With no solid plans in place for the reopening of movie theatres just yet, could films end up going direct to streaming? I had a chat with an enthusiast and blogger to get his take.
Although we’re beginning to see the easing of lockdown restrictions in some parts of the UK, cinema doors remain shut while social distancing must be observed.
This leads to questions over the future of completed films that remain in release date limbo, as well as future releases that had to suspend filming.
— pinewoodstudios (@PinewoodStudios) June 15, 2020
So what might a prolonged closure mean for both consumers and the industry? I had a chat with an old guest of ours, film enthusiast and blogger Richard Halfhide, to get his thoughts.
The effect of COVID-19 on cinema
Richard, thanks for agreeing to join us for this. When was the last time you were in a cinema?
March 15th – just a few days before lockdown. I saw a preview of The Truth by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda) at the Curzon in Wimbledon.
I bet that feels like a different world entirely by now. Do you think that the longer this goes on, the more likely it is we’ll see ‘direct-to-stream’ releases instead?
I think the simple answer is yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Most films will have been financed and budgeted on the expectation that some of the cost will be recouped through sales in physical formats (DVD/Blu-ray), streaming platforms and broadcast rights after their theatrical release.
For some smaller films and independent releases those markets are often far more important than the big screen. That’s particularly true of films that have been financed in part or wholly by streaming companies – Netflix generally isn’t all that fussed about its films being shown at the cinema aside from that being a prerequisite for Oscar consideration.
Obviously it’ll have been pleased that something like The Irishman ran for a couple of months at cinemas (even after becoming available for streaming), but it has ample resources to cover the costs.
That’s a good point about streaming companies financing some of them to begin with – I hadn’t considered that. So have any gone direct to streaming already?
There have been a few examples so far, but mainly smaller independent stuff. It’s been more films that had their release curtailed because of COVID-19; things like the Vin Diesel sci-fi Bloodshot, or Universal’s The Invisible Man.
Bond is arguably the biggest completed film with a release on hold at the moment – if the pandemic eats up its second release date in November do you think they’d consider streaming it?
It’s interesting to compare the situation with Bond to that of Marvel’s Black Widow, which is the other big film to be delayed so far. Both are slated now for an autumn release, but what might be the consequences if the pandemic is still dragging on?
Marvel is a division of Disney, which made eight of the top 10 highest grossing films of last year and has just launched Disney Plus to huge success. There might come a point when it could countenance abandoning theatrical release and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
An interesting example is Artemis Fowl, a $125 million production that abandoned its theatrical release and went direct to Disney Plus last weekend.
Bond is distributed by Sony, which has not had such an easy time in the last few years and may not be able to afford to take such a hit. Bear in mind it’s not just box office returns and the reduced revenue from streaming, but the various product endorsements they subtly (or not) include in the Bond film and surrounding hype that would be compromised.
The very idea of a Bond movie is tied up with it being an old-fashioned big screen ‘event’, and that won’t be replicated sitting in your living room watching on a big telly.
Of course, if there’s no other option and the pandemic drags into next year they might have no choice, but it could have dire consequences for Bond as a big screen franchise.
Interesting – it sounds like the landscape could be altered for distributors, cinema chains and even franchises themselves. If they did go down the streaming route, how do you think that would work? Would people be buying ‘tickets’ for a streaming slot in the same way you would for a cinema show time?
If you’re talking about a pay-per-view model then it’s not been realised at ‘box office’ scale for a single two-hour movie; the closest analogy would be for a big boxing fight. But the great benefit of streaming is that you can watch whenever suits you, so having specific time slots would defeat the purpose in my opinion.
Would piracy also be another element to worry about if we all viewed a new release from home?
Piracy isn’t so much a concern as inevitable; it will always be around. It’s a controllable problem though as I think most people would rather watch things on legitimate platforms, but sensible pricing is also an important part of that.
£8.99 gets you standard access to Netflix for a month and I suspect it’ll be very reluctant to go over a tenner any time soon because it’s a psychological watershed. You can’t apply the same pricing for streaming movies as you would for cinema tickets.
That said, the Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson comedy The King of Staten Island has just gone straight to streaming at £13.99 for a 30-day rental, but I’d be surprised if there are many takers.
Music eventually found a way to adapt to streaming platforms – do you think something similar could ever happen to cinema?
I think music streaming is great for the consumer and for those who haven’t grown up with the same sentimental attachment to physical media I can understand the appeal. But if you’re a young, up and coming artist or even an established musician who might previously have relied on a loyal fanbase, the royalties are a pittance compared to the album sales of old.
That hurts diversity and creativity, because where those artists might have previously earned enough to pay the bills they can’t now afford for it to be their day job. Film production is a lot more expensive than recording music, but a certain economy of scale applies.
Netflix and others have already proven that streaming is overtaking the cinema and it’s a lot more versatile because the subscription model means there’s not the same obligation to abide by standardised running times.
Personally I don’t think we should ever feel comfortable about power being in the hands of a small number of megalithic companies. I think we need sustainable alternative platforms to ensure diversity.
How would you feel if the pandemic did cause a shift away from theatres to the likes of Netflix?
When we talk about a ‘shift’, I think what you’re really asking is whether it’s a death knell for the traditional cinema-going experience. I don’t believe it will be.
As with live theatre I think it’s going to be massively impacted upon and some cinemas won’t survive. On the other hand there’s a uniqueness to the shared big screen experience which will ensure there’s an audience when it’s safe to reopen.
Yes, more productions will probably go direct to streaming as a result, but I don’t think that will be terminal.
Thanks Richard, it’s been interesting to talk it through and get some insight on the nuances. Do come back and join us again soon.
Tell us your views
Do you agree with the points Richard has made? Will you feel safe going to a cinema should they open in the near-future?
And, if they don’t, is streaming new films the best solution? Let us both know in the comments.