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Could the pandemic force cinema into a rethink?

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.

Read all the latest COVID-19 news and advice on our dedicated hub

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.

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.

Comments

I’ve not been to the cinema for years. Instead, I wait for films to be either streamed or released on DVD.

It is a balance between public health in a large enclosed space and the finance of opening that space to limited access and still making a profit. The film industry makes millions from cinema audiences before they release films on line. The cinema experience – going out -seeing the film in a purpose built auditorium with refreshments, comfortable seating and audience reaction around is a total night out entertainment worth paying cinema prices for. The launch here provides the springboard for the on line launch later on. Now, until we can gather safely in numbers, films have to survive on line. Hopefully this virus will be curable but this new norm is with us for a year or so, so there is little option but to be practical and adapt. Film is the least fragile medium, and best able to survive as a subscription. I believe people will return to the cinema when they can. There is no point opening cinemas with any social distancing in place. The same is true for concert halls and theatres. Here the situation is more dire. Music and drama loses impact through lack of audience in halls and theatres. Fidelity is lost through poor loudspeakers at home and any microphone set up is a compromise. Streaming on line might give performers a temporary life line, but we have to make sure that our buildings can reopen again safely. Finding the money to maintain them is essential, either from government or from us. That means a tax, since no voluntary fund will accrue enough to do this.

I think the force majeure of commercial pressure will compel cinemas into opening no later than September, quite possibly sooner. The ‘outlier’ in that regard is Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet, with both the director and studio Warners still clinging to the hope of a July release (albeit now pushed back to July 31st). In terms of social distancing, which of course will impact upon attendances, what I suspect that will mean is more screenings of fewer films, with an increased number of lower-budget productions going straight to home formats. However, I agree that cinema is the most robust medium in that regard and that funding needs to be sourced with some urgency for theatre and live music. Whether the present government, which was reluctant even to fund meals for kids in poverty, shows any inclination to help out is quite another matter.

Commercial pressure must not be allowed to dictate public health issues. Unless agreed precautions are in place and observed we must follow expert advice. I don’t want to see another period of lockdown but, more importantly, fear for our lives, just to satisfy commercial interests – I.e. financial gain. We can replace cinemas if the go broke; we cannot replace lives.

There is an experience at “live” events such as plays, opera, concerts, sport and so on, and I include a cinema film here, that cannot be replicated at home. We must not forget that many people will not be able to afford, choose not to subscribe to, or do not have the hardware to access streamed material.

We cannot return to closely- packed events until we have the virus under proper control unless we have protection against it. It may be masks will be adequate in terms of mitigating risk. Under these circumstances cinemas could then, perhaps, use alternate seats to give reasonable spacing.

I don’t know how eating would be accommodated as you then have to remove your mask.

I have no interest in going to the cinema. The sound is too loud and I don’t enjoy being distracted by people looking at their phones, talking, eating and drinking.

I will usually wait until films appear on TV.

Talking Pictures have a good output of real films and filmed snippets from the past. Also some not so good ones. However even those show real life as it was when on location.

It’s not the cinema experience that puts me off – although that continues to deteriorate – but the unappealing nature of the films released. We watch very few films at home these days because the output is so dire. I am no longer excited by the expectation of a new James Bond film.

Perhaps it is an age thing John. I remember seeing Dr No in Wembley when a few young chaps rented a house there. I thought it was a great film and still enjoy watching it, and those earlier ones that followed including Roger Moore’s interpretation.

For me things went down hill in general with too much gratuitous violence, bad language, reliance on increasingly unbelievable special effects and CGI used for their own sake rather than to support the story. Having said that I still enjoy “Who framed Roger Rabbit”. I watched Dunkirk on dvd recently to find a meandering film with no story; a documentary would have been far better. Then I watched “Robin Hood, men in tights” with great enjoyment; perhaps I’ll replay “Wind in the willows next” – I have a lovely animated version with David Jason, Michael Horden and co.

“Don’t blame me It’s just the way I’m drawn” I have it on VHS tape so I must buy a decent copy, perleeeeze Amazon.

Ps. Ask Amazon for Roger Rabbit and the special edition comes up as £24 99. Ask Google for the same film and then find the Amazon site and the sale comes up at £4 85. postage free. Odd.

Maybe Roger Rabbit and his sidekick could start an investigation into price gouging.

I forgot to mention that one of the reasons that I don’t go to the cinema is the adverts and trailers. For the same reason, I avoid commercial TV. With DVDs I turn off the sound until the start of the film.

I circumvented all that some years ago, by using an Apple TV running iTunes on a computer in the study, which has eight 4TB drives, on which are stored around 1000 films and even more TV shows.

I buy the DVDs or Blu Rays, rip them to the drives, remove all the irritating ads and copyright notices, then enjoy what I want on a 65″ OLED in the lounge without any of the extraneous irritants. And, unlike the cinema, I can pause it whenever I wish and make a cup of coffee. Haven’t yet persuaded my better half to appear with a tray of ice creams in the interval but I’m working on it.

I doubt many have these facilities Ian.

It is one reason I don’t want the BBC meddled with unnecessarily. They produce some decent programmes (we don’t have to watch TV all the time, we can be selective) and there are three channels where I can watch complete programmes without the infernal intrusion of adverts. I can tolerate adverts, I understand why they are used, but O wish they could all be shown in one block at the very end of a programme. It won’t happen of course because the impact would be less.

One day perhaps, Ian, but for the time being the Apple TV provides a wireless connection between a laptop (or phone or table) to show films and other video content on a larger screen.

I’m impressed, Ian. Your personal Odeon in Snowdonia. I don’t know where you find the time.

Malcolm – Thanks for reminding me about Robin Hood – Men in Tights. I really enjoyed it in the cinema when it first came out [it’s my kind of tasteless comedy] but have never seen it since; perhaps the networks don’t consider it suitable. Mel Brooks does tend to push the boundaries [e.g The Producers].

Ah Pearl and Dean. Happy memories amid the smog.

Pathetic Pictorial 😀

Whoops. My automatic helper is stupid. I meant Pathe Pictorial. The collection is online and some make fascinating viewing, as did The Blue Light on Talking Pictures tonight.

In my view it makes sense to make new film releases available by streaming and on disc at a time when it would not be wise to venture into a cinema even if it was permitted. What is less clear is how this will help the cinemas survive.

I am still dumbfounded by the decision to allow non-essential shops to open when after three months they could have maintained some trade by offering deliveries and safe collections. Of course this is a different subject.

I think all shops could have offered deliveries?

We have to return to normal in some way. That cannot wait until we have a vaccine, in my view. It needs to be an orderly and monitored process but will also have to rely on the common sense, of those who possess it, to take responsibility for how they handle this return.

Having seen photos of hundreds of people descend on tourist resorts and of the busy scenes when non-essential shops opened recently, I am not confident that common sense is enough.

Some shops handle the same situation in different ways, for example local grocery collections:

Tesco: Collection in a quiet corner of a large car park, with excellent distancing.
Morrisons: The same, but customers’ cars next to each other, so too close.
Waitrose: Go into the store to collect bags of groceries, so that delivery is the only sensible option and these are very difficult to obtain.
(Other branches may handle collections entirely differently)

As I intimated only those with common sense will think about what they do and behave appropriately. Many do not and I do not see how we can deal with that, restrictions or not. Look at behaviour on the beaches, people who went on demonstrations, the way reporters crowd together. I know of no way to deal with that kind of irresponsibility and lack of regard for others. We have to live with that while we gradually restore life back to normal and hope that such behaviour does not wreck the process.

For the time being I will use retailers that offer deliveries wherever possible. We seem to have gone to the shops rather than watching films.

I expect the worldwide pandemic will soon make its debut as a disaster movie. If released first on line I expect it to go viral.

Streaming will never replace the big screen cinema experience. I don’t use streaming services and don’t intend to. And what about all those that don’t have the necessary tech?
A TV will never be able to replicate the cinema.

I tend to agree with you, Dispondent. Unfortunately, few new films seem to justify the big screen and all the special effects. You’re actually better off without all the artificial dubbed-on whooshes and thuds.

The advantage of watching films on a television set is that you can adjust the volume and some of the other aspects of the picture to your own preferences. Depending on how you are viewing the film you can also go back and replay a section or pause to examine detail.

Simon Dicey says:
17 June 2020

You can’t replicate the experience and excitement of watching a film at the cinema. Like most people, we don’t normally go every week and we do watch films from Netflix/on demand, but the magic of the big screen is really important for films such as Bohemian Rhapsody and 1917.

Yes, epics certainly justify the larger format and the greater volume of the auditorium, but too much emphasis on surround sound can sometimes be irritating. Cinema buffs won’t agree, of course.

I have always felt that my eyes and ears should appear to be at the same distance from the action, so a long shot with up-close sound doesn’t work for me.

For a bit of community fun we sometimes go to a nearby village hall for their monthly film night. Although by no stretch of the imagination does the technical presentation replicate the cinema experience, there is something rather enjoyable in watching among friends and neighbours in a packed hall sharing the reactions.

The choice of film is crucial, however. Half the audience [including us] got up and left during one somewhat gruesome feature. I can’t remember the title now but it made a dramatic impact on an everyday audience of country folk.

Is it my imagination or is Sky cashing in big time on movies?

We pay for Sky Cinema but the quality of films on offer seems to have deteriorated. There is a new film every day but when some are foreign language, some are only for children, a lot seem to be aimed at teens, what is left rarely appeals. The other channels seem to be recycled and recycled and recycled.

All the better films only seem to be available on demand – at a price.

I had a Now TV film subscription for a while and found the same problem.

Catherine Haskins says:
18 June 2020

Why are you asking a film fan and not exhibition and distribution industry figures like the Independent Cinema Office, Film Distributors Association, Cinema Exhibitors Association? There is a big difference between Independent Cinema which will struggle to open with any restrictions and larger chains that could run with less visitors and survive this. The Independent Cinema office has done a report you can read it here https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/ico-assets-live/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/21164613/ICO_COVID-19_Reopening-Cinemas-The-Independent-Way.pdf
There has been a big upset between cinemas and the distributor of Trolls World Tour who chose to release it on a home platform rather than wait for the cinemas to open.

If larger titles aren’t held back the future of cinemas is under threat and then no one will be able to complain about popcorn eaters and noisy audiences. The large chains maybe OK, Independent cinemas not so much.

Frank says:
19 June 2020

Maybe the return of drive in cinemas utilising the large empty parking at shut down malls would be a stopgap solution,broadcasting the sound on a radio frequency to tune in,in your air conditioned, perfectly adjusted seated vehicle,pre stocked with all the beverages and snacks of your choice….and you would not even need to turn off your phone!!

Hi Catherine, I did begin referencing an independent film I had seen at one of my favourite local cinemas. The vast majority of my favourite films in any given year I enjoy at screenings where there might be just a handful of other patrons (if that, and thereby lies the tale). However, I was asked to give a general perspective on how the pandemic had impacted upon cinema and the rise of streaming services.

If you want to discuss how toothless the ICO, and for that matter the BFI, have been in protecting independent film exhibition in this country for a number of years then that’s quite another matter. In many respects I think that the current situation has only exacerbated a longstanding problem.