The Possible Futures Of Post-Quarantine Cinema

by Alex Kirschenbaum May 14, 2020

So what might movie watching look like after some brilliant scientists have innovated a widely-available vaccine for COVID-19? Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

The bad news? Well, I can appreciate that. It’s been that kind of year.

Movie Theaters As We Know Them Are Changing

Movie theaters as we know them have already struggled with the advent of new, more affordable arenas for home movie-watching. They just got a swift push further down the road in that direction thanks to the devastating novel coronavirus that continues to keep much of the world quarantined. Most movie theaters were shuttered in March. A smattering of drive-in theaters, with their built-in opportunities for social distancing, have seen success as audiences’ lone safe moviegoing option outside of their homes. (A memo to Southern California: Montclair’s Mission Tiki Drive-In is currently open for business.)

The Rise Of Premium Video On Demand (PVOD)

The reported success of Trolls World Tour has prompted a larger conversation in entertainment media about the fate of the theatrical moviegoing experience. Originally scheduled for a wide theatrical release, the Universal Studios sequel instead was moved to a $19.99 Premium Video On Demand digital home rental ordering option. After three weeks, Universal was ecstatic with the release’s reception. The studio announced that the film had earned $100 million in PVOD rentals, besting the theatrical gross generated by its 2017 predecessor Trolls within the same window.

Most theatrical releases for the spring and early summer have been shifted to later theatrical release dates, but some have been transitioned to streaming or PVOD releases. Warner Brothers is similarly forgoing its plans to release its latest Scooby-Doo family adventure, the animated Scoob!, with a digital purchase or rental option on May 15th. Disney is moving its intended family blockbuster Artemis Fowl from an intended May 29th theatrical bow to a June 12th Disney+ premiere. Disney CEO Bob Chapek intimated that more films could be relegated to streaming-only releases. Universal, of course, has been very active in making these kinds of adjustments to its release slate. The studio is pushing their Judd Apatow-Pete Davidson comedy The King of Staten Island directly to PVOD, in addition to moving their Tracee Ellis Ross-Dakota Johnson workplace comedy The High Note from a May 9th theatrical debut to a May 29th PVOD release.

NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell terrified AMC when he announced, “As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both [theatrical and PVOD] formats.” The current agreement with wide theatrical releases is that movie theaters are provided a 90-day window of exclusivity with those films before they arrive on home video, on-demand and streaming platforms. The current 90-day window apparently exists as a “handshake” arrangement between the National Association of Theater Owners and the big studios. NATO issued a rebuke of Shell, stating that the uniqueness of the circumstances surrounding the film’s release amid “unprecedented circumstances” meant that its success should not become the new normal for big rollouts.

A Tough Rebuttal From Theater Chains

Specific theater chains responded a bit more aggressively. AMC CEO Adam Aron unequivocally banished all Universal releases from their 1,000+ worldwide venues. We might find out soon whether or not that even matters, as bankruptcy rumors have dogged AMC, the biggest theatrical exhibitors on the planet, for months. Cineworld, parent company for the planet’s second biggest theatrical exhibitors Regal Entertainment, issued a statement along similar lines. Cineworld noted, in part, that Regal Entertainment theaters “will not be showing movies that fail to respect the [current] windows.” Regal, too, is in danger of bankruptcy as the pandemic marches on.

Universal, home to major franchise properties like Jurassic Park, The Fast and the Furious and Despicable Me, represents an essential portion of movie theaters’ revenue. AMC’s proposed permanent ban would be disastrous for AMC’s own bottom line if it actually transpired. But for now, AMC and Cineworld are staring down Universal, and Universal has yet to blink.

Why are theaters drawing such a deep line in the sand? PVOD has them running scared. There is a major disparity between what studios net from theaters and what they earn from the on-demand and streaming platforms that house home video options. Studios generally take home about 55% of their theatrical earnings (the other 45% goes to theaters), while Universal apparently kept 80% of their money from the PVOD release of Trolls World Tour. The ascent of major streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, along with the rise of younger options like Disney+ and Apple TV+, has had theater owners more concerned than they have been since home video threatened to dilute audiences in the late 1970s.

The Hollywood establishment has long been anxious about a total pivot away from theatergoing, as evidenced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ long-standing refusal to honor films that have not had at least a token theatrical release. That condition has been amended this year, of course. The long-term closures of movie theaters, and the extensive risks associated with reopening these venues before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available (which will in all likelihood happen in 2021 if not later), has expedited the transition towards home viewing, probably irreparably.

Does that mean theatrical moviegoing is doomed to die completely? Not so fast. Or maybe not at all. But it will certainly change. That’s where the good news come in, dear reader.

This viewer has been weirdly encouraged by the fact that one of the big go-to resources for audiences during this pandemic appears to be streaming movies and TV, as opposed to just getting lost in social media applications like Instagram and TikTok (although, yes, TikTok has seen a massive uptick in users). Film fans can take some solace in the fact that people at least still remember there’s nothing like seeing a movie — even if, to them, that comprises viewing it in their living rooms or on their tablets. Netflix viewership has reached a historic peak and Disney+ has radically boosted its subscriber base. As some states begin to reopen, some movie theaters are reopening, too, and receiving solid business. However, socially-distanced seating restrictions are hampering traditional audience capacities.

The trouble is not that people don’t care about long-form narrative stories anymore. They clearly do, although the ascendant popularity of instant-gratification social media platforms among younger audiences may eventually give rise to more short-form narrative routes a la the recently-launched Quibi. The avenues for long-form stories, however, are (lamely) changing.

The Glories Of The Big Screen Experience

There is nothing like seeing a movie on a 40′ screen, in a room full of strangers. The home viewing experience can never hope to replicate that sensation. Seeing a film in a packed theater is a magical event. There is something truly transportive about sitting there in the dark, away from your own life, submerged into a collective dreamscape with hundreds of other people. Horror movies and comedies especially benefit from the sensation of a cumulative audience reaction, where involuntary rolling laughter or screams ripple out in response to particularly effective pictures.

The halcyon days of that experience as the dominant avenue for movie watching may indeed be behind us. Granted, domestic theatrical attendance in general has been declining for decades, but for a long time that didn’t matter because home video supplemented a lot of lost revenue. Streaming has hampered the home video market pretty significantly. If movie-watching is reduced exclusively to streaming, the dual revenue streams of theatrical attendance and home video purchasing would be eliminated.

Emmy-winning producer, executive and branding expert Richard Janes postulates a guardedly optimistic vision of the future for post-coronavirus theatrical moviegoing in an excellent recent piece. Janes predicts that, thanks to the Department of Justice’s efforts to end the 1948 Paramount decree that made studio and distributor ownership of movie theaters illegal, companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney would get into the theater ownership game and gobble up companies like AMC and Regal. The big studios would subsequently metamorphose moviegoing into a pricier but more immersive experience, Janes suggests, showcasing their own films in elaborate “entertainment centers.” Under this model, they would probably close many of the extant theaters, limiting availability and driving up ticket prices. Marketing expenses will be cheaper, Janes argues, because moviegoing will be so directly associated with studio “brands,” and studios’ specific theaters will be curated to the targeted demographics of their specific area’s audience.

Furthermore, all these big-money streamers are continuing to search for even more content in an effort to draw audiences. Though studios’ theatrical release models were becoming increasingly more predicated on tentpole home runs via franchise pictures (typically derived from a pre-existing IP), studio-owned theaters could accommodate more modest films to fill screens.

This theoretical model, more in line with the behavior of the current streaming companies, would hypothetically allow space for the kinds of smaller genre movies that have become few and far between to be seen on big screens. A film like the $65 million Chris Hemsworth-starring Netflix smash Extraction would have been a major theatrical release a decade ago. In this brave new world of Netflix-owned movie theaters, it would be once again.

Janes contends that truly independent films will be forced to move primarily into the arena of streaming, but will be accessible to mass audiences on platforms like YouTube, Vimeo and even Amazon (who have a “Prime Video Direct” option for independent creators to upload their projects). This viewer’s hope, though, is that independent cinemas will survive.

How are they doing during this pandemic? Art house theaters, contingent on an output of revival showings and small independent film releases, were hit especially hard by the theatrical closures. For now, many are surviving thanks in large part to “virtual cinema” streaming options, as small independent distributors license their new films to theaters for audiences to stream for a fee, a la PVOD. This viewing option has been such a success that many theaters may retain their “virtual cinema” screening options available to audiences even beyond their pandemic-mandated closures. Does that mean that, down the line, the physical theaters may close and transition into more independent-minded content curators? That is the fear.

So let’s say the movie theater count shrinks in availability and rises in expense to become a more limited, studio-curated, premium experience. Let’s assume too, that even if they do not completely go away, independently-financed productions from non-studio distributors will be forced into increasingly more marginalized art house theaters, which will also offer their own streaming options. In this scenario, independent movies will have little to no opportunity enjoy crossover success under these circumstances, as a vast majority of studio-owned theaters will never reserve screen space for a film they do not own. The continued existence of art house theaters in the wake of these deluxe studio-owned theaters would feel tenuous at best.

The theatrical moviegoing experience has probably been changed forever, and that’s a shame. The opportunity for movie theaters to survive and even thrive under new ownership, while scary and uncharted terrain, is at least intriguing. Or maybe everything will move to home video viewing via streaming.

Regardless, movies themselves, as an expressive storytelling form, will continue. The eyeballs are still very much there. And in such a bleak world away from our screens, at least we can find some hope in that.

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