Hollywood, Where Did These Movies Shot In The Early 2020s Go?

"Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts" European Premiere – Arrivals
"Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts" European Premiere – Arrivals / Mike Marsland/GettyImages

Typically, major studio movies in America begin shooting a year or earlier before they hit theaters. Plenty of exceptions exist, of course. Some titles like Kraven the Hunter experience endless delays. Sprawling epics like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King begin shooting years before their big screen debut. However, traditionally, studios want cameras to begin rolling on new movies a year or less before they hit theaters. That makes it stand out when a high-profile studio release starts shooting and then…vanishes. When years go by and one of these titles still hasn’t emerged without a pre-existing reason, conversations begin bubbling.

Is this a tormented doomed movie the studio is trying to bury? Are reshoots needed? Is there some larger PR nightmare involving one of the lead actors the financiers are trying to avoid? The possibilities are endless. Right now, several motion pictures shot between September 2020 and March 2022 fall under this cloud of speculation. These features were among the first studio releases to film in the early 2020s and after the COVID-19 pandemic began. So much confidence brewed behind these studio releases that cameras rolled during peak eras of an ongoing health crisis.

However, these movies have now vanished despite having major studio backing and movie theaters desperately need new movies. What’s going on? Where did these Hollywood releases shot in the early 2020s go?

The most glaring example of this phenomenon is the Anthony Ramos star vehicle Distant. This Universal/Amblin release directed by Office Christmas Party filmmakers Josh Gordon and Will Speck concerned a normal man crashing on an alien planet. He then has to work with the AI in his survival suit to save another lady stranded on the planet. It sounds a little bit like Atlas crossed with a touch of Cast Away and the central plot thrust of Cloverfield (a guy having to travel into danger to save a single lady). The feature started shooting in September 2020. This meant Distant joined Jurassic World Dominion and Dear Evan Hansen as the first Universal Pictures titles to either resume or begin shooting in the wake of the pandemic.

Once set for a March 2022 debut, Distant went through numerous delays. Universal currently has no release date set for Distant. The feature has been delayed so long that Distant's directors went off to direct and finish the 2022 family movie Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile before their sci-fi movie ever saw the light of day. It’s unclear why Universal has just shelved Distant. Perhaps it's because Universal and Amblin Partners haven't been working together as much in recent years. Amblin titles once set for Universal releases like Finch and The Good House ended up at other studios (this Steven Spielberg company is also now making a handful of features for Netflix). Maybe the AI-centric plot makes executives wary Distant could be difficult to market. Universal may even be hoping that its July 2024 tentpole Twisters boosts the profile of Anthony Ramos before launching Distant.

Whatever the reason, this movie still has no release plan either for theaters or streaming. This is despite Distant beginning shooting nearly four years ago. Similarly stuck in limbo are some genre movies from New Line Cinema. One of those is Salem's Lot, a new film adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel. After numerous spots on the theatrical release calendar, the feature recently shifted to a premiere on streamer Max. A North American release date remains elusive even as the three-year anniversary of its first day of shooting approaches. One glimmer of hope? Salem's Lot will apparently premiere in theaters in the United Kingdom and Ireland in October 2024. Perhaps that's when its North American Max debut will finally occur.

Even more shrouded in mystery is a Celine Held/Logan George directorial effort named Caddo Lake. Starring Dylan O'Brien and Eliza Scanlen, this project produced by M. Night Shyamalan started shooting in October 2021. Though given a PG-13 rating from the MPAA board, there's no word on when this title will launch. Then there's The Parenting, a horror/comedy once set for a Max premiere. Starting shooting in March 2022 just weeks before the WarnerDiscovery merger closed, the movie, in theory, should have wrapped production ages ago.

However, it's unclear if the feature will ever see the light of day. This feature, concerning a gay couple trapped in a cursed rental house with their parents, may suffer the same grim fate as other projects with diverse leads under the David Zazlav WarnerDiscovery regime. Perhaps The Parenting’s been quietly written off for tax purposes, never to see the light of day. Every day without news on the project makes the worst possibilities for the movie increasingly plausible.

Then there's The Haunting in Wicker Park/True Haunting. This Sony/Screen Gems horror movie started shooting at the dawn of the 2020s. It has failed to materialize in theaters. All evidence points to the movie starting shooting before Tarot. That Sony/Screen Gems title hit the big screen at the start of May 2024. Where, then, is this exorcist movie with the uncertain title? The examples just go on and on. Even beloved indie studio A24 is not impervious to this phenomenon. The studio's first in-house produced family movie The Legend of Ochi began shooting in November 2021. Though it wrapped principal photography, A24 has never announced further release plans for the title. All the while, this indie studio has announced big 2024 theatrical release slots for titles shot as late as 2023.

These and other “in-limbo” titles (such as The Toxic Avenger, a Legendary Pictures release with no distribution deal nine months after its premiere) are not unprecedented in Hollywood. They’re especially not uncommon in a post-March 2020 cinematic landscape. Studios have grown incredibly flexible with release dates in the last four years. Concerns about COVID flare-ups or other modern problems have often led to studios being very wary about release dates. What’s strange about these particular titles is that there were tons of vacant weekends over the last year. Those frames devoid of new theatrical frames could've been perfect launchpads for these shelved titles.

In the preceding 12 months, there weren’t sudden COVID flare-ups or an avalanche of long-delayed titles throwing the release calendar into disarray. Instead, Hollywood studios refused to give livable wages to artists in 2023. This inspired a pair of major strikes that delayed countless features and left the release slate barren. Titles like Salem’s Lot, The Parenting, or Distant could’ve easily slipped into those newly vacant release dates. The same is true regarding explicitly shelved motion pictures like Coyote vs. Acme. Movie theaters are struggling right now because of a dearth of new releases. Studios could rectify that problem given all the movies shot in the early 2020s sitting on their respective shelves.

Unfortunately, major studios have shifted away from non-tentpole theatrical releases. If it isn't a big action blockbuster or a super low-budget horror movie, it's doubtful studios want to send those titles to theaters. In May 2022, Universal Pictures head Donna Langley announced that the studio would be producing multiple movies a year for streamer Peacock. Explaining this decision to send certain titles to the small screen, she noted "not all movies are created equal". It's a sentiment reflecting how original titles like The Parenting, Distant, and other shelved early 2020s projects do not fit into the vision of theatrical cinema's future.

This is despite streaming-exclusive movies being deemed by executives like David Zaslav as a poor investment that doesn't pay off. Studios now appear to be at a crossroads. Streaming movies aren't good for long-term revenue and pop culture impact. However, the people running these entities are terrified of what happens if a non-tentpole doesn't work theatrically. 2020s hits like Where the Crawdads Sing, Challengers, Godzilla Minus One, and others show that lucrative theatrical features can come from any genre and country. However, trepidation continues on. Big studios with money to spare are cautious about sending these titles (most of which were made with theatrical releases in mind) to theaters.

In the face of all this uncertainty, studios like Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures, Sony/Screen Gems, and others have opted to sit on countless movies. These titles, shot at the dawn of a new decade, have waited eons for a proper release. Even a conglomerate remembering the existence of a title shot in the early 2020s isn't guaranteed good news. Projects like Turtles All the Way Down or Brothers have recently emerged from years of PR radio silence. That re-emergence occurred thanks to these films securing streaming, not theatrical, premieres. The dearth of theatrical releases in the first half of 2024 just makes these M.I.A. motion pictures all the more perplexing. The theatrical landscape needs titles like Distant.

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