Summer preview: The blockbuster movie makes a comeback

After more than a year of benching its biggest spectacles, Hollywood is ready to dazzle again.

From “F9” and “In the Heights” to “The Suicide Squad” and “Black Widow,” there will be a steady stream of blockbusters populating multiplexes for the first time since March 2020. For streaming-weary audiences, the promise of air conditioning, popcorn, soda fountains, 60-foot screens and state-of-the-art sound could be a welcome respite from the living room.

For beleaguered movie theaters, it’s not a moment too soon.

The modern summer movie season, which runs from May through Labor Day, regularly accounts for over $4 billion in revenue and makes up around 40% of the year’s grosses. Last year, summer earnings were $176 million, down 96% from 2019. Theaters have been gearing up for this moment and this summer will be an important gauge on whether habits have changed irrevocably during the pandemic.

In some ways, the calendar looks like a do-over of last summer. Many of the most anticipated releases were supposed to come out a year ago, including John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place Part II” (May 28), Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning “In the Heights” (June 11), the ninth “Fast & Furious” movie, “F9” (June 25), Marvel’s “Black Widow” (July 9) starring Scarlett Johansson, the Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson action adventure “Jungle Cruise” (July 30) and the “Candyman” reboot (Aug. 27).

“In the Heights” director Jon M. Chu had to convince Miranda that it was worth it to wait for a theatrical release instead of pushing it out on a streaming platform last summer. The “Crazy Rich Asians” director knows the importance of a global release for a film led by an underrepresented group.

“We had big dreams for this,” Chu said.

The “Fast & Furious” series has also been about creating a fun theatrical experience. “F9” not only brings back a fan favorite — Sung Kang’s Han — it also sends cars into space.

“Whenever I get together with Vin (Diesel) and everybody to make these movies, we’re not even talking about the plot … but the feeling. I just remember as a kid in the summer saving enough money to go to the movies to share that experience with a bunch of strangers,” said director Justin Lin. “When that moment hits and everyone’s laughing or cheering together, it is magical.”

Before the pandemic, summer moviegoing was a ritual. Now it’s a wild card whether the promise of an “event film” will motivate audiences back to theaters, especially if something is also available to watch at home.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” director Malcom D. Lee called his film “The epitome of a popcorn movie.” The sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan pic has LeBron James sharing the screen with classic Looney Toons characters.

For a more R-rated adventure, “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn has this “misfit, Z-grade supervillains” of “The Suicide Squad.” He had his pick of DC characters and turned down Superman for Harley Quinn, Bloodsport and Peacemaker. Gunn looked to 1960s war capers like “The Dirty Dozen” for inspiration.

There are many other options too, including horror movies, like a third “Conjuring,” documentaries about Anthony Bourdain and The Beatles, and family films, like “Peter Rabbit 2″ (June 18) and the fourth “Hotel Transylvania” (July 23). Ryan Reynolds is in two action flicks, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” (June 16) and “Free Guy” (Aug. 13). There’s even an epic Dev Patel-led take on a classic Arthurian legend, “The Green Knight” (July 30).

“I really I want audiences to get a chance to see it on the big screen,” said “The Green Knight” director David Lowery. “It’s a strange movie and I think that the idea of having that experience in a cinema with other people is going to be really, really exciting, especially after a year away from the big screen.”

Some studios have been cautiously rolling out bigger films to decent results lately, like “Godzilla vs. Kong.” But after seven weeks, even that is still shy of cracking the $100 million mark domestically. In a normal summer, $100 million might be an opening weekend for a tentpole.

Moviegoing has changed and for consumers it’s also become hard to keep tabs on ever shifting dates, delays and multi-platform releases. Some summer-ready titles, like “Top Gun: Maverick” and the new James Bond, “No Time To Die,” are waiting until later in the year. And some studios are still selling titles to streaming services. Sony sold its Camilla Cabello “Cinderella” to Amazon Prime and its Kevin Hart pic “Fatherhood” to Netflix.

Even the films with theatrical debuts will have either unique hybrid release plans or shortened theatrical windows. All Warner Bros. titles will debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Most Disney movies, including “Cruella” (May 28), “Black Widow” and “Jungle Cruise” are opening in theaters and on Disney+ as a premium rental (although “Luca” is going straight to Disney+). And the Sundance breakout “CODA” is getting a simultaneous release in theaters and on Apple TV+.

For theaters and studios, the unknowns are many. But everyone is feeling emotional that moviegoing might finally become normal again.

“I think about it all the time,” said Gunn. “I can’t wait to sit in a theater with a group of people and watch films again. It is a true joy in life. It’s a magical space for me and has been since I was a very little boy.”