Alyssa: Fear is the mind-killer, but those of us who love seeing movies in theaters, as God and Jack L. Warner intended, have a lot to be afraid of. The covid-19 pandemic has largely shuttered cinemas in the United States, and even when they’ve been open, audiences are too anxious to show up in droves. The entire release calendar has been reshuffled. But the Warner Bros. news is of a totally different magnitude. This is not the studio giving up on the theatrical performance for a couple of smaller movies. This is “Dune,” “The Matrix 4,” “In the Heights.” It’s everything.
Theoretically, this is a hedge against the likelihood that even as vaccines start to be administered late this year and early into 2021, consumers are going to be skittish about movie-going for a long time. It’s also, as my Post colleague Steven Zeitchik writes, an attempt to super-charge HBO Max, which has been slower to get off the ground than competitors like Disney Plus. But boy does this feel like a bell that can’t be unrung, and it’s hard to know what the long-term implications of the decision will be. Are movie theaters, already struggling to raise cash to stay afloat, doomed? How long can Netflix and company keep making $200 million blockbusters if audiences are conditioned to pay $15 per month to a service or two, rather than shelling out that much to watch a single movie? And will you be seeing “Dune” from the comforts of your own screening rooms, or do you just have to see those sandworms on the big screen?
Sonny: Leaving aside the aesthetic concerns of watching a movie at home versus in a theater. And leaving aside the social concerns of watching a movie alone on your couch surrounded by distractions like phones and laptops rather than in a dark space with strangers experiencing the frisson of being alone together. The big question here is how theaters respond.
Even with the deal between Universal and AMC to shorten the theatrical window on certain movies, I do not think it is a slam dunk that the big theater chains (AMC, Regal and Cinemark) or the small theater chains (Alamo Drafthouse, Angelika, ArcLight , etc.) will agree to this. Yes, they’ll probably be able to negotiate a better revenue split from WB because of the strange nature of this “in theaters AND on HBO Max, together!” arrangement. But maybe they’ll decide that it’s simply not worth shattering the window once and for all to get a larger cut of a radically diminished pie.
And if theaters balk, it changes the game for studios entirely. James Emanuel Shapiro wrote about the possibility of a world without theaters for me a couple of months ago; the simple fact of the matter is that the economic model built by studios — one that relies on tentpoles keeping the roof up — simply doesn’t work with a streaming-first model. Budgets will have to shrink, meaning less money for both above-the-line and below-the-line workers. I’m not sure that’s a future anyone at the big studios is rushing to embrace.
Peter: If all goes well, we’ll be entering a post-covid world by the second half of next year. The virus won’t be completely defeated, but most adults will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and much of daily life will have returned to normal. The big question for Hollywood is how much people will actually want to return to their expensive, inconvenient, pre-pandemic theatrical viewing habits.
If you think about it, the theatrical experience is a kind of luxury good, a first-class seat for movie-watching. It provides some clear advantages: The sound and picture are much better. The viewing experience is (ideally) distraction-free. There are movie-friendly food and drinks. In the best theaters, the seats are a little more comfortable. Theatrical viewing lets you focus on the movie, making it the sole object of your attention — which is why critics like us tended to prefer it. And traditionally it let you see the movie months before it hit the small screen.
These advantages have always been balanced against the costs of a night out: time, money, scheduling. Movies are expensive, especially if you had to add in the cost of a babysitter, parking or an Uber, and the hassle of finding several dedicated hours of free time.
Watching a movie at home may not be a better experience, full stop, but for many people, in many situations, it’s a better value — more convenient and more flexible. The question has always been: How much better a value is it? WB’s decision to push every release, even tentpoles, to streaming on the same day as the theatrical release, will serve as a test of that question. And I suspect the answer will be that as much as all three of us love the theatrical experience, it just won’t be worth it for many viewers when other more convenient options are available.
Alyssa: There’s so much going on in this shift, but to me, this is one of the biggest: If movie theaters go away, or at least become a much smaller part of the way studios make money on the movies they produce, what kind of movies are we going to get to see?
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t entirely clear what equilibrium for a streaming company looks like. At the beginning of this year, Netflix, the giant in the space, planned to spend an astonishing $17 billion on the content it produced in 2020, a figure that was expected to rise to $26 billion by 2028. That sounds like an enormous amount of money, though Netflix pulls in a lot of revenue: $6.43 billion for July, August and September. But if you start thinking about it a little more carefully, that money doesn’t actually go as far as it might seem. “Avengers: Endgame,” the biggest movie of 2019, cost $511 million to make and market. “The Lion King,” the next movie on that list, is reported to have cost at least $200 million just to produce. “Toy Story 4” cost somewhere between $190 million and $200 million — again, advertising costs not included. Keep spending on big draws like that, and all of a sudden, you don’t have enough money to also produce a bunch of television shows, and make passion projects like “The Irishman” and “Mank” that are intended to contend for Oscars.
I have no idea how all of this shakes out, or what the streamers and studios decide is worth making once the new normal emerges, if it emerges at all. I hate how this process has lowered my expectations bit by bit: First, I thought I’d just have to wait to see movies again. Then, I thought I’d be able to see movies, but I’d have to see them in lonelier and decidedly less-delightful circumstances than used to be our default setting. Now, I’m wondering if my movie-going experience is going to be nothing but caped crusaders striding across my screen forever.
Cheer me up?
Sonny: The good news, Alyssa, is that there will always be movies. If you doubt that, all you need to do is trawl the seemingly endless reaches of video-on-demand offerings to see that people make lots and lots of movies — many of them not very good, almost all of them relatively cheap — and they put those movies on streaming services and what used to be known as pay-per-view. Sometimes, if they star Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson, they’ll get a DVD and Blu-ray release as well, because the Olds like buying movies with their faces on them from Walmart and like renting movies with their faces on them from Redbox.
The bad news is that the differentiating factor of theatrical presentation will no longer have as much power, thus making it far more difficult to filter what’s actually worth watching. In a way, we may see a return to the studio system of sorts, a world in which the studio mattered more as a sort of branding label (think Columbia noirs or Universal’s monster movies or MGM’s musicals). If you love romantic comedies, you’ll gravitate toward Netflix, which has invested heavily in the genre. Horror fans will flock to Shudder. Family-friendly fare will stick with Disney. Amazon will be … whatever it is that Amazon Video wants to be. (It’s still not entirely clear to me, and I say that as a fan of the service.)
The mid-budget movie for adults has been dying since before I was born, so its resiliency is, perhaps, under-appreciated. But I do think we’re witnessing a sea change, one that will only be hastened by decisions like WB’s and the Oscars’ willingness to allow streaming titles to compete for statues.
What do you think, Peter? Does a movie like “Citizen Kane” really benefit from being seen on a big screen instead of in your home theater?
Peter: Sonny, it seems to me that studio brands like Pixar and Marvel — not to mention streaming services and networks like HBO — have already started training viewers to trust cinematic brands.
As for the benefits of the big screen, it all goes back to the question of value. There’s a huge benefit to seeing “Citizen Kane” or “Dune” on a big screen if your home-viewing experience is a 13-inch TV/VCR combo (ah, memories). But that benefit is greatly diminished in a world of relatively affordable 70-inch 4K televisions and Dolby Atmos surround sound systems.
It’s worth looking back a little bit, to the era we all grew up in, when VHS ruled. There was no Netflix, but there was Blockbuster, and plenty of future cinephiles spent their evenings plowing through the back catalogues of their local video rental palaces. On the one hand, VHS certainly cannibalized some part of the theatrical audience, with some number of viewers waiting to watch on small screens at home. On the other hand, the arrival of VHS also helped drive interest in movies as a form. Low-resolution videotape educated a generation of cinephiles.
My first viewings of “Blade Runner,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apocalypse Now” were all on VHS — all visual spectacles that benefit from being seen on the big screen — and it didn’t stop me from loving those movies. Quite the opposite. I learned to love movies in large part by watching them on small, subpar screens.
The movie experience as we’ve known it is going to change. It’s already changing. And if regular theater-going becomes a thing of the past, I’ll certainly be sad. Theatrical viewings of movies have been a treasured part of my life for as long as I can remember. Losing them this year has been surprisingly hard.
But my hope is that, whatever happens with theaters, both Hollywood and viewers will find ways to adapt, as they have in the past, and that the form itself becomes more vital than ever, even if the particulars of the experience change.