So, 2020. Not a great year, eh?
We’ve all done our best to stay safe and amongst the uninfected, like we’re living in a more deliberately paced version of Contagion. This while the death knell for movie-going has been sounding amongst the cinematic cognoscenti.
Early in December Warner Bros, announced that their entire slate for 2021 — big-budget fantasies like Godzilla vs Kong, Dune, and Matrix 4 — would be released on the studio’s associated streaming service, HBO Max, on the same day and date as in cinemas, effectively shattering the theatrical release window — the time between a cinematic release and when said film would be released on other platforms. Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve raged about it in the press, biting the hand that streams them.
I get it. There’s a whole culture of filmmakers and audiences who consider cinema a sacred experience. I count myself amongst them, but 10 months into a pandemic I’m seeing the writing on the wall, and finding my faith has been shaken by a creeping agnosticism.
Changes at the cinema
Disney had already pushed its family-friendly releases like the live-action Mulan to its streaming platform, Disney +, and have added a host of Marvel and Star Wars content to it. Here in Canada Universal and Cineplex made a deal to shrink the theatrical window to 17 days.
These moves at the close of a pandemic year suggest studios are betting audiences won’t go back to the movies for awhile, even when we’re all vaccinated. It suggests they don’t have much faith in the exhibition business model.
I don’t actually believe that’s the case.
“Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on,” as someone said in one of those crowd-pleasing blockbusters.
Hollywood had been betting big on the blockbuster since Jaws broke box office records 45 years ago, followed by Star Wars two years later. Their whole business model is based on tentpoles — they invest $300 million in production costs and marketing, and if they’re lucky or the movie is good they’ll maybe reap a $1 billion payday. I don’t see them giving the big money up so long as there’s any chance of getting audiences back into cinemas on their terms.
But, that doesn’t mean playing nice with exhibitors. More likely the studios will find a way to better control (ie profit) off the big screens, to allow for more of those sure-thing, recognizable IP products to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
Once we’ve all had our shots, the heavy-on-spectacle brand-tested movie will be on all the screens all the time. It’s been going this way for awhile — Covid will just speed up the process.
Dark days at the art house
Audiences looking for something beyond your average popcorn fare will have a harder time finding it on the big screen. If this Golden Age of Television we’ve been living through has taught us anything, it’s that quality audio-visual storytelling doesn’t need the cinema to bring people together, and social media can provide that sense of community more interactive than sitting together in the dark with strangers.
Sure, there’ll still be those who seek out seeing a prestige drama or international gem, but that interest will likely boutique.
I love the passion I see in and share with the audience and my fellow programmers at Carbon Arc Cinema — in person and in the current Virtual Cinema scenario. We show the very best of world cinema to a discerning, enthusiastic audience, and they remain loyal to the in-person experience. I’m hopeful it will continue. But, I’m also concerned that the audience is resolutely mature. Despite the large student population in Halifax, even the presence of an art college, we don’t see a lot of young people in the crowd.
Festivals will adapt
Film festivals will still premiere and promote new films, but with a hybrid in-person/online model. Nova Scotian festivals saw a real uptick in engagement this year thanks to web platforms. Hollywood will still release the Oscar bait, but those pictures will debut at Cannes and Toronto and other festivals, see limited runs in cinemas, before landing on the studios’ corresponding streaming services. Those streaming services are already in the business of partnering with world class filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and Alfonso Cuarón. The change is already here.
You don’t think Netflix has been crowned the new King of Hollywood? Wait ’til they sweep the 2021 Academy Awards with multiple nominations for movies like Da 5 Bloods, The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Mank, Pieces Of A Woman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Malcolm & Marie. Extraction and The Old Guard won’t be winning any awards, but they are amongst the biggest action blockbusters of 2020. Netflix has the bases covered.