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To Stream or Not to Stream: The Future of Cinema Remains Undecided

On April of 2020, Universal Pictures made waves by announcing that, in the wake of the recent Covid-19 outbreak, it would be debuting its latest film, Trolls World Tour, on VOD simultaneously with a limited theatrical run. This came off the back of a months-long marketing campaign promising the usual window of theatrical exclusivity, and even though the safety of going out to the theaters was now being called into question, it’s easy to see why AMC, the biggest theatrical chain in the U.S., did not take this news well. 

They initially threatened to boycott all future Universal releases, a move which would no doubt impact the success of upcoming blockbusters like F9 and Jurassic World: Dominion. Universal doubled down by saying that all their future films would be released this way. Eventually they came to an agreement: AMC would lift their boycott, and Universal films would get an unprecedented 17-day theatrical exclusivity window before being allowed to go directly to streaming platforms. Considering that the window of exclusivity can represent the lifeblood of some theaters, especially with bigger films that enjoy repeat business, this was a pretty massive shift in the cinematic landscape.

Of course, this was also relatively early into the pandemic, and before long the majority of the 2020 release schedule was either delayed (some to later in the year, most eventually ending up dated for next year) or ended up going directly to streaming (a fate initially reserved for smaller films like The Lovebirds, My Spy, and Artemis Fowl, which was expensive but had minimal prospects of making its money back). In September, Warner Bros. decided to tentatively test the waters by releasing Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, in the hopes that such a high-profile release could entice audiences back to theaters, even in a limited capacity. The film had a decent box office considering the pandemic, but abysmal numbers by the standards of most blockbusters in the modern era, and pretty soon the major films tentatively scheduled for later in 2020 all found themselves relocated to 2021.

Flash forward to December 3rd. After having already announced that the oft-delayed Wonder Woman 1984 would premiere simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in time for Christmas, Warner Bros. elected to take things a step further by revealing that its entire 2021 slate of films would be released in this way. That included such major tentpoles as Dune, The Suicide Squad, Godzilla vs. Kong, and The Matrix 4, among others, and came as a major shock to everyone from audiences to the filmmakers who were responsible for these projects. Evidently, the latter party was neither consulted nor even warned ahead of time. 

Christopher Nolan, a long-time advocate of the theatrical experience, blasted the move, saying that “some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service”, a perspective that’s both apt and reductive, considering that it’s far too early in HBO Max’s life cycle to dismiss it as the “worst streaming service”, not to mention that if Nolan’s own film hadn’t been rushed out to cinemas before the general public felt it was safe to attend, it’s entirely possible that the studio wouldn’t have taken this step in the first place.

The part Nolan gets absolutely right, however, is the fact that WB, which up until this point had garnered something of a reputation for being filmmaker-friendly, completely blindsided the creative talent involved. Even if the ultimate decision was always going to remain the same, the fact that none of the directors, stars, or co-financiers involved were even made aware of it before the general public has clearly ruffled a few feathers. In the days that followed, directors like Denis Villeneuve and James Gunn (whose latest films were both affected) publicly denounced the decision as harmful to their respective franchises and insulting to the talent involved, many of whom will now have to completely renegotiate their profit participation considering that any back-end deals would be largely irrelevant in a move that cripples the theatrical prospects for all the films involved.

Reports are already circulating that Legendary Entertainment, which co-produced and co-financed both Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong is considering legal action against WarnerMedia over the new release strategy. If successful, those two films could be potentially excluded and retain their theatrical exclusivity, though at this stage nothing has been confirmed. For Warner’s part, they maintain that the move was done as an audience-friendly measure, considering that many parts of the world (especially in the U.S.) are still not at a point where going to the theater is an option for many. They claim that this is only a temporary measure, and that things will be back to normal for 2022, although considering the abrupt nature of their initial announcement, it’s easy to imagine that they could reverse that stance with very little warning. And even though they haven’t publicly said as much, it’s hard to imagine this move isn’t also a calculated attempt to boost subscriptions for their fledgling streaming service, which despite an impressive library has yet to turn in the kind of results that the studio had initially hoped would help them compete in the streaming wars.

One week later, The Walt Disney Company held an Investor Day, which they used as an opportunity to make their own significant announcement relating to the hugely successful Disney+. Over the next several years, they have now committed to releasing approximately 10 new Star Wars series (hot off the success of The Mandalorian, no doubt), 10 new Marvel series (which will all tie into the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe whenever that gets back off the ground), 15 new Disney live-action, Disney Animation, and Pixar series, and 15 new Disney live-action, Disney Animation, and Pixar features. All of which were announced with flashy logos, a handful of teaser trailers, and some of the biggest names in Hollywood attached. And all planned to go directly to Disney+, which has already positioned itself as a notable challenger to Netflix’s throne in just over a year, largely due to the immense popularity of its massive back catalogue.

What’s interesting about Disney’s approach is that, despite the overwhelming mass of streaming content they’ll be developing for the foreseeable future, they have yet to abandon the cinematic experience entirely. After Artemis Fowl, Soul, and Mulan were all redirected to Disney+ (the latter with a $30 “Premier Access” charge), there was speculation that Disney would use Investor Day to reveal that Black Widow, the next entry in the MCU that itself has seen multiple release dates, would also be arriving on the streaming platform in some capacity. Yet for all their big announcements, this film appears to still be on target for a theatrical premiere (currently scheduled for May 7, 2021, although this is no doubt subject to change depending on the state of the world at that point). Not only are the theatrical MCU films still set to remain as such, but Disney even announced new theatrical ventures for Star Wars (Patty Jenkins’ upcoming Rogue Squadron) and Pixar (a Toy Story prequel of sorts called Lightyear, which will see Chris Evans as the space ranger that would eventually inspire the Buzz action figure we know from those films). The only adjustment for a film previously pegged for theaters was Disney Animation’s March release of Raya and the Last Dragon, which will still release in cinemas but now simultaneously with a streaming release on Disney+. This will be with the Premier Access option used for Mulan, which suggests that the Mouse House is looking at its release strategy on a film-by-film basis, rather than the blanket statement used by WarnerMedia.

So where does all this leave us? Many view these developments as the beginning of the end for the theatrical experience as we know it. Some are confident that it’s only a temporary state of affairs, and that once the pandemic has died down movie theaters will come roaring back to life. The answer, as it is with most things, likely falls somewhere in between. It’s no secret that the major movie studios have long been hoping to reduce the window of theatrical exclusivity, thus enabling them to reap the profits of home release and streaming deals that much sooner. While the push towards streaming this year may have been partially motivated by the pandemic, the truth is that some variation of these strategies was always in the cards eventually. The numbers speak for themselves, and despite over a half dozen films breaking a billion dollars at the box office in 2019, theater attendance overall has been gradually diminishing, especially when people have the option to stay in and watch whatever they desire on their platform of choice.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s time to ring the death bells of cinema just yet. For all the fuss that’s been made over the Warner Bros/HBO Max decision, it can’t be denied that, regardless of how many subscribers they gain as a result of this, that the films will still be losing money. Some of the smaller releases, like Judas and the Black Messiah and The Little Things, might actually benefit from the exposure and perform well, but massive tentpoles like The Suicide Squad and The Matrix 4 are simply too expensive to ever make their budgets back from streaming subscriptions alone. The idea that blockbusters could somehow end up doing just as well on a streamer as they could in theaters is unrealistic and untenable. But until theaters are able to return to full capacity, and until the public perception is that it’s safe to do so, solutions like this are going to be the best way for the studios to get their product out there and at least recoup some of their costs, as well continuing to provide content for a restless and homebound audience.

The argument has been made that the studios should just continue to delay their films indefinitely until the Covid vaccine is widely available and wait, but this is also unrealistic. Until they can make their money back in some form, the films that have already been made and are now sitting on the shelf are putting their financiers increasingly in the red, which does damage to any future projects that they should want to make. In a world where release dates are often confirmed for major films before casting or plot details have been established, it benefits no one to continue to bottleneck the release schedule. We’ve already had nearly a full year of films forced to push back, which creates a ripple effect over the next few years. And if recent reports on the availability of the vaccine are to be believed, it may be even longer still before audiences are comfortable returning to theaters in their usual droves. The studios can only wait and hemorrhage money for so long before they have to start taking drastic measures like the ones previously outlined.

This is an unusual, unprecedented time in human history, to say nothing of film history. It’s too early to say with any kind of certainty which way the wind will blow, and the situation is one that’s constantly developing and evolving. While Disney and WarnerMedia have the benefit of owning their own streaming platform (even Universal owns Peacock, although it’s too early to say how useful that will be for major releases), most other studios don’t have that luxury, and would have to cut deals with existing streamers like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime if they decided to offload their film slates. This strategy may end up paying dividends for small to mid-range films, and the easier accessibility may help them gain exposure that a traditional theatrical run wouldn’t necessarily provide. But the billion-dollar blockbuster is a golden goose that all major studios will continue to chase, and the idea that they would permanently commit to leaving that kind of money on the table in order to boost up the streaming experience is profoundly unlikely.

As hard as it can sometimes be to imagine, there will eventually come a time when the pandemic is a thing of the past. New York and Los Angeles (two of the biggest film markets in the world) will be able to reopen their theaters, and cinema will be permitted to once again flourish. But until then, rather than dismissing streaming as an inferior option, it’s worth considering its potential benefits, especially for films that don’t always play well on the big screen. In many ways, Disney has the right idea by considering its releases on a film-by-film basis, because there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy that will work for the entirety of cinema. Streaming is here to stay, but that’s not to say that we can’t find a way for it to peacefully coexist with theaters, especially during this time when experimentation is almost mandated by outside circumstances. After the pandemic, the filmic landscape will likely be very different than what we’ve become accustomed to. But that doesn’t automatically mean it will be worse. There’s a place for both methods of consuming entertainment, and the sooner we can collectively appreciate that, the sooner we can find arrangements where all parties involved can benefit from the experience. From the filmmakers, to the studios, to the streaming platforms, to the theater owners, to the audience members. There is a balance to be found, we just need to find it.

Happy New Year!

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Written by Myles Hughes

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