbuster-hopefuls are scheduled nearly every single week: “A Quiet Place” (Sept. 17), “Many Saints of Newark” (Sept. 24), “Dune” (Oct. 1), “Halloween Kills” (Oct. 15), “Eternals” (Nov. 5), “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (Nov. 11), “Mission: Impossible” (Nov. 19), “West Side Story” (Dec. 10) and “The Matrix 4” (Dec. 22).

At a closer glance, it appears that nobody told the holiday season that there’s still a pandemic raging.

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