To perhaps nobody’s real surprise, three big films have recently announced delays: No Time to Die, Dune, and The Batman. With the coronavirus pandemic clearly not dying down any time soon – at least in the west – studios quite rightly feel that releasing their titles this year or even early next year won’t bring in audiences and won’t make enough money. They’re not wrong in that assessment; many people I know here in the UK would be uncomfortable visiting a cinema in person, even if the law or guidelines say that doing so is allowed. It’s going to take time – and, perhaps, a widely-available vaccine – for that mindset to change.
Over the summer, the UK government ran a scheme called “eat out to help out.” If you’re unfamiliar with it, the programme offered diners a 50% discount (up to a maximum of £10 per head) at participating restaurants. The goal was to encourage people anxious about the ongoing pandemic to get back into restaurants and, frankly, save the industry from collapse. It was successful, at least partially, with participating restaurants reporting increased takeup. However, such schemes are temporary, and there’s no way the government could run something like that for every impacted industry.
Cinema bosses have denounced decisions to delay releases – or, in the case of titles like Mulan – send titles directly to streaming platforms. Without big blockbuster releases, there’s no way to entice cinema-goers back, and the entire industry is on the brink. Cineworld, one of the world’s largest cinema chains, has announced it will close all of its US and UK sites until further notice – putting 45,000 people out of work. This is the real impact of the pandemic, and the longer it goes on, the worse it’s going to get.
There’s no “eat out to help out” equivalent coming to cinemas. The industry is on its own to handle the fallout from the pandemic – as are so many others – and there’s no easy fix. Until the public at large have confidence that it’s safe to go out, that it’s safe to sit in a big room with a couple of hundred strangers, there’s nothing that can be done. Even the release of Tenet in August failed to bring in sufficient numbers of viewers to make running a cinema financially viable. At this rate, the highest-grossing film of 2020 will remain Bad Boys for Life. Nobody would have predicted that in January!
I can understand from the cinemas’ perspective that film studios aren’t behaving appropriately. Cinemas and film studios are two parts of a greater whole, yet the studios have unilaterally acted to pull their films, either delaying them or sending them directly to streaming. And I can understand why that’s going to sting. Where there could have been a coming together, it feels like the bigger companies are acting selfishly; it’s everyone for themselves instead of a sense of community and togetherness.
And ultimately that’s going to make things more difficult. We’ve already seen Odeon, another large cinema chain, pledge to stop showing films from Universal Pictures in retaliation for Universal making Trolls World Tour a streaming-only title. As I wrote when looking at Mulan’s release on Disney+, if every cinema chain were to come together and announce a boycott of companies that acted this way, they could effectively prevent the release of any film they chose. There’s power in working together, but ultimately the question will be: who has that power?
Film studios clearly see streaming as a viable option. As television screen technology continues to improve – and as screens get larger – the adage that a particular film was “better in the cinema” doesn’t ring true for a lot of people any more. In some ways, the move towards streaming is something we can absolutely argue was coming anyway; like with many things, the pandemic may have accelerated the move, but it didn’t fundamentally cause it. Titles like Annihilation and the critically-acclaimed The Irishman began production with the intention of a theatrical release, but circumstances changed and they ended up going to Netflix instead.
Streaming titles have also been nominated for top awards, and when a film is released digitally nowadays, it’s become so commonplace that it scarcely gets a mention in reviews. When people of my parents’ generation were young, going to the cinema was at least a weekly outing, and not only was there an A- and B-movie but you’d probably also get a newsreel too. Those days have gone, and for increasing numbers of people pre-pandemic, the cinema was an occasional treat rather than a regular one. Attendance has been steady, but the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and big-budget television series like Game of Thrones have slowly been eroding the need for cinemas. In short, if cinemas try to pick a fight with film studios over digital releases, I think they’ll likely lose.
But for film studios it’s not as clear-cut. Selling an already-made film to the likes of Netflix is a complicated undertaking. Netflix wants to make sure any purchase is going to be worth its while, and the gold standard is whether a title will bring in new subscribers. As a result, I think it’s not unfair to say that a lot of films would likely make more money at the box office than on a streaming platform. That’s why Mulan costs $30 instead of being available to anyone with a Disney+ account; Disney wants to make as much of the film’s budget back as possible.
Making a film is an expensive project, and the vast majority of any title’s money is made at the box office, not through streaming or sales. If film studios were to move to streaming-only releases, a lot of things would have to change. Budgets may have to fall in some cases, which would not only be to the detriment of the quality of films, but would also put more people in the industry out of work.
As I said at the beginning, there is no easy answer. Streaming is a short-term solution that may be viable for some projects, but certainly can’t replace the revenue of a full theatrical release for most titles. Mulan was a test case, but as a film that has received mixed reviews at best, it perhaps isn’t the best example for studios to look to. And besides, most film studios don’t have their own streaming platforms, meaning they have to negotiate with the likes of Amazon or Netflix to put their titles out.
One thing that history teaches us about the longer-term effects of a disaster on any industry is that things do eventually get back to normal. If one big cinema chain were to go out of business this year, within five years or so most of its empty cinemas will have been bought up and reopened by some other company. The desire for going to the cinema may not be present right now, but it will largely return when the pandemic is brought under control. At least, that’s the way I see it. Streaming has already been disruptive, but there’s still a sense of enjoyment in going to the cinema, and from the point of view of studios, streaming is far less profitable. That means that as soon as they can, film studios will want to encourage people to get back to the cinema.
How long the pandemic will continue to drag on, and how long studios and cinema owners can hang in there are the big questions right now. And unfortunately those are the same questions people are asking across many different sectors of the economy. When the pandemic is brought under control – and it will be, sooner or later – how many businesses will have survived? And how long will it take to rebuild? From the point of view of films, are we about to enter a “dark age” where budgets and quality drop? I don’t have a good answer to any of these questions. Only time will tell.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio and/or distributor. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.