One of the most terrifying things about the current moment is the level of uncertainty.
Experts disagree about how long this phase of social distancing is going to last. Some expect that restrictions will be eased in a few months. Others speculate it could last up to a year. Some even speculate that there may be an 18-month period where social distancing is practiced in a two-months-on, one-month-off fashion.
In the meantime, it feels like the coronavirus crisis has upended any number of social mainstays. Most obviously, it has demonstrated just how many jobs can be done from home, a revelation that will likely have a long-term impact on the future of work. It has also had a major impact on the cultural sphere. Broadway has closed. Restaurants are no longer serving. Cinemas have been shuttered.
Movie studios have moved to compensate. Big releases like No Time to Die, Black Widow, and F9 have been pushed back, but smaller releases are moving directly from theaters to streaming. Last week, films like The Hunt, Emma., The Invisible Man, and Onward went to digital within weeks of opening. This week, Birds of Prey, Bloodshot, The Way Back, and more will join them.
The business logic makes sense. 2020 was always going to be a challenging year at the theatrical box office, but the bottom fell out once the pandemic truly entered public consciousness. The last weekend before cinema, box office returns reached their lowest point since September 2000. Attendance was lower than at any point since the industry began keeping track of it in 1980. There will be no box office top 10 for a while.
The logical response would appear to be delaying these movies whenever possible, staggering releases in the wake of the crisis. This is the approach studios are taking with some big releases. Although no theatrical dates have been announced, experts agree that it is highly unlikely that Disney will move Black Widow and Mulan to Disney+. They will likely just reschedule the release.
This approach is not sustainable, as the release calendar is already saturated with blockbusters. It is difficult to move one big film even a year or two into the future without crashing into another. In hindsight, the early decision to move No Time to Die into the relatively vacant November slot (where its biggest competition is the already rescheduled Kong vs. Godzilla) was a bit of shrewd operating.
In some cases, studios are able to swap their own schedule around. It has been suggested that Disney might move The Eternals in November to make room for Black Widow, and F9 is moving to the slot allocated to its sequel. However, this isn’t workable in every case, while the intricacies of shared universes and sequel demands also limit the possible release options for studios.
As such, it is inevitable that some big movies from major studios are going to have to launch on digital. This is a game-changer — something that has profound implications for the future of movie-going — even after the crisis comes to an end. People always speculate about the future of film — and it’s often difficult to predict exactly what changes will stick around — but this feels like an inflection point.
The reason this feels so momentous is because this shift exists in a larger context. Hollywood studios have already been grappling with streaming, given the intrusion of companies like Amazon and Netflix into the world of film-making. Netflix has repeatedly demonstrated it is possible to premiere a blockbuster on streaming, with films like Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, and Underground 6.
Studios have been building their own infrastructure to support this. Disney convinced major studios like Warner Bros., Universal, and Sony to join its Movies Anywhere initiative, a service that allows users to share movies from distributors across multiple platforms like Google, VUDU, and Microsoft. Disney also launched its own streaming service with Disney+, and Warner Bros. has HBO Max.
There is a reason studios are drawn to the prospect of digital releases. Most obviously, it is a growing market. While ticket sales have leveled off and physical media sales decline, international streaming has become more important to the major studios. There is a sense that digital distribution is the future, and the studios are eager to get ahead of it and assert control over it. Disney’s ownership of Movies Anywhere may recall the infamous “vertical integration” that existed until the Supreme Court intervened in 1948.
As such, digital releases minimize the middleman. Disney kept 65% of the opening weekend box office for The Rise of Skywalker, the rest going to the cinemas. That was a record-breaking split (first begun with The Last Jedi), driven by Disney’s leverage with that property. In contrast, it has been suggested studios keep 80% of the money on premium video-on-demand sales. Home releasing also reduces distribution costs. (Even shipping digital copies to cinemas costs money, albeit substantially less.)
A cynic might sense opportunism in this crisis. Studios like Disney have long tried to narrow the window between the theatrical release and digital availability, receiving pushback from cinemas. Universal’s decision to make The Hunt, Emma., and The Invisible Man available for digital rental so early recalls similar plans for Tower Heist in 2011, which were thwarted by threat of boycott.
There is, quite simply, nobody to push back against the narrowing of the release window right now, because movie theaters don’t really exist right now. Even if they did, who could reasonably object to making mass entertainment easily accessible to a population that has found itself trapped in a confined space with an urgent need to entertain the family?
There is a lot of reassuring rhetoric. “We are confident that — like other businesses hit hard by the virus — movie theaters will bounce back strongly, and we will be there to support them,” promised Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman. The National Association of Theater Owners insisted that “the vast majority of deferred releases will be rescheduled for theatrical release as life returns to normal.”
Can life return to normal after this? Much like people will likely adjust to working from home, audiences may grow used to watching these new releases in the comfort (and safety) of their homes. “To the extent that this lasts for months, do people get so in the habit of watching Netflix that they don’t want to go back to movie theaters?” asked analyst Richard Greenfield.
Even after social distancing is relaxed, are people going to feel comfortable going back into confined spaces sitting incredibly close to strangers? Studios may not be the only ones to have to change their business model. Cinemas themselves will likely have to accommodate shifting social mores. The cinema may become more of a boutique experience, with fewer seats and more event programming.
It is impossible to tell what the future holds, but it seems likely that it will bring major upheaval to film distribution. It’s highly unlikely that this will mean the end of movie theaters or anything as melodramatic, but it may lead to a major reconfiguring of the entire industry. Can things go back to the way they were, or is this a hint of the new normal?