Written in April 2020
Ever since streaming burst onto our browsers, studio executives and film-goers alike have wondered whether it could feasibly end cinema-going. Similar conversations gripped the publishing world when Kindle arrived, with the rallying of print providing an optimistic example for cinephiles. This Doomsday scenario hasn’t materialised just yet, but the world of distribution continues to change rapidly. As JJ Abrams, (no stranger to blockbuster releases) recently noted in the New York Times: “For a long time, people have been saying the business is changing, but that’s undeniable now. It’s on.”
Through some lenses, cinema-going appears healthy. Spearheaded by Avengers: Endgame, 2019 saw the second highest Box Office haul on record. Original stories such as Knives Out performed exceedingly well worldwide, while the all-round critical and financial success of Parasite augured well for a more internationally diverse market. But as with all creative industries, the Coronavirus pandemic has thrown the state of cinema into sharp relief. Even if struggling cinema chains can reopen after international lockdowns, the future isn’t at all certain.
Indeed, it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to question this apparent positivity. The biggest issue, perhaps, is that of monopoly. Last year, Disney provided eight of the top 10 highest grossing films worldwide, securing a monumental 38% of Box Office receipts in America. This financial vice reflects the creative dominance the House of Mouse is currently exerting. Like Thanos collecting Infinity Stones, 2019 saw Disney fully flexing the power of its properties, with Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel and Fox all rolled out under their umbrella.
It’s increasingly impossible for cinemas to survive beyond a strict diet of blockbuster releases. This narrow choice is undercut further by streaming. Disney+, the UK’s latest arrival, has already bypassed conventional cinematic distribution by pushing Kenneth Branagh’s forthcoming Artemis Fowl straight to streaming. Warner Bros following suit with Scoob!, an animated revival of the canine detective, suggests a notable change in attitudes.
It’s an undeniably attractive approach for studios. By pushing new releases straight to streaming, they hope to promote digital footfall. Over 5 million Europeans downloaded Disney+ on its opening day; though attracted primarily by prestige shows such as The Mandalorian, the promise of new cinematic content is equally appealing.
The push to streaming also minimises the enormous marketing costs which are part and parcel of distributing a film worldwide. Often an additional 50% of the production cost, this spend can be the difference between profit and loss. In such a high-risk landscape, it’s no surprise that mid-budget movies are being squeezed out, as studios consider whether they can gamble on untested properties.
The big question is whether the economics can ever really stand up. Though streaming models provide consistent income, as opposed to one-off sales of cinema tickets, streaming bosses agonise over whether this provides a broad enough base for big budget, original content. With 371 original Film and TV releases in 2019, Netflix, the long-standing flag-bearer for streaming, seems to think so. Despite concerns that expenditure is far outstripping revenue, the platform remains resolute, investing up to $200m into Martin Scorsese’s mob epic The Irishman alone.
Netflix’s confidence in their model is reflected in their growing Awards Season success. Marriage Story, The Two Popes and the aforementioned Irishman all followed in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, albeit without securing as many statuettes as they may have liked. On the flip side, should a film ‘flop’, the platform’s selectivity when publishing viewing figures elicits further benefits. Streaming services afford studios a level of discretion unavailable elsewhere. If a movie bombs at the Box Office, there’s nowhere to hide. This can be completely avoided through streaming.
Perhaps a middle road is one recently deployed by Universal. The studio sought to cash-in on the positive viewer and critical reactions to The Invisible Man by releasing it for home streaming significantly earlier than planned. Universal used this momentum to justify an additional premium on the rental cost. This model allows for all the fanfare of cinematic release whilst curbing the need for extended international marketing campaigns. Studios give themselves the opportunity of two pay days and viewers get to choose between the dark of the cinema or the comfort of their own front room.
Covid-19 has provided a catalyst for streaming services (with hours of Disney+ content proving invaluable for stuck-at-home parents in particular) — the question is now whether cinemas will be able to rally. However, year-end could see ticket sales boom, with cinema-goers relieved that they can finally revel back in the thrill of the big screen. It feels overly pessimistic to say that cinema is dying. Conversely, it would be naïve to think that the pandemic hasn’t accelerated a process which was already gathering speed. Like Abrams said, change is now here, whether studios are ready for it or not.