Cinema, as we know it, is on its last legs...
Updated: Feb 21
Back in March to the backdrop of the oncoming pandemic lockdown here in the UK, I penned a piece encouraging people not to give up on their local cinemas/theatres. It was filled with the usual platitudes and generally broad statistics, ones that were true before the coronavirus even hit – that cinemas were dying. And it was true then, nine months ago.
Now? Now it’s the new equilibrium.
Outside of the pandemic, the way we as humans consume entertainment has changed drastically over the past decade alongside the advancements in technology. The dominance of streaming has rendered the importance of physical media mute for many, piracy continues to plague the industry harder than ever, and rising corporate-cinema ticket prices put punters off spending a night at the movies. COVID-19 has been a strange and difficult time for us all, so it might seem trivial to some to spend it worrying about the viability of a commercial industry’s future…but it’s easy to forget just how many people that industry employs and how many depend on its continued existence.
From the outside however, things may not appear awful. Hey, the news that Wonder Woman 1984 is going straight to streaming on Christmas Day might make you jump for joy. You might be asking yourself why more finished films aren’t just going straight to streaming instead of waiting for cinemas to re-open. They’ll still make money right? You’re paying for those streaming services after all, it all goes into someone’s pocket doesn’t it?
The answer is more complicated than it seems. It’s also a tad more downbeat than it seems but it’s important.
I’m going to split the topic of distribution into two parts: Theatrical and Home Release, just to make things easier. And before we start, this is a personal piece of writing so of course I’ve got my own views and prejudices against certain companies or practices. If you don’t like, feel free to click away! Right, still here? Good. Let’s get into it…
Part One | Where Are We Now?
It’s no secret that we’ve embraced streaming. The majority of music, television and film is now handed straight to us digitally without having to leave our homes. Just like various theists feared, the future means less human contact, and if Wall-E is any indication it won’t be long until we don’t even have to move in order to receive anything.
Netflix very quickly set the precedent in 2007 when it made the initial switch from posting your desired films/TV shows to giving you access to them online. It was slow, and during this period the Apple boom with the rise of the iPhone meant that slowly our devices were now able to handle decent internet access for the first time ever – enough to even maybe…watch stuff on? But that’s ridiculous right? With how small mobile phones are getting, who’d want to watch a film on one? (He asks, humorously gesturing to the rest of this freakin’ editorial…)
Simultaneously in 2007, Amazon launched its ‘Amazon Prime’ initiative to give it a one-up over competitive e-sellers like Play.com and eBay. Its sole function – next day delivery – was deemed mad by many. And they were right. It wasn’t a huge success, but the subscription system remained active.
For the next few years iPhones set the trend for daily technological advancements. Apps became commonplace. We all fell in love with Angry Birds for a bit whilst our phones did more and more. Subsequently our TVs went online just so they could catch up. HD had fully arrived in every home too, taking over terrestrial TV in a massive shakeup. All the while a small but important change had shook the world of theatrically-released films. The exclusivity window, which used to be at least a year, was now down, barely scraping a handful of months. Big summer blockbusters would be out on home release in time for Christmas – the perfect stocking filler. This was due to a rising number of films being released and as a marketing tactic it makes sense. The physical home release sales were good. DVDs had been a huge success, they had successfully integrated into the role VHS tapes dominated for so long before.
However, in 2006 the introduction of high definition home video came about with the simultaneous releases of two opposing formats. DVD had to overcome laserdisc, so Blu-ray had to overcome HD DVD. What it really came down to between the two was the difference in storage size (HD DVD had 15GB of usable space opposed to Blu-ray 25GB) and its support from other outlets. Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation 3 offered full Blu-ray supports and therefore it won out, but it failed to make a big-enough splash in its first few years in the same way that DVD did.
Long story short, we seem to have become greedy. By 2013, kids were growing up with Youtube videos at their fingertips. Some of which were able to stand side-by-side with the content they’d have to pay and wait months for a release of. And there’s that word too – content. Everything became ‘content’ as a grand gesture to wipe any sense of individuality from it. Netflix’s popularity grew due to its ease of access and now had competition from Amazon Prime’s Instant Video service which launched in 2011. In 2013, both services began offering new exclusive content made specifically for its platforms dubbed ‘originals’. Netflix was the clear with at first with high-profile releases and continuations of previous cult hits like Arrested Development but, it was the start of a seemingly never-ending war.
With the popularity of streaming content increasing, more services cropped up. From early-adopters like Hulu to Disney+ in 2019. The portability factor was a huge deal. Home video releases now came with digital copies of your purchases on the disk, which could then be transferred to your tablet or phone to view anywhere, anytime. Original television series started to become produced in bulk on the services themselves, leading to a decrease in viewership for live TV and a shift in how ratings are recorded. The BBC put more of an emphasis on its iPlayer App for example, promoting shows to be watched on demand just as much as live, as the average viewership for prime-time television has halved since 2010.
Production companies, distributors and services have become locked in a battle for our attention, but it’s across two specific platforms that I’d like to go into detail about…
Part Two | The (Not So) Theatrical Experience
To the general public, cinemas don’t feel as special as they once did. They used to be a grandiose experience where you could see the latest releases for the only time until they’d be released in a year or so. A massive screen. Booming sound. An experience. Now, that experience has only got better with the introduction of services like IMAX, but the biggest problem is that the home-cinema system has caught up exponentially.
50-inch televisions, once thought only for millionaires, are now more affordable than ever. Most with a 4K setup, something that even most cinema chains struggle to keep up to date with. It only makes sense for consumers to want the best version of their product, and if it just so happens to be the most accessible then what’s the problem, right?
Then of course there’s the downsides to such trips. The rising ticket prices (some chains even charge more for blockbuster releases now thanks to their parent company’s requests) and the possibly-poor behaviour from the audience. But if anything, the outbreak of COVID-19 has provided a catalyst for these problems, and as such everything has come out in the open.
Not only were all cinemas closed during both UK lockdowns, but Cineworld announced months ago they wouldn’t be opening their doors again until 2021. The nail in the coffin for them was rumoured to be the latest delay of No Time To Die – the latest James Bond film which would surely have put butts in seats. Odeon announced a similar strategy, instead just remaining open on certain days to allow for work to continue, but the number of theatrical releases have dwindled dramatically with no studio wanting to sacrifice their product for the sake of saving a business.
A Quiet Place: Part Two, Candyman, Black Widow, Halloween Kills and Ghostbusters: Afterlife are all thus-far still delayed until further notice. All of them will put butts on seats. And like so many businesses this year the virus has sapped the majority of support from them. Tens of thousands of people up and down the country work in chain or independent cinemas and they depend on such releases. They continue to fight for the importance of how a film should be presented. Places like The Prince Charles Theatre in Leicester Square put their punters first and create their programmes based on what they want, whilst chains and franchises leave their employees in the dust, sometimes not even letting them they won’t have a job anymore until social media tells them…
Some films and filmmakers have tried to make a difference, sure. Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. pushed forward with the release of Tenet in the midst of the pandemic, and whilst it was an admirable shot it ultimately disappointed those higher ups simply because people shouldn’t have to put their lives at risk to see a film. That’s the through line that we’ve been taught this year the hard way. But at the same time, all those staff members shouldn’t be put into poverty because of it either. Never forget how long it took for the arts funding to finally be announced here in the UK – a country steeped in culture from theatres to museums to its booming film production powerhouse, but I digress…
Everyone was losing money, even studios who had already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on such productions. Every day these titles weren’t being released they were losing even more, so they started to make decisions. Decisions like selling their titles to streaming services. Trolls: World Tour will infamously go down in history as the pioneer of ‘premiere video-on-demand’ – whereby people can rent a new release film digitally and exclusively for a couple of days at a heightened price. After its success Disney followed suit with the Mulan remake, to a slightly smaller positive reception. This was a new option. And better yet, it was a way to keep making at least some money in the interim.
Artemis Fowl, Enola Holmes and 6 Underground were some of the first. And hey, remember when Tenet proved to be disappointing at the box-office for Warner Bros.? Well guess what? They seem to have made a hasty decision based on that too! On the 3rd of December it was announced that all of its slated films for 2021 will be released simultaneously on the streaming service HBO Max and theatrically in the US. That means The Matrix 4, Dune, Space Jam 2 and Godzilla Vs. Kong – all MASSIVE films, will now be available to millions from the comfort of their own homes immediately rather than at a cinema. It all starts with Wonder Woman 1984– the sequel to a film that made over a billion dollars at the box office – hitting the streaming service on Christmas Day, the same strategy Disney is using with PIXAR’s latest Soul. As a consumer, you’re likely jumping for joy…but can you honestly tell me you’d get the exact same experience watching a hulking blockbuster like Godzilla Vs. Kong on your home television?
Now, there are some caveats of course. Warner Bros. is clarifying that this is precautionary as they see the virus as threatening the film industry until the end of 2021 – this is a good assumption and one that takes into account the fears of so many. Second, we don’t have HBO Max here in the UK (yet, it's hitting Europe in 2021) so, fingers crossed, those films might actually still be theatrically exclusive unless some new deal happens in the next couple of months. But let me ask you this. Now that Warner Bros. has shown it’s willing to do this, how long until Universal and Paramount do the same? Disney’s already got its own platform and I can guarantee they’ve been itching to just dump Black Widow straight to streaming for the last few months now… after all, they need the subscribers, and if the future of the MCU is only going to be understandable to those who keep up to date with the Disney + shows then I’m going to be hell out of luck. Their dependency on synergy is just greed, pure and simple, but that’s the bias in me poking its head out again.
Companies like Disney, and now (potentially) Warner Bros. have turned their backs on cinemas in what has always been a symbiotic relationship. One always depended on the other and now that this new, cheaper service is available the hardworking dispenser is now being hung to dry. These are buildings and staff that have represented a cultural public service for a century now. These are beautiful buildings where relationships are made with others, where lifelong passions are created and where countless unimaginable memories are made.
There’s been a kickback with many arguing that this is cinema’s chance to ‘step up’ their game and prove that they’re not obsolete. These people use arguments like tentpole MARVEL releases as evidence to the fact that cinemas can still be seen as important. To that I ask whether you think Avengers: Endgame would still have sold out so many screenings if it was available on streaming services at the same time. Because I’m a cynical bastard you see, and I think if the majority were given the choice they’d refuse to leave their homes.
So what can we do? How can we help? Well, the answer is the same as it’s always been. If you can stay safe, keep going to the cinema. If you live equidistant to both a chain and an independent, favour the independent. Purchase gift cards or merchandise – it’s all just a case of support.
I just, I really want Denis Villeneuve’s Dune to get a sequel guys and it won’t unless it makes money.
For those of you intent on calling me out for not realising the cost of such support, I know. It all costs money. And at times like these film trips aren’t the kind of things your slither of disposable income should go on…
Part Three | DVD, Blu-Ray & 4Ks (Oh My!)
I’m going in the deep end here. DVDs are obsolete. Chances are most people aren’t actually aware that the standard television shows they watch on their HD TVs are of a substantially higher quality than the new films they purchase on DVD. It’s in the name. DVDs can’t handle HD quality. So that episode of Hollyoaks you were watching this evening looks better than your copy of The Greatest Showman.
Oh but boy did they have their day. DVDs were glorious and I can’t thank them enough. The absolute joy I had from so many special two-disc editions of films, jam-packed with special features that many now-filmmakers refer to as ‘film school in a bottle’ can never be matched. They raised the bar and took over when VHS was quietly put to sleep. Blu-ray however, hasn’t been given a chance.
The argument against this tends to highlight the fact that there’s not much of a difference between DVD and Blu-ray, and whilst this raises some good points I’d like to reiterate the fact that DVD is obsolete and is still the only format you tend to find advertised en-masse or in places like supermarkets. Now, there are many reasons for this. One is that it actually costs more in the UK for distributors to release a Blu-ray disc due to various licensing issues. Over the past five years we’ve lost the ‘special editions’ of new-releases, and 95% of DVDs released nowadays are vanilla discs with nothing but the film on them (maybe a trailer if you’re lucky). This is devastating loss for those who can’t afford film school or thrive on every ounce of behind-the-scenes information they can get.
There have been a number of saving graces however in the form of prestigious distribution companies like Arrow and Second Sight who release both new and old, preferably cult, films in fantastic releases often loaded with bonus content. Much like the new life that’s been injected into vinyl, Blu-rays and 4Ks have attained a collectable status – but even this is a double-edged sword. Does a film really have to adhere to the strict cult-rules in order to justify effort put into its release? The vanilla Blu-ray is more common than not too, and many manufacturers have even stopped printing multiple colours onto a disc face in order to save printing money. Not only that, but any Tom, Dick and Harry has now decided all a release needs in order to be called a ‘collector’s edition’ is a couple of cheaply-produced art cards and a poster. Dozens of outlets have begun pumping out these identical discs in new, lavish cases when in actuality they’re just the exact same product but with some added tat. I can’t get the likes of Booksmart or Brigsby Bear on Blu-ray, but I can get seventeen different versions of Spider-man: Homecoming, each with a different cover variant and an alternative poster…
Outside of streaming services, the threat of digital film purchases looms over physical media too. A couple months back Amazon made it clear in a public court ruling that the entertainment purchases via their on-demand service were not necessarily owned by the customers who’ve purchased them. Instead, it’s more of a long-term rent scenario. For example, Amazon has been known to mess with its digital products in the past, changing subtitles in foreign films such as The Raid 2 without telling people. If you were someone who purchased a digital copy from them and went to watch it only to be met with a different product than before, wouldn’t there be hell to pay?
Last year, Flixster (a digital video service) closed down, and with it many of the legally-purchased digital copies of films were lost despite many being told the items would transfer to Google Play. These are people who paid good money for (what they thought were) copies of the films they wanted, and yet when the company went bust this wasn’t the case. I can’t imagine the outcome if Ultraviolet ever folds. This is all an issue with film rights and licensing – something that will eventually come round to bite all digital platforms and streaming services.
How many across the UK are going to kick up a fuss when The Office (US) is removed from Netflix in the next year?
Well…if another streaming service purchases the rights to a show, sorry but, that’s how this thing works. You don’t own that show. In another instance, when the BBC released its Christmas TV Schedule line up for 2020 this past week, thousands were outraged by the lack of diversity in the programming – and the films being shown. For example, Guardians of the Galaxy and Moana are two films that have been repeated multiple times on the broadcaster over the past few months and many were outraged that the BBC weren’t offering anything new. Again, it’s down to licensing. The BBC can probably hardly afford new licenses (especially for Disney products now that Disney + will have streaming rights) so it’s forced to rely on what’s cheaper or what they already have. That, combined with the lack of productions amidst the global pandemic, has unsurprisingly left the Christmas TV season feeling bereft and as usual the British Public are just putting the name to blame. But again, I digress…
This licensing issue is a big problem. Just a month ago Disney announced that, moving forward, it was shifting its focus from physical media releases to – you guessed it – Disney +. I don’t even know if Soul will ever be released on disc, and if it’s anything like Inside Out that’s such a shame, because those are the kinds of films that I long to own. I always thought that The Mandalorian would get an eventual release on disc after some timed-exclusivity on the streaming service, because it seems insane not to put something Star Wars related out there. But yet, we’re now near the end of season 2 with no release in sight, and even the Gallery series – which would have made for perfect bonus content – is exclusively available on Disney +…
And this is all that Blu-ray is up against…so 4K doesn’t even stand a chance. If DVDs are no longer put into production, the manufacturing costs will come down for the HD counterparts. Blu-ray players are cheap now, and a large percentage of households have some kind of console that plays them. The only problem is it seems insurmountable at this point in time.
There are instance of hope. Starting in 2021, Warner Bros. and Universal have announced their intention to team-up for continued disc distribution for at least two years. It’s not much, but it’s commitment in a market that’s still worth billions per year. At a time where many other studios are rumoured to be skipping the process altogether, at least there’ll be some coming in the near future.
So what’s the answer then?
Again it’s a matter of spending. Simply purchase your favourite films/TV shows on physical media. That way, if they’re taken off your streaming platform of choice you can still watch them without being naughty and pirating.
But purchasing physical copies of individual films/TV shows is more expensive than a streaming service per month!
That’s true, yes. But here’s how things are going to pan out down the line. Disney + launched just a year ago and already has 80+ million users. You can’t even get a free trial for it anymore. Now, you better believe that the moment Netflix’s licensing contracts are up for all MARVEL/DISNEY and 20th Century Fox Films (YES, REMEMBER THEY OWN ALL THOSE NOW), Disney will only make them available on their streaming platform. Seems only fair, right?
Sure. Fine. Whatever. Good business plan. But you can only play Mr. Monopoly so long before others want a piece of the pie. It’s starting to happen already. NBC’s streaming service Peacock, BritBoxhere in the UK. What happens when Universal starts its own streaming service? Or Paramount? Then, slowly but surely, Netflix will lose everything that’s not a Netflix original. There’ll be 30+ streaming platforms and you’ll have to have at least a dozen of them in order to watch/catch up with your favourite shows. You’ll be stretched thin. People will become bankrupt and then bankrupt the companies by pulling out of their services and then, well, then industry will collapse.
Then a small, tiny-Tim-like voice will perk up in the corner and ask ‘well…why don’t we just put them out individually? Say, on discs?’ and they will receive a huge applause. I can’t promise this last part, but I can say with fair certainty that streaming will eventually eat itself up. Then, where does the content go? Where are the Quibi shows that people actually liked going to end up? Who knows? I don’t…
But physical media takes up space that I don’t have!
You’re damn right it does. Get a shelf!
Doesn’t the manufacturing of the packaging for them damage the environment?
Not as much as you may think! Since 2009, the standard Blu-ray/disc packaging is now able to be recycled as well as being made from over 30% discarded waste in order to be more sustainable.
But, none of this is that important in the grand scheme of things right?
Have you not been reading any of this editorial?!
The truth is, for anyone with an active interest in the media industry or anyone with an interest in entering it at some point in their lives, the next few years are critical in deciding how we consume entertainment. The digitisation of things in our future could lead to an industry with drastically fewer jobs, not to mention a constant uncertainty over the presentation and distribution of texts we ourselves may be responsible for in some way, shape or form.
If you even have a partial interest in it then it’s something to keep an eye on. And in the meantime? A Blu-ray makes a great stocking filler…
One of the best places to stay up to date is through Film Stories – an independent website run by Simon Brew. I’ve been a big fan of his passion for entertainment since DenofGeek!And his numerous articles/opinion pieces on the changes within the industry have been invaluable whilst hastily assembling this hodgepodge of information. I highly suggest you check it out. Here’s some relevant pieces to find out more:
Now, next week I want to try something different. We’re nearing the end of the year, and I’ve just spent 4000 words babbling on about something with the doomed nihilism of Eeyore. But I’d like to hear some good stories for a change. I’d love to hear your best film memories.
Whether they’re cinema outings, rock-hard memories of VHS tape viewings or something you learnt from a bonus feature that’s stuck with you all these years. I’d just like to showcase them all in a glorious rebuttal of everything I’ve been spreading panic about this week. So dig deep and feel good. Send me an email over at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s put together a list of greats.
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