Are studios changing to fit viewer preference or have audiences settled into pandemic-era entertainment?
The cinematic experience is changing. With news of AT&T spinning off Warner Media to Discovery in a mega-merger designed to put Netflix on notice, there is no denying that the world of film is pivoting towards, at best, a hybrid model. This should come as no surprise because how we’ve consumed media has evolved over the years. What began in the 1920s as entertainment devoid of sound evolved into a fully realized event. This quickly became an all-day event where people would go to the cinema for their dose of cartoons, news reels, and to see Audrey Hepburn grace the big screen. Time passed and drive-ins became all the rage. Now people wanted to have that same experience without having to leave their car. Their popularity only began to dwindle when VHS tapes became all the rage in the late ’70s. Now we could get that same film without having to leave home at all.
However, the downside was that it didn’t match the sound and picture quality of being at the movies and for a time they were right. Then came better TVs, DVDs, Blu-ray players, sound systems, and the gap was getting smaller and smaller. With VHS and DVDs came the birth of the home rentals. So now we could get what we want, for a fee, in our own homes. Then, years later, came Netflix and the birth of on-demand and we didn’t even have to leave the house to go to video stores. We have always been an a la-carte society and through the course of time, we are finally now able to truly cater to who we are. The news over the last week is just part of the ripple effect stemming from how we consume media.
Remember when Warner Brothers were vilified for their model of launching films both at home and in theaters at the same time? Has anyone taken a second and looked at the top-grossing releases so far of 2021? The list is dominated by the same studio, which some blamed for contributing to cinema’s demise. Perhaps their move was not to kill the cinematic experience but to give it a lifeline. There is much more to it than that. However, WB’s move opened the door just for others to move forward.
Disney is now taking what would have once been major releases and giving options to people through Disney+ Premier Access. Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, Shang Chi, and Cruella, all of which would have had major spots during the cinematic season, are now going to part of Disney’s hybrid model. Luca, a Pixar film, is going straight to Disney+. Some might point that this only because of the pandemic, then why continue with this model just as things are beginning to open back up? Perhaps they see the writing on the wall? Perhaps they are seeing WB take 80% of the gate and get revenue from the number of subscribers heading to HBO Max.
If we were to ask the editors at any number of film-centric sites, they would say streaming articles have begun to dominate their statistics. Recently, Brian Tallerico, the editor of Roger Ebert.com, referenced this trend on Twitter, and our own Erik Anderson stated the same to me about AwardsWatch recently in a conversation. Instead of talking to Film Twitter, he said, take a poll of any random group of 20 people you choose and tell me what they prefer – watching something via streaming or going to the movies? At the local high school, I work at, when I asked 20 people, 19 of them preferred watching at home. According to a study published in Jan of 2021 by Statista.com, only 14% of those surveyed preferred watching a movie in a theater which 36% would rather watch a film via streaming. I wonder what those numbers would look like today.
Now with the news that Justin Kroll broke on Deadline yesterday that Lindsey Beer has been tapped to direct a new Pet Sematary movie for Paramount+, it appears another studio is beginning to move towards making content that caters to that 36%. Couple that with the dismal showing that Lionsgate had this weekend with their highly anticipated spin-off of Saw, Spiral came in under 10 million at the box office, and it’s not hard to see all studios going to this hybrid model over the course of 2021.
While some might point to Warner Bros’ Godzilla vs. Kong as proof of the old cinematic model is alive and well, if anything, it proves the exact opposite. The success they had shows that going to the movies has become par with, say, going to the theater. While very few will pay to see everything that hits the stage, when a big title comes along like Hamilton, from Disney+, people will pay to see it in person. Godzilla vs. Kong is the type of film that would draw a crowd at any local cineplex. That type of film is more of any event than anything.
Some might point to certain titles being the “savior” of cinema. First, it was supposed to be Tenet and now some are pointing towards A Quiet Place: Part II as being the “chosen one.” Can’t a film just be great and not carry the weight of the industry on its shoulders? Instead of looking for the one title that will bring us back to the past, how about looking at the present. Both Deadline and Variety in separate reports discussed that Amazon and MGM are closing in on a deal where the streaming giant would acquire the studio and its catalog for 9 billion dollars. They would acquire such titles in the deal as – Rocky/Creed, Robocop, The Pink Panther, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the highly coveted James Bond catalog. That deal would give Amazon 4,000 new titles to add to their catalog. Does anyone think that they won’t move forward with some sort of hybrid model if the deal closes? If anything, deals such as these give a studio like MGM life and the ability to adapt to the changing landscape.
Netflix seems to be moving more towards this same model with their larger titles. Army of the Dead actually released in theaters a week before it was to drop on Netflix. While they’ve set up limited engagements with other titles during the award season cycle, this is the first time they’ve done this outside of that window. The result was a box office of almost a million dollars in a limited number of theaters. Is this just because it was a movie from Zack Snyder or was it a test case? Remember, that this same company just spent 400+ million dollars to acquire two sequels to Knives Out which already appears to be in production. While traditional studios appear to be moving towards a hybrid model, could streamers be moving towards their own version of a hybrid model which honors the theatrical experience? Would anyone be the least bit surprised if a few months, we read that Netflix has acquired a theatrical chain? Arclight Cinema is sitting right there ready to purchased.
Apple isn’t sitting on the sidelines, either. In recent months they’ve acquired titles such as the Sundance hit CODA and are once again partnering up with A24, this time to release Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth which according to AwardsWatch editor Erik Anderson is a strong contender for next years Academy Awards. How do we know that A24 is involved with The Tragedy of Macbeth? Take a gander at their Twitter profile and what do you see? While nothing has been officially announced just yet and with rumors swirling about the film playing at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, we could see a release agreement on the horizon. It’s logical to make that leap because both Coda and The Tragedy of Macbeth would need some sort of limited engagement in theaters to qualify for an awards run. Could this be the start of a long-term partnership between A24 and Apple? They did already test the waters last year with the amazing documentary, Boys State.
These types of moves by studios aren’t meant to suppress our enjoyment of a particular film but they make it more readily available to a wider audience. Did anyone enjoy Mitchells vs The Machines less because it was on Netflix and not released by Sony in theaters? Look at the Rotten Tomato and Audience score. It’s not a huge leap to say that we may have already seen one of the best-animated releases of 2021, and we haven’t hit June yet. Some might hope that this landscape might change, but at this point, it’s far from happening. There was a report late last night that Dune was not only going to premiere at the Venice Film Festival but was now going to open theatrically before going to HBO Max. This was immediately dispelled by the head of Warnermedia Communications, Johanna Fuentes. What was interesting isn’t how she dispelled the report about Dune going first to theaters but how she didn’t dismiss the statement about the Venice Film Festival. If that part is accurate, the studio must have a great deal of confidence in the title.
Like it or not, the landscape of film is adapting to reflect the world we live in. Adaptation is critical or the industry dies a slow death. While some will blame the pandemic for this, all it did was shine a spotlight on what clearly was already occurring. If studios were truly committed to going back to the old cinematic model then why commit so many resources to do the exact opposite? Why not expand theatrical windows? The reason is they aren’t because entertainment is evolving just as it has for generations and will continue to do so, long after we are all gone.