In 2011, movie studio Universal Pictures announced that it would be carrying out a test: it would put out its new film, Tower Heist, on video-on-demand just three weeks after releasing it in cinemas.
The move was doomed. Cinemas were furious. AMC, Regal and Cinemark announced that, if Universal went ahead with the test, they would simply not play the film. Chastened, Universal capitulated and the “test” never went ahead.
Things have changed. Over the last year, cinemas have had no leverage, and studios have been able to carry out the streaming experiments they’ve been pondering for the past decade. But far from opening up a brave new era of home entertainment, these experiments have actually shown Hollywood studios that, yes, they do still need cinemas – at least if they want to make the globe-spanning blockbusters that pull in the big bucks.
Studio responses to the pandemic have varied. Some, lacking popular streaming platforms, have made deals with companies that do: Paramount sold Coming 2 America to Amazon for $125 million; Sony sold Tom Hanks’ Greyhound to Apple TV+ for around $70m.
Others have used the pandemic as a chance to release films on their own platforms. Disney, for instance, has churned out a glut of movies on Disney+, including Mulan, Soul and Raya and the Last Dragon. AT&T, which owns Warner Bros, has released multiple films – like Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla vs. Kong – in theatres at the same time as on its streaming service HBO Max, and plans to continue this throughout 2021 with Mortal Kombat, Dune and The Matrix 4.
Filmmakers have lined up to criticise this practice: Denis Villeneuve, director of Dune, publish an op-ed in Variety claiming the move shows “absolutely no love for cinema”, while Christopher Nolan said that “some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”
It’s not hard to see why streaming would be attractive to studios: if you beam a film directly to people’s homes, you don’t have to share your profits with cinema owners. “Studios have been trying for about ten years to carry out this experiment, but they weren’t allowed to because cinemas boycotted their films if they did anything like that,” says David Hancock, a film analyst at Omdia. “They’ve been making up for ten years worth of experimentation that they couldn’t do.”While these experiments have yielded different results for different films – Greyhound did well, Raya and the Last Dragon flopped – there’s been a clear takeaway. Hollywood still needs cinemas, and it needs us to return in our droves as they reopen across the world. Omdia’s research shows that video on demand claimed $1 billion in consumer spending globally in 2020, which pales in comparison to the $30bn lost by cinema over the same period.
For big blockbusters, streaming simply cannot match theatres. The new James Bond movie, No Time To Die, is instructive here. The film, to be distributed by MGM in America and Universal in the rest of the world, has been postponed repeatedly because of the pandemic. In October 2020, rumours (which MGM denied) began to circulate that the studio was shopping the film around to streaming platforms for $600m; no one bought it, explains Hancock, because it was way too expensive. It’s questionable whether streaming will ever bring in enough revenue to make blockbusters like Bond, which could gross more than a billion dollars, a viable proposition.
The rise of Netflix, then, has warped the media industry, and forced major studios to adopt a business model that, at the very least, has some question marks over its longterm viability. Tara Lachapelle at Bloomberg, for instance, calls it “fundamentally broken”. “Spend billions of dollars to create an endless supply of content, then sell monthly access to this deluxe all-you-can-eat buffet for little more than the cost of dinner at McDonald’s.”
One long-term change we may see as a result of the pandemic is in the length of release windows. Both Paramount and Warner Bros. have announced a maximum of 45-days exclusivity for cinemas – half the typical 90 – going into 2022. This is a coup for studios. “Other than stuff like The Greatest Showman, most films make 80 per cent of their box office in the first three weeks, and then they’re gone,” says Kathryn Jacobs, CEO of cinema advertising company Pearl and Dean.
Streaming will also continue to change the industry profoundly, particularly as companies like Netflix and Amazon finance more and more films for their platforms – Sony has agreed an exclusivity deal with the latter – and Disney continues to tinker with the most profitable way to release its films (Cruella, out next month, will come to Disney+ at the same time as cinemas). Release schedules will continue to be in flux. “Because people are working flexibly from home, perhaps they’ll go on a Wednesday, rather than wait and go on a Friday to a multiplex,” says Jacobs.
The billion-dollar question that remains, then, is whether there is an appetite for consumers to return post-pandemic. Will they fear catching some new variant of Covid-19, or have they gotten used to the convenience of home streaming? Or, perhaps, many will consider the cinema an unnecessary luxury in a time of economic recession. Early signs suggest not: Godzilla vs Kong has managed to rake in an impressive amount despite restrictions, while New York cinemas have reported sold-out seats (albeit at 25 per cent capacity).
Cinemas have been battered by the pandemic – forced to watch, helpless, as their streaming rivals have hoovered up tens of millions of new subscribers. But despite Hollywood experiments, the economics of huge blockbusters simply don’t work without your local multiplex. “First it was telly that was gonna kill us, then it was VHS, then it was having more than four television stations in the UK,” says Jacob. Like James Bond, the cinema industry refuses to die.
Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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