Last summer, those of us who love going to the movies sat quietly in our homes and dreamed about summer 2021: that mythical post-pandemic time when everything would be back to normal and we could sit in the dark and watch a blockbuster movie on an enormous screen.
Well, summer 2021 is almost here, the multiplexes are open and the blockbusters are on their way. But things aren't quite normal.
Most but not all movie theaters have reopened to some degree. And as vaccination rates tick up, more of us may be feeling comfortable returning to in-person screenings. I'm looking forward to seeing a movie in a theater later this month, after I'm fully vaccinated — for the first time in more than a year. (I'll be the woman on the aisle who quite possibly passes out from the intensity — and the joy — of the experience.)
What we'll find, when we return to the theaters, will be different, and not just in obvious ways like mask-wearing, distant seating and whiffs of disinfectant: The strategy for bringing movies to theaters has changed, perhaps permanently. The coronavirus pandemic hit the movie business hard, causing numerous 2020 releases to be postponed (some to as far as 2022) or released for streaming only — and some movie studios, worried that people might be reluctant to embrace in-person cinema again, are hedging their bets this summer.
Warner Bros., for example, announced last year that all of its 2021 slate would come out simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service, HBO Max. Disney, likewise, is releasing some of its summer hits simultaneously on its own service, Disney+ (often in the Premier Access tier, which requires an extra rental fee). This means that some of this summer's biggest movies — "In the Heights," "Space Jam: A New Legacy," "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" for WB; "Black Widow" and "Cruella" for Disney — can be watched at home instantly, without waiting for the traditional theatrical window. And at least one major summer movie, Disney/Pixar's animated adventure "Luca," is bypassing theaters entirely, available only on Disney+.
This is bad news for movie theater operators, who depend on first-run fare to bring audiences in, but potentially good for those not yet ready to venture out — or who may have found, during a pandemic year, that watching movies from home suited them fine. Movie theaters have had to get creative during a time of lost revenue, offering private cinema rentals (which can be surprisingly affordable) or special events like Cinema Week, a six-day event in June designed to encourage moviegoing.
While the large chains have reopened, many smaller theaters nationwide remain closed and may stay that way for months to come. In the St. Louis area, at least two movie theaters have permanently closed during the pandemic: the AMC Dine-In West Olive 16 in Creve Coeur and the Moolah Theatre and Lounge in midtown.
Alton, meanwhile, welcomed a new theater: NCG Cinema Alton. And Marcus Theatres, the region’s largest cinema chain, unveiled renovations last week at its Mid Rivers Mall location in St. Peters.
Brian Shander, a district director for Marcus locations in Missouri, says he’s seen signs of life for moviegoing, with better-than-expected showings for “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train” — and potential summer blockbusters like Marvel’s “Black Widow."
“The obituary of theaters has been written many times, and it hasn’t come to fruition,” he says. “TVs, VCRs, DVDs were all supposed to do it and we’re still here. People want that experience out in the community.”
So this will be a summer movie season of options. Some of us may stick with what's now become a habit: watching movies at home and popping our own popcorn. Some may find a middle ground, visiting drive-in theaters (for whom the pandemic brought a surprising surge) or renting cinemas with groups of vaccinated friends. And some of us, armed with masks and full vaccinations, will be heading back into theaters, embracing a little bit of back-to-normal. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.
Daniel Neman and Austin Huguelet of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Summer's biggest films — and where to watch them
To help keep track of what are the most noteworthy movies coming out this summer, and where you can watch them, we’ve compiled this list of 21 films. Dates/venues are subject to change. By Jimmy Geurts, Florida Times Union
The top 21 summer films — and where to watch them
The latest entry in the “Saw” horror movie franchise, “Spiral” stars Chris Rock as a police detective investigating murders reminiscent of killer mastermind Jigsaw, with Samuel L. Jackson playing Rock’s father. The “Saw” series has been stagnant for a while now and was arguably never all that great to begin with, but the addition of Rock and Jackson in this latest film is intriguing, particularly with Rock reportedly being a fan of the series who was heavily involved in the creative development process. (May 14; in theaters)
'Those Who Wish Me Dead'
Angelina Jolie stars in this adaptation of Michael Koryta’s novel as a smokejumper who helps a young murder witness evade two assassins pursuing him, as well as a forest fire started to root them out. The film is directed by Taylor Sheridan, who’s had a string of successes between his screenplays for “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” the series “Yellowstone” he co-created and his 2017 directorial effort “Wind River,” with Koryta and Sheridan co-penning the screenplay along with Charles Leavitt. (May 14; in theaters and on HBO Max)
'Army of the Dead'
Dave Bautista stars in Zack Snyder’s latest film about a group of mercenaries attempting to pull off a heist in a zombie-ridden Las Vegas, with a cast that also includes Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro and Garret Dillahunt. Better known for his comic book blockbusters like “Justice League” and “Man of Steel,” Snyder’s best film might remain his lean, nasty 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake, so it should be interesting to see him return to the genre of his debut film on a much larger scale and budget. (May 21; on Netflix)
Disney’s latest live-action adaptation offers an origin story for “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil, played by Emma Stone, set behind the backdrop of 1970s London and the fashion world. Centering on a character best known for her attempted mass murder of dogs may seem like an unusual choice for a Disney film — this features a still-rare PG-13 rating for one of its non-Marvel or Star Wars movies — but Stone looks to be having fun in the role, as Glenn Close did in Disney’s previous live-action “101 Dalmatians” adaptations. (May 28; in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access)
'A Quiet Place Part II'
This sequel to John Krasinski’s 2018 horror hit, which was set for release last March before the pandemic shut down theaters, sees the light of day more than a year later. Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe reprise their roles as a family trying to survive in a world overrun by monsters with an acute sense of hearing, with Cillian Murphy and Djimon Hounsou joining the cast. The first “A Quiet Place” was a surprise smash both commercially and critically; hopefully its sequel can find the same success. (May 28; in theaters)
'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It'
The third entry in “The Conjuring” horror series follows paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) and their involvement in the real-life 1981 murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who claimed to have been possessed by a demon. Though stars Farmiga and Wilson are returning, director James Wan is not, releasing his new horror film “Malignant” later this year as “The Curse of La Llorona” filmmaker Michael Chaves takes his place. (June 4; in theaters and on HBO Max)
'In the Heights'
After the smash success of “Hamilton,” including last year’s Golden Globe-nominated filmed version, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earlier musical now gets a cinematic adaptation, directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” filmmaker Jon M. Chu. Set in New York City’s largely Dominican neighborhood Washington Heights, “In the Heights” stars “Hamilton” actor Anthony Ramos as a bodega owner, with the cast also including Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits and Miranda. (June 11; in theaters and on HBO Max)
The latest Pixar film follows two boys sharing adventures, gelato and scooter rides in an Italian Riviera town, with their seemingly carefree life holding one big concern: hiding the fact they are secretly sea creatures in disguise. Any new Pixar film is worth watching at least once, and while it’s a bit disappointing this won’t play on the big screen, hopefully it’s not a sign of a lack of quality; the studio’s previous film “Soul” also debuted exclusively on Disney+ before going on to recently win two Oscars. (June 18; on Disney+)
The “Fast & Furious” family returns for this ninth installment in the series, with the ever-expanding cast now adding John Cena, who plays the assassin brother of protagonist Dom (Vin Diesel.) The series decided about halfway through its current run to transition from relatively straightforward street-racing crime films to increasingly, gleefully absurd action spectacles. And judging from the “F9” trailer, which appears to deliver on the idea that the only place left for the series to go is space, this latest entry will be no different. (June 25; in theaters)
This movie itself may not necessarily be a blockbuster, but the viral, 148-tweet thread that inspired it is, telling the story of “Zola” (Taylour Paige), who finds herself on a road trip to Florida with another woman (Riley Keough) that turns wild. The movie is co-written by Tony-nominated “Slave Play” playwright Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Janicza Bravo. (June 30; in theaters)
'Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)'
Roots drummer Questlove’s documentary chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, dubbed Black Woodstock by some as it took place the same summer and featured performers such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Sly & the Family Stone. “Summer of Soul” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award and heralded by critics as an instant addition to the concert film canon. Searchlight Pictures and Hulu acquired the documentary for a record $12 million, which seems to indicate a belief it could be a commercial hit, too. (July 2; in theaters and on Hulu)
As Marvel is now seemingly preparing a movie or series for just about every character it has, one of the original Avengers now gets her own standalone movie: Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson for more than a decade now. Set before the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” “Black Widow” will add multiple new actors and characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova and “Stranger Things” star David Harbour as Red Guardian. (July 9; in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access)
'Space Jam: A New Legacy'
Bringing the 1996 hybrid live-action/cartoon film starring Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes characters to a new generation, this sequel stars fellow basketball phenom LeBron James as himself, as he’s transported to an universe full of Looney Tunes and other Warner Bros. characters. “Space Jam” has always been somewhat nostalgically misremembered as an actually good movie (speaking as a ’90s kid who was very much in its target audience), but James proved a charismatic screen presence in his role in “Trainwreck,” and if he can carry this film, he should be able to carry any. (July 16; in theaters and on HBO Max)
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, inspired by the graphic novel “Sandcastle,” follows a vacationing family who visits a beach that mysteriously causes them to age rapidly. Though even Shyamalan’s supposed current comeback phase of his career has produced mixed results so far (“Glass,” pretty good; “The Visit,” not so much), this film’s Super Bowl spot was intriguing, and it features an excellent cast including Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Thomasin McKenzie, Eliza Scanlen and Alex Wolff. (July 23; in theaters)
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a riverboat captain escorting a scientist (Emily Blunt) in Disney’s latest cinematic adaptation of one of its theme park attractions, which have had a success rate ranging from widespread disapproval (“The Haunted Mansion”) to enormous commercial and critical success (“Pirates of the Caribbean”). It’s taken one step in the right direction by — like “Pirates” and its then-seemingly unorthodox choice of director Gore Verbinski — hiring Jaume Collet-Serra, a filmmaker better known for thrillers like “The Shallows,” “The Commuter” and “Orphan.” (July 30; in theaters)
'The Suicide Squad'
The collective of comic book ne’er-do-wells who made their big-screen debut in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” come back for this film, with returning characters including Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn alongside several new ones like Idris Elba as Bloodsport, John Cena as Peacemaker and Sylvester Stallone voicing the CGI King Shark. “Guardians of the Galaxy” director and St. Louis native James Gunn moves from Marvel to DC for this film which, unlike those movies or the original “Suicide Squad,” will be R-rated, looking more in line with Gunn’s earlier dark comedies “Super” and “Slither.” (Aug. 6; in theaters and on HBO Max)
Ryan Reynolds stars in this action-comedy as a non-player character in a video game who suddenly becomes aware of his situation and chooses to become a hero, in this film seemingly blending the third-wall-breaking of Reynolds’ “Deadpool” films, “Ready Player One” and “The Truman Show.” The trailers thus far haven’t inspired much confidence, but it does feature a solid supporting cast that includes Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery and Taika Waititi. (Aug. 13; in theaters)
After the box office and awards success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” this Aretha Franklin biopic with Jennifer Hudson playing the Queen of Soul looks like it could be the next big hit in the genre. Delayed from last winter to this summer — probably for the best for Hudson’s awards chances, as this year’s best actress Oscar race was very competitive and already featured two portrayals of real-life singers — the film’s cast also includes Forest Whittaker as Franklin’s father and Marc Maron as the late legendary producer and longtime Siesta Key resident Jerry Wexler. (Aug. 13; in theaters)
'The Beatles: Get Back'
Peter Jackson’s documentary chronicles the making of the Beatles’ last studio album, 1970’s “Let It Be” — the subject of a prior documentary of the same name — using previously unseen footage and featuring the group’s final rooftop concert in full. Most music documentaries could hardly be considered blockbusters, but most also aren’t about the most acclaimed band ever or made by the director of “The Lord of the Rings,” with Jackson reportedly using similar techniques to his stunning World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” and Disney releasing the film. (Aug. 27; in theaters)
The 1992 horror film about the title hook-wielding spirit (Tony Todd) who appears when his name is repeated in front of a mirror gets a new sequel, following an artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who lives in a condo built on the torn-down Chicago housing projects that Candyman haunted and becomes involved in his legend. Previous “Candyman” sequels didn’t add much to the well-executed original, but this one features a talented creative team in producer Jordan Peele and director Nia DaCosta and looks to tackle topics of race and gentrification, further impressing with a shadow puppet teaser. (Aug. 27; in theaters)
'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'
The second Marvel Cinematic Universe movie set to come out this year, “Shang-Chi” introduces the titular comic book character to the big screen, played by Simu Liu. The film looks to honor the character’s heritage with a largely Asian and Asian American creative team and cast that also includes the great Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, with Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy,” “Short Term 12”) directing, as well as introduce some more martial arts-inspired action into the MCU. (Sept. 3; in theaters)
Other notable releases
“The Woman in the Window” • May 14, on Netflix
“Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” • June 16, in theaters
“Fatherhood” • June 18, on Netflix
“The Forever Purge” • July 2, in theaters
“The Tomorrow War” • July 2, on Prime Video
"The Boss Baby: Family Business" • July 2 in theaters and on Peacock
“Escape Room 2” • July 16, in theaters
“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” • July 23, in theaters
“Stillwater” • July 30, in theaters
“Don’t Breathe 2” • Aug. 13, in theaters
“Reminiscence” • Aug. 27, in theaters and on HBO Max