More than a month has passed since the main theater chains restarted operations in the US, and some have already shut back down. On October 5, Cineworld, the UK-based parent company of Regal Cinemas, the second largest theater chain in the US, announced that it would temporarily close its 663 theaters in both countries. The move followed yet another postponement of the release of No Time to Die, now scheduled for April 2, 2021 (a year after it was originally set to premiere). The latest Bond is one of many blockbusters to be delayed by COVID (other illustrious casualties include Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, now slated for October 2021), and the movie draught raises concerns on the very survival of the theatrical experience. Will moviegoing as we knew it before the pandemic ever come back?
Cineworld’s temporary closure is already quite telling. “If the studios continue postponing all their releases, the movie theaters aren’t going to be there for those postponed releases,” John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), tells Nicole Sperling, Gillian Friedman and Eshe Nelson over at The New York Times:
[Studios] have to consider whether they want the long-term viability of the theater platform to be available to them. And I think they do since about 80 percent of the movies that were scheduled during our closed period have been postponed for future theatrical release and not taken to the home.
But just how much longer can we expect studios to resist alternative, streaming-first models? Earlier this year, Paramount Pictures sold off a half-dozen titles to giants like Netflix and Amazon, choosing hard cash over an uncertain future. Universal and AMC Theatres reached a deal that shrunk the theatrical window to 17 days (a groundbreaking shift whose consequences we have discussed before). And Disney, which released its live-action remake of Mulan simultaneously on the studio’s Disney+ platform and theatrically in markets where cinemas were open in September, has just announced that the new Pixar animation hit Soul will bypass big-screen release, to debut on Disney+ on Christmas Day.
With movie theaters in New York City still closed and Greater Los Angeles only partly reopened, “cinemas remain shuttered in areas representing about 30% of annual box office sales,” Ryan Faughnder notes at the L.A. Times, and even as big-budget films will eventually return to the big screens, people may still feel reluctant to flock back in large numbers. According to NRG studies cited by Faughnder, “about half of moviegoers aren’t ready to return, and about a third of the audience wants to wait until a coronavirus vaccine is available.” That studios should be looking for alternatives beyond the traditional theatrical experience is only logical, Tom Brueggemann observes at IndieWire:
No one roots for the demise of theaters—but is it the same thing, when their survival is not a primary concern? When theaters reopen and desperately need big films like Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, and No Time to Die, studios will dictate their non-theatrical windows while dedicating their energies to how they can be more like Netflix. The theatrical experience is great, of course, but everyone wants to be a content provider that is nimble, massive, global, highly attuned to what its audience wants, and is vertically integrated down to a revenue stream in which customers treat their subscription with the same auto-pay respect as a utility bill. All with a minimum of theatrical play and a fraction of the traditional marketing expense.
Still, rational as it may seem, the decision to shunt blockbusters forward may also leave studios to face a different kind of crisis. Assuming cinemas survive the movie famine and COVID will no longer be a factor, 2021 may welcome a new tentpole every other week—a geeky cornucopia, but a financial nightmare. As senior box office analyst at Gower Street Analytics Delphine Lievens tells Catherine Shoard and Andrew Pulver at The Guardian:
…the industry is acting as if coronavirus is not going to be playing a role [next year], but the reality is that there are now too many films for 2021. The studios have been trying to avoid losses by not releasing this year, but they could be just as likely to face losses next year because the calendar will be very busy—the likelihood being, if you release a blockbuster it will only have a week before the next one comes along.
And with so many big-budget productions stuck in a limbo, what’s left for independent films? Securing theatrical runs is a struggle arthouse titles have grappled with long before COVID. A few months before the pandemic broke out, The New York Times’s Kyle Buchanan reached out to 24 major Hollywood figures to ask how the movies—and moviegoing—will survive the next 10 years. Commenting on the future of streaming, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz predicted arthouse films will exist in a radically different landscape:
As more and more streaming services are making features, I think we’ll start to see festivals be the theatrical experience for a lot of these [independent] movies. The movie will premiere at Sundance or Toronto, and then premiere on streaming that week or the week after.
The statement turned out to be all too prescient. Blossoming under the pandemic, new streaming platforms such as Shift72 (which has helped major festivals, including SXSW and TIFF, roll out digitally) are now looking to evolve into arthouse-focused online distribution spaces. In an interview with Andreas Wiseman over at Deadline, company director John Barnett hints at a game-changing shakeup:
I’ve been talking to a number of sales agents about global day-and-date releases for independent films and there is a lot of enthusiasm for it. They love that we report in real time, and that the money goes to you immediately.
None of this is to downplay the extraordinary efforts that arthouse and independent theaters have put into curating their programming, and defending the sanctity and relevance of the cinematic experience. The current crisis may have burst the multiplex bubble, but smaller-sized venues with stronger and more eclectic curatorial strategies may be better equipped to survive these troubled times, and welcome back their viewers in pre-COVID numbers. Those cinemas, Kevin Jagernauth writes at The Playlist, in one of the most comprehensive surveys of the crisis,
…[have] cultivated an audience that understands the magic of seeing a film on the big screen. Moreover, working with partners like Kino Now and Film Movement, they have quickly pivoted to finding ways to work with distributors and generating income via revenue-sharing “virtual cinema” experiences, even if their projectors aren’t yet turned on. Of course, it hardly replaces the money they’d pull in from a packed screening, but according to a 2016 survey by the Arthouse Convergence, their audiences on average see 34 movies per year, with about half at their favorite arthouse. That audience will most certainly return, even if the number of the films getting released at the arthouse, versus going straight to digital, decreases.
Naive as this may sound, the closure of multiplexes could well turn into an unexpected blessing for arthouse theaters and films. With the blockbuster stranglehold loosened, independent movies may be granted more of a look-in. Assessing recent trends across UK cinemas over at The Guardian, Steven Morris notes that “box offices at many independent cinemas are reporting solid audience numbers, with some selling out screenings and others encouraging blockbuster fans to give arthouse films a try.”
Again, this is not to gloss over the life-or-death struggles many arthouse theaters have embarked on since the pandemic (of which Matt Warren offers a good survey at Film Independent), or the growing difficulties independent films face while competing for theatrical runs. But if the first year of the COVID crisis has shown that cinemas sorely need blockbusters, it has also demonstrated that the exhibition sector is a lot more complicated than that, and that the survival of films and theaters beyond the conglomerate of multiplexes and IP-branded content is a fight that everyone—studios, theaters, and audiences—have a stake in. As Owen Gleiberman contends over at Variety, in a three-way conversation with Brent Lang and Peter Debruge:
…moviegoing as we’ve known it has been more than a pastime — it’s been a faith, a primal joy, the greatest art form of the last century. Are we just going to lose that so we can spend the next 100 years sitting on our couches watching a never-ending stream of product? Moviegoing in theaters will survive if we as a culture — theaters, studios, politicians, audiences — decide that we want it to survive. And that means, I think, that the studios have to start playing the long game. They have to start figuring out a way to provide some major movies that will draw people back. Otherwise it could become a vicious cycle of audiences abandoning the theaters that they feel have abandoned them.
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.