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By Jason F. Koenigsberg
Well 2020 is almost over and most people around the world would probably agree, this year was a wash. The Coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, decimating the economy and leaving hundreds of thousands dead, even more without stable jobs as the rest of us social distance and await for a vaccine. In the meantime, businesses suffered and the motion picture industry was no exception. The biggest casualty for motion pictures was the actual cinemas themselves. The recent announcement that Warner Bros. is going to release all of their 2021 titles simultaneously in the theaters and on HBOMax to stream free for subscribers sent off a lot of negative reactions. Most vocal was from Christopher Nolan who has been one of Warner Bros. most loyal filmmakers for the past twenty years sounding off against the studio as no longer being the home for big budget artisans, and calling HBOMax “the worst streaming service”. Nolan has been one of the movie theaters biggest supporters and refused to let his film Tenet be released to viewers at home until after it had a run on the big screen. Tenet was released and is one of the highest grossing movies of 2020, but that is not saying much considering it still has made slightly over $57 million domestic and over $360 million worldwide on its $205 million dollar budget. Significantly less than the grosses for Nolan’s recent blockbusters Dunkirk (2017) and Interstellar (2014). I give the man credit for trying to make theaters a viable outlet for movies in 2020 but the pandemic along with government orders, consumer fear, and let’s face it, movie apathy has made theaters have to shut their doors in many states. Christopher Nolan has been one of the theaters biggest champions even going so far as to lobby to Congress to give movie theaters a federal bailout. AMC and Regal, two of the biggest theater chains are on the brink of bankruptcy and hopefully the next time a cinema closes it’s doors it will not be forever. This all could still be temporary. James Cameron’s Avatar sequels are due out in a few years and those must be seen in I-MAX, 3-D on the biggest screens possible, and there are plenty of Marvel movies, a new Batman movie, a delayed Fast and the Furious, and Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond are all down the line due to be released once it is safe and enough people have had the vaccine. Will cinemas be able to survive and take up space while they wait? That is the big question and the longer this pandemic continues. They cannot just sit there without paying for the land they are using, and the movie producers are losing money on their multimillion dollar investments with zero return as long as they remain unreleased. The longer this continues as it has the past few months the more likely that this will not end well for movie theaters.
Netflix, Disney Plus and HBOMax Dominate Over Old Studios Like Warner Bros., Universal, and Paramount
Streaming services have essentially replaced the century old established movie studios. This is one of the biggest culture shifts in cinema since either the dawn of sound, or the invention of technicolor. The way people watch movies is changing drastically. It was a slow decline in recent years as home theaters improved and ticket prices soared, but 2020 is the moment on the bar graph when you watch the line plummet. Now the highest grossing weekend opening for a movie is less than ten million dollars, more often less than five million dollars. Being the number one movie in America, or in the world, used to be a huge badge of honor, a selling point, a moment of pride when one film fended off all the others around it and made more money than its competitors. Now it is a consolation prize more than it is an accomplishment the same way wins for pitcher in baseball do not matter because they are graded by so many other statistics. Netflix has had a terrific year since they are the most dominant streaming service and they have paved the way the general public consume visual entertainment. Netflix even raised their subscription prices and it did not hurt their bottom line the slightest. Netflix is also poised to become the first movie studio in over six decades to possibly have five or more movies contend to be Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards. The Award ceremony itself changed their own rules pushing the date back to April in order to assist the eligibility for movies that were in production to allow them more time to finish because of the delays due to COVID-19. That is something the Academy has not done since the late 1920’s and early 30’s. A good 90 years when the movie business was a completely different world. Disney Plus saw its subscribers rise after it premiered a recording of the stage musical Hamilton and released their live action version of Mulan with an additional price tag of 29.99, which would still be a bargain for a family of four instead of going to the theater, but seems like a rip-off for a single person or a couple. Regardless of whether you think that marketing ploy was outrageous, it worked. Mulan boosted Disney Plus and the company’s earnings at a time when they were hurting from not only losses at the box office but also at their theme parks and hotels. HBOMax is hoping for a similar boost after it releases the much anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 this Christmas Day on the streaming platform with the twist of it also being released in theaters on the same day. The old guard studios like Universal, Paramount, and Columbia have played around with releasing their titles On-Demand shortly after they premiere in theaters at a high price of 19.99 to rent, once again a deal for a group of people but not so much one person or two. However none of the titles they have released are their big tentpole movies that were intended to be potential blockbusters at the box office like the new Fast and Furious or James Bond pictures. They may eventually be forced to sell those titles to the streaming service that is the highest bidder because each day they hold the movie back they are losing millions on their investment and the day may come where it is no longer economically feasible to wait. The bottom line is that these movie studios are a business and it is not about making art or impressive cutting edge special effects. It is about making money and the big studios need to find a way to adapt or they will fold to the more dominant than ever streaming platforms. Disney found a way to survive so far, now the other studios need to get with the program before they become extinct.
There Will Be Less $100 Million Dollar Plus Blockbusters with State of the Art Visual Effects and Sound
Why would studios bother to spend the money on something that is only really noticeable on the big screen? A lot of these big studios are conglomerates owned by other companies like Viacom, GE, and AT&T. These companies do not care about how people watch the movies whether they pay top dollar for an I-MAX ticket, rent it from Redbox, or subscribe to their streaming service and watch all the newest movies on their smartphone. All they care about is making money and it seems logical that with the way the movie business is running now, it would make more sense to produce smaller scale modestly budgeted pictures that people can watch on their home theater, or tablet and smartphone if they prefer that. The days when studios spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a film like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet may be dwindling. Why should they put so much money and effort into making the sound and picture quality so intricate and pristine if even on the best home theater systems they will not stand out as they would on a Dolby Digital I-MAX screen? The answer is they shouldn’t. It would be a waste of money. So as long as this sedentary lifestyle we have developed in 2020 remains the status quo look for much cheaper movies. A lot less $100 million dollar plus enterprises and more frugal star driven entertainments. Star driven because believe it or not, these Hollywood stars need to work and make money too. Maybe not the Tom Cruises or the Harrison Fords of the industry but the Timothee Chalamets and the Amy Adams’ still need to make money to maintain their lifestyle. There was even a report that Robert DeNiro was struggling this year because he was supposed to be working on projects that were shut down because of COVID. So less Star Wars and Avengers-style movies and probably more Adam Sandler vehicles and Matthew McConaughey/Kate Hudson style cookie cutter romcoms. Those movies have a built in fanbase that people will watch and provide actors and crew members jobs. They might be expensive to produce more than an independent film, but they do not require state of the art anything. Which brings me to my next point…
Now is the Time for Writers to Take Over the Movies
This is the perfect time for filmmakers to embrace the barebones elements of motion pictures. For years critics and more recently audiences have been complaining about how everything in Hollywood is a remake, or a sequel, and how there are no new ideas in cinema. Well now is the time to fix that. The reason there were so many remakes and sequels are because those titles have a built in audience no matter what. Spending millions of dollars to make a movie that is not based on an established property is a huge risk that many financiers did not want to take in recent years. Well if movie studios are going to be more frugal with their budgets they can finance screenplays that do not require massive budgets and produce scripts that might attract A-list talent to sign on. The longer this trend of no movie theaters and 90% of movies going straight to a streaming service could benefit independent filmmakers and force established directors to go back to basics and make movies centered on characters, plots, and relationships. Now is the perfect time for the next Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, or Richard Linklater to emerge from the ashes of 2020. Someone with a keen eye for camera positioning and a sharp ear for realistic, clever, and relatable dialogue. They can still produce limited special effects. Computers can do wonders today creating visual effects that can look good, or they could go all the way back to basics with practical effects and optical mastery like the early days of Disney, or the special effects Hitchcock used in his films. There is a silver lining to how movies have been decimated since the coronavirus outbreak. This could be the moment that yields an artistic renaissance and ends the commercial malaise of mediocrity that movie studios have been floundering in for quite a while. Plus, the best part is with a vaccine allegedly right around the corner, this could all be temporary. By 2022 we could all be sitting here looking back at this article about how things used to be in 2020 and how far off my prognostications were. Something tells me that is not going to be the situation. I have a feeling face masks, like these dominant streaming services are here to stay for quite some time, maybe not all of them but streaming is the new cable. HBOMax, Hulu, and CBS All Access are not nearly as successful as Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime have been, the latter of which has a built in audience for the business model it provides with shipping benefits, but needless to say as long as there is going to be the internet, there will be streaming services for movies and TV shows. Now they just need to start to finance more original content from not only well established directors like Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron, and David Fincher (all of whom have made very important movies exclusively for Netflix already) but also seeking out the next great writer/directors with a unique vision and a distinct and savvy way with making their dialogue stand out and feel natural in a way that Tarantino did back in the mid-90’s. We need a cultural revolution like the one he helped usher in with the indie movement from over a quarter century ago. Motion pictures are in dire straits in 2020. It is a bad time for cinema now, and it could get worse in the short term, but if the right people get behind the cameras, it could eventually get a lot better.