Believe it or not, the 2020 summer movie season is one of the best we've had in a long time. I can't believe I'm saying that, but it's true. When the nation's cinemas announced they were closing indefinitely due to COVID19, I was fairly despondent. Aside from working as a film critic, I love going to see all the summer movies. It's something I've done for most of my life. A ritual I look forward to annually was being cruelly ripped away.
Like many critics, I had to decide what to do. Some of my colleagues started reviewing older movies to keep content on their websites. The Aisle Seat has always, by design, mixed reviews of major Hollywood movies with more independent fare from distributors like Neon, Magnolia, and IFC. Because their releases are smaller-scale, those companies opted to skip theatrical runs and send their scheduled films to VOD/streaming services, as Neon did with Shirley, or play them at drive-in theaters, as IFC has done very successfully with The Wretched. I decided that I would simply spend the summer reviewing as many of these movies as possible. It wouldn't be a typical summer movie season, but at least I'd have one.
Then something interesting happened. The studios decided to send some of their planned summer movies to VOD and streaming services, as well. Disney launched Artemis Fowl on Disney+, and Apple TV+ picked up the rights to Sony's Tom Hanks drama Greyhound. Universal's Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson comedy The King of Staten Island debuted on premium on-demand, as did Focus Features' The High Note and Irresistible (starring Steve Carell). I added them to my must-review list, too.
To grasp why the 2020 summer movie season is great, you have to understand something. Ben Fritz's excellent book The Big Picture details how studios are only interested in brands these days: superheroes, Star Wars, “cinematic universes,” etc. They don't want to make one movie, they want to make nine. Consequently, the majority of what they greenlight is sequels, prequels, reboots, stuff based on videogames or books, and so on. In other words, they're in the business of giving audiences the same thing again and again, because it's easier to sell an established brand than to launch something original.
Look at the movies we aren't seeing this summer: Black Widow (another Marvel movie), Mulan (live-action remake), Wonder Woman 1984 (sequel/superhero movie), Candyman (remake/reboot), Fast & Furious 9 (sequel), Ghostbusters: Afterlife (sequel/reboot), Jungle Cruise (based on theme park ride), Minions: The Rise of Gru (sequel), Top Gun: Maverick (sequel). Those are just a few examples.
Studios can earn as much as a billion dollars per picture globally with brands. It therefore makes sense for studios to delay those movies until theaters reopen. But dropping The High Note on VOD or sending Greyhound to Apple TV+ is no big deal in the grand scheme. Those films didn't cost $200 million to make, and aren't designed to spawn sequels.
What this means is that the 2020 summer movie season has been filled with films that aren't branded. I grew up in the '80s. Summer represented the time when all the freshest high-concept pictures came out: Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, E.T., Gremlins. That thrill of seeing something brand new is what made the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day so exciting. And that's also what we're getting by default this year: awesome original movies -- some big, some small.
Sure, there have been a couple of duds (hello, My Spy), but I enjoyed almost all the titles mentioned so far in this article. In addition to them, Amazon Prime's The Vast of Night is a brilliant, innovative sci-fi thriller. Netflix's Da 5 Bloods shows Spike Lee in top form once again. Bleeker Street's Military Wives (on VOD and Hulu) offers uplift during a time when it's sorely needed. The Outpost, directed by Rod Lurie, is a first-class war drama. John Lewis: Good Trouble is a timely documentary about the Congressman/civil rights icon.
More terrific movies are on the way. I've already screened films coming out through July and into August. IFC has a supremely creepy horror flick called Relic out now, and another called The Rental headed your way. Magnolia has one called Amulet. Meanwhile, The Painted Bird, a most unusual and compelling WWII drama, will debut in a few theaters and on VOD mid-July.
My point here is that if you're lamenting the lack of major “tentpole” movies, don't think the next two months have to suck. There are plenty of top quality films out there for you to watch now, in your own home. I'm excited to set foot inside a cinema again. Nevertheless, 2020's summer movie season, while atypical, has improbably turned out to be pretty cool.