the box office is back! (again)

theatrical distribution revived for third time this year

For the last few weeks there’s been a consistent narrative throughout much of the Hollywood trade press: Finally, the box office has returned to normal!

We’ve seen that in the wake of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was the first movie of the Pandemic Era to pass $200m domestically.

Shang Chi GIF by Marvel Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

We’ve seen that in the wake of Venom: Let There Be Carnage scoring, with $90m, the biggest opening weekend of the Pandemic Era.

Venom 2 Sony GIF by Venom Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

We’ve now seen that in the wake of No Time To Die opening to a completely respectable (especially in the Pandemic Era) $65m weekend, which is almost exactly what tracking had projected.

Daniel Craig GIF by James Bond 007 - Find & Share on GIPHY

While I certainly understand that a return to the horse-race nature of box-office reporting is good for the trade press, and that the exhibition industry is happy that the numbers on these high-profile releases are up, I can’t shake the notion that we’re yearning for a “normal” that may no longer be attainable.

This isn’t unique to the movie industry. Between Covid variants, unvaccinated holdouts and the behaviors that have become entrenched during closures and shutdowns, we never get back to pre-pandemic normal on a number of fronts.

If that includes the movie industry (and it does), then everyone involved will need to redefine what “normal” stands for and looks like.

We already see that in how, over the last year or so, 45-day theatrical windows are now standard and agreed to by most major exhibition chains where not that long ago they were so short as to be unthinkable.

counting on things going well has never been a great strategy…

Now studios will be threading the needle between continuing to support the theater industry and meeting audience expectations for very quick home release. There may indeed be more demand for moviegoing than there has been, but the positive forecast of that analyst makes two big presumptions:

  • That the “studios continue to play ball”, and
  • “…a film slate that is more likely to hold…”

Not to sound like a broken record, but if there’s anything that should be assumed, it’s that things are going to be more uncertain and unreliable. If it’s not major weather events that are more severe because of climate change, it’s supply chain problems that could impact the all-important concessions portion of the business.

More than that, the continued health of the exhibition business depends on selling more expensive tickets for variations on the same three dozen franchises to a smaller number of people. 2019 ticket sales were near their 25 year low even as prices were over twice what they were in 1995. So this isn’t a growing market, just one that is hoping it doesn’t lose any more ground.

And, despite the assertion that there is massive pent-up audience demand to actually go to the theater, it’s hard to imagine more ground won’t be lost overtime.

Warner Bros. may not stick with their 2021 strategy of releasing all movies day-and-date to theaters and HBO Max. And other studios may make alterations to their streaming release strategies. But given Universal’s decision to bring Halloween Kills to Peacock at the same time it’s in theaters and other moves by other companies, it’s clear something fundamental has shifted and we now live in a world where decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

As such, we’re all going to have to come to terms with the reality that reality, as it used to be understood, needs to be put out to pasture.

what constitutes box-office “success” should be redefined

The movie industry, two months after theaters began reopening in earnest with the Memorial Day release of A Quiet Place Part II, has been grappling with an existential question in that time. Namely: What does success look like?

It’s a question without an easier answer. But that hasn’t stopped the industry and press from trying to determine A) what it is and B) if anything over the last eight weeks qualifies.

Consider the following points:

  • After being pushed by a year, A Quiet Place Part II opened with $57m, the best opening weekend since widespread shutdowns in early 2020. That amount was half of what Aladdin grossed when it opened the same weekend in 2019.
  • The total box-office for Memorial Day weekend was $96.5m, a far cry from 2019’s $220m.
  • Since then, there have only been three weeks where the total weekend box office gross topped $90m and only one that cleared $100m. In 2019 only three weekends *didn’t* gross at least $150m and two were over $200m.
  • Both F9 and Black Widow opened well – $70m and $80m, respectively – only to drop by 67% in their second weekends.

Given all that, it’s clear we’re grading on a curve here when trying to score what a win for the theater industry looks like.

It makes sense. After all, we’re still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic whose…fourth?…wave is building up speed in the U.S. as vaccination rates plateau and a more easily transmissible variant spreads in that unvaccinated population. Local and federal guidance on mitigation efforts changes regularly, resulting in a confusing situation for those who *are* vaccinated.

Add to that the availability of many titles on streaming either simultaneous with theatrical release or shortly thereafter, which is going to lead some people to make different choices.

So then why are we not only desperately judging this year’s results by outdated standards but engaging in narratives that seem inaccurate at best?

the wrong yardstick

The first question brings to mind the kind of media analysis frequently offered by commentators such as Jay Rosen. He often points out that political journalism only knows two framing devices: “both sides” and “horse race.” Regardless of the context or truth of a story, the political press will frame it in one of those ways because it helps them maintain the veneer of objectivity.

So too the entertainment press doesn’t do context very often. For instance, this past weekend was labeled “slow” and the fault was put on the movies available. That may have been part of the reason why both Old and Snake Eyes underperformed projections, but the coronavirus resurgence and continued wildfires, along with other issues going on in other parts of the country, also likely played roles.

In short, the measure of what constitutes a success needs to be not only recent but also be constantly adjustable based on conditions. While extreme events like region-wide snowstorms etc are often noted in box-office reporting this should be taken up several steps and made more specific.

an inconsistent narrative

Black Widow brought in $80 million during its opening weekend, but when it dropped 67% from its first to second weekends everyone freaked out. Hot takes were written about what might be behind that drop, one of the biggest of the MCU franchise, and what it means for the future. NATO was quick to blame Disney for that drop, citing the simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

If that were the case, what’s NATO’s theory for why F9 dropped 67% from Week 1 to 2? After all, that movie isn’t available on any streaming or PVOD service, getting an exclusive theatrical release. Do NATO or other parties have theories on why the Week 1-to-2 drops for movies like Boss Baby: Family Business and Cruella, both of which were in theaters and paid streaming tiers at the same time, weren’t as dramatic? And why wasn’t F9’s drop greeted with similar condemnations and hand-wringing?

Also, Black Widow:

  • Had the highest opening weekend of 2021 to date, beating even the much-vaunted F9
  • Is the second highest grossing movie of 2021, a mere $3m behind F9 despite being in theaters for half the time
  • Black Widow has grossed more – about $13m more – in its first three weeks than F9 did in its first three weeks

And again, it did all that while also being available on Disney+ Premier Access, where it brought in an additional $60m.

It seems that if there’s going to be a narrative established – namely that streaming availability hurts long-term box-office success – it should be backed up by more than one example. Otherwise you’re making arguments the facts don’t support.

soc (save our cinemas)?

What a wild [checks calendar] three or four weeks it’s been…

Cruella and A Quiet Place Part II came out this week. F9 hits at the end of June. All are coming to theaters, open in most all parts of the country, and so Hollywood studios as well as the theater industry are feeling optimistic that the Summer 2021 season will be a strong one.

Emma Stone GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

To help that along, the industry, buoyed by surveys indicating people are ready to head back to the theater and may be willing to pay a premium when doing so, recently launched a “The Big Screen Is Back!” campaign with a massive star-studded event in Los Angeles. A PSA for the campaign debuted during the recent Oscars broadcast, with Matthew McConaughey talking about how great theaters are as some of the employees who have been impacted by shutdowns appeared along with him.

At the Century City event celebrities like J.J. Abrams, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Jason Blum and others all declared their love of moviegoing, talking about how seeing movies on the big screen is an experience like no other. Overall, though, that event seems to have been a bit of a dud, with little new shown to the press and other attendees. If studios were keeping their powder dry and saving bigger moments for other events later in the year, it’s unclear what that campaign is meant to accomplish.

All that comes in advance of the Cinema Week campaign planned to run June 22-27, a period that A) is not a week, and B) I’m sure just coincidentally overlaps with Universal’s release of F9.

Charlize Theron Wink GIF by The Fast Saga - Find & Share on GIPHY

Whether they are independent of these campaigns or part of them, the marketing pushes for both F9 and A Quiet Place Part II have both prominently featured “back to theaters” messaging. In the latter’s case it was a significant message throughout, especially when the marketing restarted earlier this year. With the former, the spectacle is certainly shown to be best experienced on a big screen while individual spots have specifically and clearly called out that the movie will be in theaters exclusively.

Changing the Viewing Experience

I’m glad movie theaters are reopening. There’s a lot that’s great about the theatrical viewing experience, including the sensory deprivation tank you essentially put yourself in for a few hours. You relinquish control for that time to the movie, allowing yourself to be completely immersed in it.

At least in theory.

In practice, going to the local multiplex is a mix of logistical hassle, Frogger-esque evasion of the distractions that are still present and the nagging fear that in the end it won’t be worth all of that. Between the pre-show ads for local car dealerships and herbal spas and the fact that you can’t actually turn off your phone because you have both college-aged children and older parents who might need help at any moment, your attention can still be pulled in quite a number of directions. And while critics love to wax poetic about the “booming sound” and “crisp visuals” in theaters, you have about a 1-in-3 chance of there being some problem with either the audio or video portion of the presentation. Or maybe the house lights never go down. Or maybe masking is off. Or maybe [fill in the blank].

Yes, some types of movies definitely play better on a big screen with deep bass, which is why the titles touted during the “The Big Screen Is Back” event were heavy on super heroes, franchise sequels and other similar releases. The experiential differential between Mortal Kombat on the big screen and the home screen is substantial, whereas the gap for something like I Care A Lot is not nearly as wide.

Let’s also be clear that as some of these “event” movies get longer, they’re harder to sit through because some of us need to go to the bathroom.

For movies in the second category, home viewing is just fine, and should be accepted as such by all involved. And that’s not even getting into the question of actual quality, which can make the $14/ticket you just spent seem very, very wasted. At home, even if you finish a bad movie, it’s just a matter of time spent because the cost is spread out over all the movies/shows you watched on that particular streaming platform.

Oh Hey, An Elephant. In *This* Room

There’s also the fact that most all of the studios praising the power of communal viewing in a shared physical environment are hedging their bets by sending some of their movies to their owned streaming service. Black Widow, In The Heights and others are all getting day-and-date theatrical/streaming releases either because plans were made when pandemic uncertainty was still high and haven’t been changed or because these companies are experimenting with new models to see what works.

Washington Heights Pride GIF by In The Heights Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Recent deals between the studios and exhibitors seem to have solidified a 45-day theatrical window as the new normal, and even then theatrical exclusivity may be on its way out as power shifts in the industry. While consumers may be willing to head back to the movie theater, they’ve also developed habits — and expectations — over the last year that will be hard to break.

While the notion of exclusive theater runs has been flailing in the water recently it got a lifeline when the producers of the James Bond franchise, in the middle of Amazon buying MGM, committed to a worldwide theatrical release for the upcoming No Time To Die. That statement seemed necessary because Amazon’s overall strategy for MGM is to use the studio as an instant catalog of movies and shows either to stream directly or remake, reboot and turn into content properties.

James Bond GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

In short, the purchase continues the overall assault on what had previously been an unshakable paradigm, even if one-off examples continue that tradition. Long-term the trend toward shorter — or non-existent — windows will continue as studios find find some iteration of a hybrid approach where releases are tiered to their distribution points.

Theaters Matter; Or They Should

Eric Kohn at Indiewire makes a good point here:

The driving force of the “Tribeca Festival” is just that: a physical presence with curated experiences. Trust the brand and it might be worth the price of admission.

Studios keep throwing product into theaters, which those theaters are then obligated to run. But the “experience” that everyone references is one that involves frustrating parking lots and the risk that the trailers we saw last month will wind up being better than the full movie.

There’s no curation behind it. The pre-show ads are not specially chosen to match the movie being presented. The experience lacks any sense of being personally arranged, from the lineup of titles at the theater to how you’re greeted by staff when you walk in.

To that point, the importance of a great staff can’t be overlooked here. Pay them well so they actually care about their job, encourage them to interact with customers on a personal level, educate them in film history and other details and then watch them become ambassadors for both theaters and movies. It’s a simple equation, but one that’s frequently overlooked.

Theaters can be a magical place. I’ve been to several and worked at one that worked hard to achieve that level of enjoyment for patrons. But instead of being an egalitarian venue for both escapism and contemplation they’re becoming premium venues for big screen spectacle, one location indistinguishable from any other. That’s the wrong direction to be heading in.

an appreciation of: charles grodin

The great Charles Grodin has passed away a couple days ago, meaning the entertainment world lost not only a talented and hilarious actor but also a GOAT-level late night talk show guest.

Following Grodin’s passing the tributes poured in both from fans and from his past collaborators, including Albert Brooks, Steve Martin and others.

Many of those have called out some of Grodin’s most iconic roles such as The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run, Heaven Can Wait, Beethoven and, of course, The Muppets Take Manhattan. While I certainly agree with those call-outs, there are three movies that received less attention but to my mind are integral elements in the Grodin filmography.

Real Life

In writer/director Albert Brooks’ debut feature, Grodin plays the husband and father of the Yeager family. They’ve agreed to let Brooks (playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself) follow them around with cameras in an early satire of the reality TV genre, back when it was mostly confined to PBS. As the experiment goes increasingly off-track, Warren Yeager is pulled between his commitment to keep things going as planned and the misgivings of his wife and family, culminating in a crisis involving a horse dying on the table – and on camera – after it’s brought into his veterinary practice/

Yes sir, Aurora’s chicken pepperoni…

The melding of Grodin’s deadpan delivery and Brooks’ deadpan writing was a winning combination, the actor serving as a great outlet for the writer’s style. His ability to sell complete panic without actually losing his cool was perfect for the story, making Yeager into a very relatable figure instead of a caricature, which would have been an easy line to jump over.

Seems Like Old Times

It couldn’t have been easy for Grodin to take his role as assistant district attorney Ira Parks opposite Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn given those two are such “big” comedic actors whereas Grodin was a more subdued performer. But darn if he doesn’t hold his own in every scene, often winding up as the funniest person on screen. Ira has to deal with the fact that not only has his wife Glenda’s (Hawn) ex-husband Nicholas Gardenia (Chase) returned, but that it’s fallen to him to prosecute the crime Gardenia is suspected to have committed.

Neil Simon’s script gave Grodin a chance to play a completely level-headed individual who finds his nice, tidy world suddenly turned upside down, including threatening his career and marriage. He gets to play against the great Robert Guillaume frequently, but one of Grodin’s best scenes is one where his face isn’t seen. When Gardenia is hiding under a guest room bed and Glenda is trying to protect him, all we see are Grodin’s feet, but we know exactly what’s happening because of the strength of his performance.

Dave

I’m sorry, but if Grodin’s performance as Murray Blum, accountant friend of Kevin Kline’s Dave, isn’t on your list of all time greats, we can’t hang out.

Release Date Shuffle Shows Streaming Confidence

It’s all about what cards you’re holding.

The state of the theatrical feature film release seems rosier than it has in a good long while following two of the strongest weekends of the pandemic era thanks to Godzilla Vs. Kong. The gross domestic box-office for that movie is now $69.5 million, an impressive total, especially given the film is also available on HBO Max. Adding to that success is that downloads of the HBO Max app hit an all-time high in advance of its release.

It’s a validation, at least for the time being, of WarnerMedia’s 2021 strategy of day-and-date distribution to both theaters and streaming. Things will go back to relative normal in 2022, when big releases will head to theaters exclusively for at least 45 days before becoming available to streaming subscribers.

WarnerMedia’s strategy was uber-controversial several months ago but now seems common, so much so that it wasn’t surprising when Disney announced Black Widow would do likewise on Disney+ but via its Premier Access payment tier.

Some studios aren’t feeling quite as sure about things, though. Just recently Paramount announced a handful of release date changes, notably moving Top Gun: Maverick out to November from July. That has been seen as a sign the studio can’t afford to have a Tom Cruise blockbuster be anything but just that. (Though the shifting of Snake Eyes from October back to July then would say the opposite, right?)

Tom Cruise GIF by Top Gun - Find & Share on GIPHY

The difference in approaches – continuing to play the release date shuffle versus coming up with a streaming/theatrical hybrid model – indicates how good the respective studios are feeling about their streaming positioning.

Reading the tea leaves above, it would seem that:

  • Paramount doesn’t yet think the newly-rebranded and relaunched Paramount+ is a suitable outlet for new releases. That’s understandable given it doesn’t have the market penetration of some of the other players. Still, the studio announced in February that a number of upcoming films will be available there 45 days after theatrical release, so it’s getting there.
  • NBCUniversal doesn’t have a dog in this fight. Peacock is an entirely adequate streaming service, but if there’s a strategy it’s unclear what it might be. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be factoring into conversations about new releases or anything else.
  • Sony knows it hasn’t even anted up. That’s why it just signed a deal that replaced Starz with Netflix as the studio’s first post-theatrical streaming outlet.

Warner and Disney are out in front of this pack, pushing new models and doing what makes the most sense given all the craziness of the last year while also working to build something sustainable for the future. That confidence is borne, to likely a great extent, by the strength of their brand, something the other studios are still struggling with.

Considering the 2021 Oscar Nominees…or not

I mean…OK…

As usual, my thoughts on award nominees are summed up easily as “Sure…fine.” So too with the Academy Award nominations announced earlier this morning.

Such nominations represent a particular cultural snapshot, one filtered through the lens of a group that’s largely unrepresentative of the population as a whole. In that regard, they are similar to the pool of films as a whole, in that the demographic makeup of those that greenlight production is very different from that of the moviegoing public.

That means they’re going to offer some insight into what kind of cultural conversations were happening at the time, but generally only the kinds of conversations you might overhear in an affluent neighborhood’s second most popular Starbucks. Most of the movies nominated will fade from relevance inside of the next six months while some that were “snubbed” will go on to be considered classics for decades.

Thus it has always been and thus it always will be.

Bob Hope Oscars GIF by The Academy Awards - Find & Share on GIPHY

More interesting to me at the moment is the coincidental timing of the Oscar nominations coming immediately after what seems to be regarded as an extremely effective and well-produced Grammy awards ceremony.

While I didn’t watch the broadcast, it seems the Grammys were a hit because artists turned in intriguing, relevant and entertaining performances, a good mix of artist genres and demographics and a reminder that, especially this year, it’s important to remember the kinds of people who have born the brunt of the pain related to pandemic closures and shutdowns.

As many other people have pointed out, there’s little that award-giving bodies in music, movies or television can do at this point to turn around the long-running decline in ratings for any awards show. That’s a symptom of not only the often-unrepresentative nature of the items nominated and the media fragmentation that impacts every category.

It’s been over a decade since the Oscars expanded from five to 10 the number of movies that could be nominated for Best Picture, an attempt to offer some room for more commercially popular films to be included, which would hopefully bring in more viewers to the broadcast. No actual problems were solved by this, though, and nominees still tend to be films that only played in limited runs or at least didn’t perform as well as expected.

Perhaps if AMPAS really wanted to make the Oscars more relevant it would heed the results of stories like this pointing out that tens of billions of dollars are being left on the table by studios not producing films featuring more racial and ethnic diversity. If more people felt more movies were made by, for and about people like themselves, then interest in which films are heralded would rise. Or maybe if, just once, the Oscars broadcast itself didn’t feel like an endless self-indulgent slog, more people might choose it over literally anything else.

Using the Grammys as an example, a push at this year’s Oscars to bring the focus to theater employees (not owners or executives) as well as other support personnel would go a long way to making the ceremony more interesting. So would skipping the canned and corny scripted bits that haven’t been fresh since Bob Hope last hosted as well as the rest of the overproduced and overly-long recorded segments.

Stick with concise and respectful presentations of the awards that allow the winners to speak their mind in a reasonable amount of time, performances of the original songs by the artists that recorded them.

Most of all, convey an appreciation of movies from the audience’s point of view, not that of a talent agent or associate producer.

If changes like that – ones that tear the show down to the studs and reimagine the entire structure and flow – aren’t made, then more and more of the public will come to the realization that watching the broadcast is a lot less fun than playing video games, scrolling through TikTok or finishing season 3 of whatever it is they’re watching at the moment.

Is The Box-Office Actually Warming Up?

Maybe, but let’s see if it lasts.

A significant – and significantly delayed – milestone was marked last week when Tenet, initially released last September, finally opened in New York City theaters. Unlike when it played in a handful of theaters elsewhere in the country several months ago, this time the opening was not marked by director Christopher Nolan openly decrying Warner Bros. executives, but the larger narrative in the movie industry couldn’t have made him very pleased given his dislike of anything less than 100% theatrical distribution.

See over the last week or so several studio heads and others have weighed in with their own prognostications on the future of movie release patterns given we’re now a year past when most theaters shut down for most of the rest of 2020.

Jim Gianopulos, Paramount Pictures

Exclaimed Gianopulos at Viacom’s Paramount+ Day today, “We believe in the power of theatrical releases and we have faith that after things get back to normal, audiences will enthusiastically return to theaters. At the same time, consumers have increasingly embraced streaming as another way to enjoy films,” said Gianopulos, “our strategy accounts for both.”

Bob Chapek, Walt Disney Company

“I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” said Chapek. “Particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back, but we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”

Jason Kilar, WarnerMedia

“It sure feels like it’s not going to go back to 2015,” Kilar said, adding, “I can only speak for ourselves.”

Bob Bakish, ViacomCBS

“If you look at the curve, the degradations on most film titles, they do very little business on post-Day 30 and certainly post-Day 45,” Bakish, who was the morning’s keynote speaker at the (virtual) 2021 Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, continued. “So moving to an in-house streaming window at that part we think works, certainly for us, but also for constituents, including consumers.”

Tenet finally coming to New York theaters happened at about the same time San Francisco announced bars, theaters and other public spaces could reopen, though still at reduced capacity. That’s also good news for the movie industry as it is another major market that, with vaccination rates rising due to increased supply and Covid-19 cases dropping, is allowing businesses to get back to business.

If things continue to improve, it should mean that Disney’s decision to keep Black Widow’s May release date makes sense. And we might even see titles like No Time To Die and others this year. Indeed studios are feeling positive, with Paramount recently announcing a Memorial Day release date for The Quiet Place Part II.

[record scratch]

Of course there are still potential monsters lurking around a number of corners.

The CDC reported last week that areas where mask mandates and in-person dining restrictions were lifted wholesale have seen fresh increases in Covid-19 infections.

Over 745,000 Americans signed up for unemployment assistance last week and there are 10 million fewer jobs than there were a year ago. 10% of Americans are estimated to have given up on the job market completely, much more than the official 6.4% unemployment rate.

So not only are there still public health concerns that will impact people’s decisions whether or not to head to a movie theater (assuming one near them is open yet), but there is still the very real situation of tens of millions of people not working and therefore not having disposable income to spend on something as inessential as a movie ticket.

What Should We Watch Elizabeth Olsen GIF by Disney+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

All that is on top of the year of being solidly in the habit of watching new releases via streaming or PVOD.

That’s why it’s likely most, if not all, the studios will adopt some form of hybrid or mix-and-match release strategy for their lineups.

It may not be as ad-hoc as Disney’s approach, where some films are held back entirely while others get full-on Disney+ releases while others are “Premier Access” titles requiring additional payments. Or as one-size-fits-all as WarnerMedia’s day-and-date theatrical/HBO Max releases.

Something fundamental has shifted, though, and it may not be possible to shift it back. While Kilar and others still see a place for theatrical releases, Paramount announcing major title will come to the newly-rebranded Paramount+ just 45 days after they hit theaters shows theaters are no longer the powerhouses they were just a few years ago. Even at the height of DVD sales in the 2000s, studios would never have dared anything less than at least a 90 day window, with 120+ being the tightest it ever really got.

Some theater chains are still trying to exercise some power, though, with Cinemark’s decision to not play Raya and the Last Dragon because of it’s Disney+ availability playing a large role in that movie’s lackluster box-office.

How the theatrical box-office continues to improve after losing essentially an entire 12 month period remains to be seen given how many states are still enacting stricter guidelines and we’re nowhere near “herd immunity” vaccination levels. Adding to the uncertainty is how studios have taken to just not reporting box-office results, afraid those numbers will be taken out of the context of a global pandemic.

That means it could be even longer before we see dollar amounts reflecting wide release patterns. And when those numbers are available, they may not look like what we would expect to see a few years ago because, quite frankly, the results don’t include the number of people who opted to stream it at home now or 45 days in the future.

Quick Takes on Disney, Warner Bros. and More Recent Movie News

A few thoughts while pondering whether James Corden’s denial a “butthole cut” of Cats exists is proof it totally exists.

Just like the rest of 2020, the last week has contained eight months worth of news. And that’s just in the entertainment world and doesn’t even take into account the attempted coup taking place or the fact that an entire political party has pulled away the mask to show off its anti-democratic nature.

Warner Bros. Uses HBO Max To Plan For The Future

Yes, the news that Warner Bros. plans to release its entire 2021 movie slate to both theaters (at least any that are open) and HBO Max is a huge deal.

No, this is not WB offering up theaters as a sacrifice. I don’t think Jason Kilar or anyone else actively wants to destroy the theatrical exhibition industry, but they *do* want to maintain their own business and for the foreseeable future going direct-to-consumer is the best way to do that.

To that point, a survey from Deloitte reports most people aren’t going to feel comfortable going to a theater until at least the middle of next year. That means the theater industry isn’t likely to move upward significantly until the second half – or later – of 2021, a window that roughly lines up with when enough of the U.S. population has received the pending Covid-19 vaccines to impact communal spread.

Despite that, WB’s announcement seems to have unlocked the rare achievement of honking off almost everyone within the movie industry.

  • Theater chains were angered because they thought the Wonder Woman 1984 shift to HBO Max was a one-off. Their stock prices dropped just as you would expect them to and AMC Theaters has once again said it will have to secure an influx of cash to survive past early 2021. Independent cinemas weren’t thrilled either.
  • Directors Denis Villeneuve and Patty Jenkins, who helmed Dune and WW84 respectively, have blasted the move, with Villeneuve specially calling out how it betrays a lack of respect for the art of cinema and instead is about the debt management of a telecom behemoth.
  • There’s also, of course, director Christopher Nolan, who said it showed WB panicking and “dismantling” a great studio. Whether or not he’s self-aware to realize the theatrical release of Tenet he insisted upon despite the pandemic helped lead to this change remains up in the air.
  • In fact the Director’s Guild of America is pretty upset as well.
  • Legendary, the production company behind Godzilla vs. Kong and more, which reportedly had less than an hour’s notice before the announcement was made and is upset because it had Netflix on the line for GvK but still wanted a theatrical release.

Disney Announces [checks notes] Literally Everything

On the heels of Warner Bros. grabbing a hammer and walking over to the “Break glass in case of once-in-a-generation-pandemic” box where it kept HBO Max, Disney took its Investors Day presentation to announce scores of projects and changes. Those announcements were, depending on who you talk to, either A) the greatest things ever, of B) soulless exploitation of beloved characters with no respect for the individuals who created them decades prior.

Those announcements included lots of Star Wars series and films and lots of Marvel series and films along with plenty of Disney, Pixar and other projects. Of note:

  • The timing of Jenkins being announced as the director of an upcoming Star Wars movie is coincidental to that of the WW84 HBO Max news. The former has likely been in the works for a long time while the latter just broke a week ago, so I’m not reading too much into that.
  • 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures, the remnants of 20th Century Fox, are becoming producers of content for Hulu, which is kind of a sad fate for a once major movie studio.
  • Disney is doing what WB didn’t and clearly laying out tiers for feature film distribution. Tier One (Theatrical): MCU, including Black Widow, and Star Wars; Tier Two (Windowed): Raya and the Last Dragon etc will get the same Disney+ Premier Access Mulan did; Tier Three (Disney+): Live action remakes like Pinochio and others or legacy sequels like Sister Act 3.

What all of this means to my eye is that the battle lines for the second phase of the Streaming Wars have just been laid out.

Companies like Netflix and even Amazon Video have long felt that the key to expanding on existing success was the development or acquisition of some major blockbuster movie franchises all their own. Netflix might have something brewing if the Russo Bros. can build on the success of Extraction, which they said they have plans to. Recent hits like The Old Guard and Enola Holmes could also easily be turned into ongoing series if the creators are on board. And Amazon might be hoping it can do something with Without Remorse, which it acquired from Paramount.

Warner Bros. could do that with their own properties on HBO Max, but how it handled the recent news means they’re now working from a deficit in terms of goodwill among agents, directors and others.

Right now Disney is the only player actually executing on that strategy, counting on the impressive portfolio of brands and properties it manages to keep people coming back to Disney+ for spinoffs, sequels, prequels and other expansions.

If I were a betting man, I’d say that a year from now we’re having a very different conversation. Platforms have realigned, studios have altered their strategies and at least one studio has been purchased by a tech company, probably either Apple or Alibaba.

Whatever happens, this last week has been a very, very interesting two months.

Consent Decrees, The End of Studios and Other Movie News

A quick roundup of some interesting news and commentary from the last couple weeks.

Audiences Still Prefer to See ‘Tenet,’ ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ in Movie Theaters, but Most Would Be Fine Watching at Home

Lots to unpack here, but the gist is that people are willing to wait to watch some of the most high profile films Hollywood will eventually release at home instead of rushing out to see them in theaters. That’s dependent on there being a 90-day window, but even so it can’t be good news for exhibitors who are still hoping those titles will get things started again. Adding insult to injury, another survey indicated people weren’t endorsing a government bailout of theaters.

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Judge Agrees to End Paramount Consent Decrees

It seems to me that the belief that there’s nothing to worry about with ending this rule is a bit naive, of a kind with the opinion that mergers are good for consumers when they almost never are. That the rule is outdated is true, but mostly because the distribution platforms have changed, not because there’s no longer a need for regulations that keep any one company from exerting too much control over an industry. But it’s in-line with the Trump Administration’s overall goal of eliminating as many rules and guidelines as it can find.

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Hollywood Faces the Hardest Truth: Movies Are No Longer King

Anne Thompson absolutely nails the trends happening in the industry right now, including the quote about how movies like Sleepless In Seattle would go straight-to-streaming now and not have a viable future in theaters. Theaters’ inability to adapt over the last decade has put them behind the 8-ball, and the next couple years will show if there’s a future for them. The continued rise of streaming during the pandemic period shows people who might have at first been reluctant or put a cap on how many services they’d subscribe to are getting over that and becoming more familiar landscape, which should also be worrisome to theater owners. Also see Ben Smith’s article about the shift in power from quirky executives to more business-minded leaders.

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Male Film Critics Still Outnumber Female, All Critics of Color Remain ‘Dramatically Underrepresented’

Wait, you mean to tell me that entrenched hiring and staffing patterns have an effect on which topics are covered and therefore which audiences are or aren’t represented? Fetch me my fainting couch, I’ve got the vapors…

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Snapchat Unveils ‘Snap Minis’ With Coachella, Atom Tickets; Announces Other Developer Tools, Games and Partners

Interesting way to get movie trailers and ticket buying into the app, which still has significant market share despite the rise of TikTok and other factors. This could be a way for people to buy tickets as theaters reopen without having to exit the app they’re already using, but I’d be lying if this didn’t remind me a little of the period where Facebook encouraged companies to build mini-apps within that network in an effort to keep them there. This execution has the same advantages and the same potential drawbacks for both users and developers.

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Hollywood’s Fame Scholar Is Reinvigorated

If you don’t stan Karina Longworth, I’m not sure we can hang out.

Disney Carves Out An Owned Future With Mulan

None of this is that surprising, tbh.

In response to the (largely indefinite) closure of movie theaters around the country because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, studios have generally taken one of three potential alternative paths:

  1. Punt: Just keep kicking the release date down the road, hoping that the situation improves by then and the movie can be sent to theaters.
    1. EX: Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet, Fast & Furious 9, Black Widow
  • PVOD: Accepting the reality that not everything can be held for a later date, some titles have been sent straight to VOD, with premium price points to make up for the loss of theatrical revenue.
    1. EX: Scoob!, The High Note, Bill and Ted Face The Music
  • Streaming: Whether it’s an owned platform like Disney+ or a third party like Amazon or Netflix, some titles have been handed off to streaming because the economics make more sense or it fills in some other part of an overall strategy.
    1. EX: Artemis Fowl, Without Remorse, Hamilton, The Lovebirds

With no end in sight for the Covid-19 outbreak it’s only logical studios would seek out some alternative release plan. They are in the production and release business and if they need to they will seek alternative distribution methods. That’s similar to how changes in the retail world as a whole has led to the rise in direct-to-consumer businesses and more.

Add to that the fact that so many of 2020’s planned movies have been delayed by several months – in some cases up to a year – that the 2021 release schedule is backed up all the way to the Tri-State interchange, limiting any studio’s options.

This Did Not Go Over Well

The reaction from theaters has been predictable, beginning with AMC Theaters’ promise to never play future films from Universal after it sent Trolls World Tour to PVOD in April. Most recently, those two parties announced a new deal wherein future films would have shorter theatrical-to-home windows. Smaller theater owners have also had time to express their displeasure while other large chains like Cinemark and Regal have offered their own skeptical takes.

While certainly unprecedented, the deal between Universal and AMC – which has reportedly been offered to other studios – doesn’t break many existing distribution norms in function, even if the details are largely new. The “home” release will still take advantage of the platform infrastructure developed and offered by established players like Apple, Amazon and others.

Still, exhibitors kept holding out hope that one or both of two titles – Tenet and Mulan – would provide the light at the end of the tunnel they needed, offering an attractive film that audiences would, however reluctantly, come back to theaters to see after months at home.

Alternate Futures

Those hopes faded a bit when Warner Bros. announced a unique release plan for Tenet that involved the movie coming out overseas in late August and then in whatever U.S. theaters are available over the Labor Day weekend in early September. That’s bad news for domestic audiences and exhibitors (but great news for Torrent software providers) who are essentially being pushed down the priority list and who may have one of the year’s most secretive plots spoiled for them.

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They diminished almost entirely last week when Disney revealed it was creating its own fourth option for the September 4th release of Mulan on Disney+. The release is notable for at least two reasons:

First, it mashes up a couple of the existing paths to create something wholly new. While many media companies have worked to create their own streaming platforms in the last year, those have largely been subscription services, and once you subscribed you had access to everything. Even tiered services like Peacock didn’t charge you extra for one specific title, you might just have to upgrade to the next membership level.

This works differently, essentially creating a PVOD service within the existing subscription framework. If you’re not a member, you don’t have access to the PVOD content, meaning the true cost of the rental is the $29.99 list price plus at least the $6.99 monthly fee. In other words, the cover charge you paid at the door doesn’t grant you entrance to the Champagne Room.

Existing platforms like iTunes, Amazon and others should be watching this as closely as theater owners have been over the last several months. If Disney – or any other company – can find some success in this way they no longer become the one-stop, producer-agnostic shop they’ve been to date.

Second, it creates a whole new marketing paradigm. The campaigns for movies like The Lovebirds, Scoob! and others have changed, often mid-stream, when their release futures were altered, with the call-to-action shifting from “In theaters on…” to “Watch it at home on…” Even still, the expected action on the part of the consumer was only a single one. Instead of “buy a ticket” it was “subscribe” or “download.”

Whenever Disney launches a new phase of Mulan’s campaign, it will have to communicate a two step process: 1) Subscribe to Disney+, then 2) Pay $29.99 for this single movie. That will be a little harder to get through audiences and could create a fair amount of customer confusion when the movie launches as people are caught unaware they have to make an additional payment to watch the movie.

What’s Next?

That the reoriented campaign for Mulan wasn’t ready at the same time the announcement was made is slightly surprising since Disney is masterful at coordinating initiatives to take advantage of a moment.

Warner Bros. not having a new phase of Tenet’s campaign is equally surprising, though a bit more understandable given how, at least for U.S. theaters, it’s still largely contingent on a best case scenario being available. It is, in other words, less concrete and so WB is likely holding its fire.

On top of those, there are still a number of high-profile titles that are supposedly coming to theaters later this year.

The New Mutants is, against all odds, still scheduled for late August.

Wonder Woman 1984 is still scheduled for late September, but at this point there’s almost no time to mount a campaign for the movie even if that date holds.

Black Widow and No Time To Die are still scheduled for early and mid-November, which is slightly more realistic but becomes less so with each passing day.

The campaigns for those last three have been paused for a number of months now, and would have to fight through the noise of the daily news cycle – a cycle that includes 1,000 or so Americans dying each day and a ramping up presidential election – to get people’s attention. That adds to the odds some alternative will be sought, as it may not be possible to get a critical mass of awareness that overlaps with the segment of the population willing to participate in mass entertainment without a Covid-19 vaccine, much less a cohesive testing and tracing strategy.

Which option is chosen will be determined by what each studio thinks it can manage as it seeks to make a wide range of stakeholders, each with competing priorities, happy with the proposal.