Streaming services have saved cinemas, but now they’re kicking them while they’re down

Straight-to-video might be propping up the industry at the moment, writes Paul Bradshaw, but theatres are right to boycott studios intent on wiping them off the map

The Jazz Singer. Gone With The Wind. The Godfather. Jaws. Trolls World Tour… When the history of cinema is rewritten many years from now, the last chapter will end with a picture of a cartoon gnome farting glitter into James Corden’s face.

Last month was supposed to see the release of the Trolls sequel in cinemas around the world but the coronavirus lockdown saw Universal Pictures decide to release it digitally instead. No Time To Die, Mulan, Black Widow, Top Gun: Maverick and many more were all given new slots later in the year, but Universal didn’t want to wait – also giving near simultaneous digi-releases to other Spring titles like The Invisible Man, Emma and The Hunt.

Trolls Universal cinemas
‘Trolls World Tour’ has set the marker for straight-to-streaming releases. Credit: Universal

The move paid off. Throwing a lifeline to a stalled film industry, Universal’s strategy kept the movies moving – helping to recoup the costs of thousands of artist’s salaries, freeing up a groaning backlog of future releases and keeping several million bored kids entertained for a few hours at home. The only problem is, it worked a bit too well.

If Universal had been able to release Trolls World Tour in the cinema, they would have received around 60% of all ticket sales. Switch to online distribution and that figure rises to 80%. As of last week, Trolls World Tour has earned almost $100 million in America alone – which isn’t bad considering the first movie only made $153 million. But run those numbers through the calculator with the new streaming savings and we see that the movie has made more money for the studio in three weeks online than its predecessor made in five months at the cinema. Cue the disco ball drop in the Universal office.

The Hunt
Betty Gilpin in ‘The Hunt’. Credit: Universal

But that’s when things started getting ugly. Realising that 80% is always better than 60%, Universal announced last week that even after the lockdown ends, all of their films will now be released online at the same time as hitting the cinema. Great news for anyone who’s gotten used to staying at home – not so good for anyone who owns a cinema chain. Already struggling with tiny profit margins (now crippled by the lockdown), cinemas simply can’t afford to stay open if audience numbers drop. Fighting back the only way they can, Odeon and Cineworld have boycotted Universal films. As it stands, you will now only be able to watch the likes of No Time To Die, Fast & Furious 9 and Halloween Kills at home. And that’s presuming all the other studios don’t follow suit.

Whether the cinemas back down or not, it’s still a big kick in the teeth that they might never recover from. Either they won’t have any films to show or they’ll have to compete with a home streaming option that lets audiences watch the same film without the hassle of leaving their sofas. After months of being told that we might die if we sit in a room with other people, are we ever going to feel comfortable about sharing a crowded cinema again anyway? Stream a film at home for the whole family or a group of friends and it even works out cheaper. Pirate it and it’s free.

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‘No Time To Die’ will retain its theatrical release window. Credit: Nicola Dove

But what effect will this have on the films themselves? What will movies look like a few years from now, even if you don’t care about losing the social experience of watching them in a cinema?

Holding someone’s attention in a quiet, dark room when they’re sat in front of a giant wall of screen is pretty easy. But how do you make a film that you know is going to be watched in a bright living room, with kids running around, the doorbell ringing and a thousand other distractions? How do you tell a compelling story to someone who can pause it whenever they want to or, worse, check their phone whenever they get bored? One answer, of course, is to reach for the lowest common denominator – make films faster, shorter, louder, flashier and dumber.

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Cinemas face a tough challenge to compete with streaming. Credit: Alamy

Another option might be to widen the gap between “serious” artsy films that require a bit of concentration, and bigger action movies that work just as well in the background. Blockbusters with IMAX-sized special effects might even be the only titles that survive the cull – a big enough reason to leave the sofa for a few hours if your own TV won’t do the CGI justice. But that’s not what cinema is all about. Whilst it’s always great to watch The Rock drive a tank through a plane on the big screen, it’s also great to watch something quiet, something scary, something sad and something beautiful – all without distraction, and all with other human beings.

Netflix and Amazon have been targeting small and mid-budget movies for years now and the model they were using before COVID-19 was actually doing a lot of good. Heaping money on indie and art-house directors, the streamers were helping films get made (and released) that never would have stood a chance under the old studio system. But what next? There’s something brilliantly democratic about the idea that some little low-fi Slovakian art-house film would effectively now get the same distribution as the next Marvel movie, but instead of elevating the underdog to the level of the blockbuster, a simultaneous release would bring the blockbuster down to the point of mediocrity. Neither film benefits when they both disappear alongside each other in the same infinite scroll. Homogenised in the same mayonnaise of algorithms, banner ads and targeted marketing, everything eventually just becomes content – seen, forgotten and quickly buried by a screen refresh.

Streaming
Could streaming do away with the theatrical window altogether? Credit: Alamy

What will we be watching five years from now (other than a dozen TV dramas about the bloody coronavirus…)? Will Guardians Of The Galaxy 4 be premiering on Disney+ next week? Will someone at work be forwarding everyone a link to the next Jurassic World sequel? Will you be hosting a home preview of the new Scorsese movie where no one is allowed to talk for four hours? Maybe. But what about five years after that? Is anyone really going to get excited about watching another big summer movie at home? Will we still pay £15.99 to watch Trolls? And how long will the film industry keep making films that have so short a shelf life?

The idea of watching a film in the cinema has always been tied to nostalgia, and there’s no doubting the fact that something needs to change if the industry is going to survive at all post-lockdown – but blackmailing cinemas with their own destruction is ultimately going to kill off the very thing it’s trying to protect. If cinemas (somehow) manage to keep up their boycott of the studios trying to muscle them out of business, we should all do the same. Cinema is worth saving.

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