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.

Cosmo Kramer Chaos GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Movie Theater Popcorn GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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…

Mad Chris Gethard GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Car Chase Action GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Theaters Want to Open, But Who Will Go To The Movies?

Movie tickets? In this economy?

The latest delay – this one essentially indefinite – to Tenet seems to have unleashed a wave of pent up frustrations and other emotions.

That announcement was made by Warner Bros. earlier this week following news that governors in California and elsewhere were enacting new restrictions on public gatherings as Covid-19 cases in their states spiked yet again. Movie theaters not being allowed to reopen were among those restrictions as those governors tried to keep things from getting even worse, throwing out plans by those theaters to get people back in the door to see Tenet or Mulan, both of which were supposed to finally come out later this month after multiple delays.

Following WB’s update, NATO chief John Fithian has stated his opinion, on behalf of the theater owners he represents, that studios need to just pull the trigger already and start releasing movies again. Waiting for a vaccine to be available to the entire U.S. population is foolhardy, he says, so studios should focus on getting movies onto screens in parts of the country that aren’t on lockdown. That option allows the studios to make some fraction of the money they otherwise would have and supports the theaters that, like many businesses in the country, are struggling and face an uncertain future.

Still, Tenet seems to be the north star by which the entire film industry is being led at this point. While WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey has said that movie will definitely receive a theatrical release (of some kind), other films are going to be punted to premium VOD and other platforms. And AMC Theaters has delayed opening its locations until mid- to late-August, apparently now pinning its hopes to Mulan.

Fithian’s argument makes some amount of sense. There is no nationwide stay-at-home order in place, so theaters in some areas might be able to operate, though maybe still not at full capacity. And studios may begin to take his advice as we near what may be the tipping point where the complete erasure of the 2020 theatrical landscape shifts from possibility to probability.

Even if studios do capitulate and restart the exhibition industry, the question remains who among the audience population will want to run the risk of going to the theater in the middle of a pandemic that is speeding up its rates of serious infection, not slowing down. That reality has been at the core of the (sometimes heated) discussion around reopening schools across the country, something that seems to be up to the local officials and community. It has also led colleges to drastically alter the plans they had in place for fall semester, introducing more remote options and in some cases actively encouraging students to stay away from campus. The MLB and NBA are opening their abridged seasons either in a single location to reduce the risk of infection or play in empty stadiums.

On top of that, there’s the question of who can and will be able to afford to do so.

At the end of 2019, the average movie ticket cost $9.37.

To put that in perspective, the U.S. minimum wage is $7.25/hour, meaning an adult in a family of four would have to work five hours just to afford taking everyone to the theater. Just under two percent of the U.S. population made the minimum wage or less in 2019, but those percentages go up for part-time workers as well as those in the hospitality and service industries.

More immediately relevant is the pandemic-influenced situation we find ourselves in. There are various numbers available as to the total number of people who are currently out of work, but it’s tens of millions. New unemployment assistance claims have topped 1 million for 17 straight weeks, an unheard of streak in recent history. And despite a new White House-backed ad campaign urging people to get out there and “Find Something New,” workers have made it clear the jobs aren’t even out there to be seized. So many companies have continued to lay off or furlough current employees, few are actually hiring. That’s reflected in the most recent figures showing new claims rose after a few weeks of slight declines.

To date those unemployed individuals have been able to rely on a weekly $600 assistance bonus, something that has helped prop up consumer spending over the last few months when combined with more stores reopening after closures in March and April. That runs out this week, though, and it’s uncertain if Congress – particularly the U.S. Senate – will renew it. Conservative influencers have been urging lawmakers not to do so, afraid it will take away any chance workers will return to their jobs and unaware that making the argument that unemployment assistance shouldn’t be more than their wages implies an understanding that those wages are below the level that would support a family in addition to not offering needed health care and other benefits.

Cutting off that additional $600/week in assistance would remove $19 billion per week from the economy. Things are even more dire for people’s personal financial situation because nationwide eviction moratoriums, intended to protect housing insecure parties from facing homelessness and falling even further behind, expire soon. Like the additional unemployment assistance bonus, there are proposals to extend this but those are bogged down at the moment.

So, basically, where does NATO or its member companies in the exhibition space think consumer money is going to come from?

Theaters can open, and studios can even supply new films for those theaters to play. People may even be willing to go see those movies in theaters. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to have the disposable income to make that choice from a practical perspective.

If anyone has already solved this problem, good for them. But at the moment it seems the stakeholders and interested parties seem to be only considering one part of the marketplace dynamic. There’s a much larger reality that this operates in, one that is about to get a whole lot more unsteady than it already is.

The Snyder Cut is Coming, and Now There Are No Rules

Nice studio you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

Three years of denials, obfuscations, claims of workprints being smuggled out by Allied forces and other reports and rumors are done. The Snyder Cut of 2017’s Justice League, as it has come to be called, is real and will be coming to HBO Max some time in 2021.

This latest development comes just a few months after a wave of comments and hints were made by various parties, including original Justice League director Zack Snyder, who kept posting vague images and teases to, of all things, his Vero social media account.

By way of brief recap: Snyder left/was pushed off Justice League at some point in production, either because of a personal tragedy in his family or because the studio felt the film was out of control and getting worse by the day. Joss Whedon came in to oversee additional shooting, including rewriting significant chunks of the story and abandoning entire storylines. The finished product was widely panned by critics, sitting at a paltry 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, and didn’t ignite the box office, bringing in $229 million domestically and $658 million worldwide. It was overshadowed in both respects by the Wonder Woman movie released earlier in the year.

Ever since then there’s been a crusade from some quarters for Warner Bros. to release a cut of the film they believed sat in the studio’s vaults that was completed by Snyder and represented his true vision. Whedon’s interference, they maintained, watered down the movie by adding too many jokes, not being gritty enough and so on. Until last week, WB insisted no such cut existed and that there were no plans to revisit the movie in any way.

Now, though, the studio has changed its tune, reportedly giving Snyder a $20 million budget to undertake a whole new post-production process, including visual effects and editing.

While there has already been much commentary about the announcement, allow me to share a handful of thoughts about what this could and does mean for the world of entertainment and more. And, because I’m just that kind of sociopath, those thoughts will be framed in quotes from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

I stoked Ren’s conflicted soul: While he waited a while before doing so, in the last year or so Snyder has been the chief rabble-rouser online, keeping audience speculation of his discarded masterpiece alive. He’s taken on the role of a master online troll, dropping hints here and there to whet people’s appetites and, seemingly, maintain the pressure on WB to agree to a release of some sort.

zack snyders justice leage posterIn that way he’s not dissimilar to those behind QAnon and similar conspiracy theories. They take the reality of a situation and manipulate certain things to convince people of alternate facts. Just as with the Washington, D.C. pizza parlor that reportedly acts as a front for a Hillary Clinton-run pedophile ring, some people *wanted* to believe The Snyder Cut was real and would leap at any bait put in front of them supporting that belief. He’s not William Wallace or Carl Bernstein here, he’s a 4chan troll with the power to command tens of millions of dollars and access to some of pop culture’s most prized assets.

This is not going to go the way you think: Justice League, as it was released, is not a great movie. The story makes little sense, the characters act in massively inconsistent ways from scene to scene, there’s no internal logic to it etc. Those who were adherents to Snyder’s style of filmmaking saw this as evidence of meddling by Whedon and the studio, but it’s not as if those descriptors couldn’t be applied to any of the director’s previous films.

Which means, in short, that there’s a pretty decent chance Zack Snyder’s Justice League is going to also suck, just in slightly different ways.

One can only wonder what the reaction will be among those who believe The Snyder Cut is the second coming when their dream becomes reality and it turns out reality is really bad. What will be the excuse then? Thankfully, Snyder himself has already given them the foundation for continued claims of interference by complaining WB will not allow him to reconvene the cast to shoot additional footage. His vision, therefore, will never be truly brought to life.

If Warner Bros. is hoping The Snyder Cut will act as some massive draw to their newly launched streaming service, more so than the Harry Potter films, Studio Ghibli’s catalog and “Friends” reruns, they are putting $20 million worth of eggs in a very questionable basket, one that may wind up hitting them square in the face.

The greatest teacher, failure is: One of the many astounding things about this newfound willingness to revisit Justice League is that it clearly marks a low point in the DC Comics cinematic universe. Consider that not only did Wonder Woman, released just a few months earlier in 2017, get much better reviews and three times the box office revenue, but so did Aquaman. Shazam and Birds of Prey didn’t perform as well in theaters but have much better critical receptions and reputations since release. And Joker, which also did very well, was supposed to usher in a new focus on non-continuity, filmmaker-led original stories.

Justice League, then, had become kind of a turning point, one where the key to success wasn’t “make everything bigger, darker and more EXTREME” but where the stories were better, the characters more central and the visuals less desaturated. Instead, it’s now the Rosetta Stone, something so important it becomes central to understanding everything around it.

Hi, I’m holding for General Hux…OK, I’ll hold. Whedon being given control of the Justice League reshoots and post-production seemed in some ways to be tied to reports he was heading up a Batgirl film at Warner Bros. The writer/director had previously worked on a failed Wonder Woman adaptation and ultimately left the Batgirl project when he reportedly couldn’t crack the story to his satisfaction. Despite that, it can be assumed that Whedon and the studio could have found some way to work together in the future.

Hard to imagine Whedon picking up their calls now, though. WB is sending the message that yes, they actually do find his version of Justice League to be subpar and now that they’re able to deliver a superior product they will push his work to the side. All because, for reasons I have been unable to fathom for over a decade, someone at the studio believes Snyder is a magical genius, not someone who’s often incapable of bringing his “vision” to life.

Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy: This is just the beginning.

In every prime time procedural and action drama you hear the hero or leader make it clear they refuse to negotiate with terrorists. Neville Chamberlain’s reputation has not fared well in light of his appeasement of the Nazi regime’s aggressive expansion plans.

Despite these warnings, what’s happened here seems tantamount to paying the ransom and hoping the kidnappers make good on releasing your spouse from where they’re being held. But that’s just hope, and there are no guarantees it will happen.

So too there’s no guarantee that demonstrating who’s actually in control of the situation won’t spiral into countless similar instances. There’s already evidence of this as “#ReleaseTheAyerCut” began trending shortly after the Snyder announcement as fans are now seeking the “pure” cut of 2016’s Suicide Squad, famously edited by a trailer production company among a handful of other parties.

(Note: Nevermind that *that* situation came about after studio execs wanted to punch up the movie after Batman v Superman – another Synder-directed film – performed poorly.)

It makes you wonder where else fans will turn their attention, believing a diamond to be hidden in rough of studio notes and seized control. Many films over the course of Hollywood history have been ripped from their directors, much to their chagrin and the disappointment of fans. Such instances can be found at least as far back as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and as recently as Chris Miller and Phil Lord being kicked off Solo: A Star Wars Story halfway through filming.

This extremely vocal minority has seen what tactics work now and will go again, much like state-sanctioned Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election, or the #Gamergate movement that wanted to eliminate a pernicious female influence from the video game media industry. There have been smaller successes before and now they’ve snagged a win. The demands will only become more substantial over time.

Universal Trolls Theaters, Theaters Demand Tax Be Paid

The future is in play, right now.

Over the last week or so there has been an escalating war of words between Universal Pictures and a handful of theater chains? The object of their disagreement is just what role each party has to play in the continued business model of the other.

The inciting incident in this particular fracas, the equivalent of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated, was the release of Trolls World Tour a few weeks ago. Universal made the unusual – even unprecedented – decision to release it straight to premium VOD early last month because all the theaters were closed, a result of precautions taken in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic still sweeping across the nation and world. Not wanting to lose the momentum of the marketing campaign that had already been running with a delay, the studio opted instead to break ground it and others have been eyeing for a while.

Before the release, NATO made it clear theater owners would hold a very large grudge for a very long time against Universal for making such a move. There wasn’t much that could be done to stop the wheels that had been put in motion at the time, but it was apparently necessary to make public statements like this in order to communicate the displeasure of NATO’s members at having been called, essentially, irrelevant.

Since then it has called out the success of this strategy, touting positive sales numbers for a digital release and appeared in the Top 10 titles on Amazon Prime when it was first available.

More recently it’s gotten very awkward. Here’s a short recap:

Universal: This has turned out very well, to the tune of about $100 million.

NATO: Shut up! People love the theatrical experience.

AMC: We’re so put out by this we’re refusing to play any Universal movies in the future after theaters reopen.

Regal Cinemas: Same, and every other studio needs to make sure it doesn’t even think about shortening the theatrical-to-video window.

Universal: We intend to make premium VOD something we consider regularly along with theatrical release.

Today it made good on that promise, announcing The High Note would no longer be getting a theatrical run but would instead be going to premium VOD later this month.

As Julie Alexander pointed out on Twitter, there’s a lot of context that has to be considered among all this rhetoric. Namely, that studios have wanted to experiment with premium VOD for a decade or so, but theaters have always pushed back, using their power to draw mass audiences as leverage. But, as other people have said, their refusal to even allow that experimentation or be part of the solution means they have effectively locked themselves out of conversations they could be benefitting from right now. And the leverage they once had has diminished as ticket sales – which is different from ticket revenue – declines year to year. Theaters are in a much worse negotiation position than they were a decade ago.

Universal was first through the door and as such seems to be drawing the bulk of the fire from opponents of this new tactic. Warner Bros. isn’t too far behind, though, as it announced last month its animated Scoob! will skip theaters as well. And Disney is going one further by pulling Artemis Fowl from theaters and putting it on Disney+ in June.

Some have argued that the Great Recession didn’t kill theaters even though VOD was a viable option at the time. That’s true, but streaming wasn’t nearly the powerhouse it is today, and it certainly wasn’t the case that each company had its own platform it was working overtime to monetize and turn into a Netflix-killer.

In other words, the landscape today is very different, and the closure of movie theaters may be an even more drastic moment that was originally foreseen. Studios may finally realize that theatrical release is optional, not necessary, especially for films that don’t seem to care much potential for awards consideration.

What will be interesting to watch is how, if at all, the marketing changes for these direct-to-VOD releases. Will they have the same level of promotional partnerships as their theatrical cousins? Will they receive similar advertising spending and media planning? Trolls was an aberration in that the campaign was already so far along, but we could see outside companies pull their support if they know the movie isn’t going to theaters. Or deals could change to become more contingent on what release a movie is ultimately given and how it succeeds. In other words, it could become much more like the entire rest of the advertising world, where results are what matter.

Theaters are likely past the point where they can significantly alter the future of how studios will approach their release strategy. The bluster that’s been going back and forth in the press is more about negotiating upcoming contracts than anything else, as it’s not quite plausible a massive chain would outright refuse to play films from a studio like Universal. But AMC had to say something in order to assure stakeholders – including the banks holding the company’s massive debt load – it wasn’t going gently into that good night.

No one, least of all myself, wants to see theaters disappear. But they have gone from the only game in town to the best game in town to merely one of the games in town, with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The label “direct to video” no longer carries the derogatory connotations it once did, largely because of the investments made by studios into quality material.

While there are a number of unknowns still floating out there, what seems to be clear is that this isn’t the end. Studios can’t keep punting releases down the calendar indefinitely, as eventually there will be too much backlog for theaters to handle. And those releases will be so tightly packed the studios will be tripping over their own feet. More premium VOD titles will be announced, and the theater chains will fall farther behind the times as audiences become more used to this kind of offering.

The future, in other words, will not wait for anyone to catch up with the present.

Quibi’s Launch Forces Us To Ask: What Is a Movie?

Are you ready for some semantics?

After what seems like years of hype and buildup, Quibi finally launched earlier this week. The timing of the launch, which has been set for some time, is nonetheless unfortunate given Quibi’s content model of sub-10 minute videos is meant to be consumed while on the go. Right now, of course, a lot fewer people are on the go, and this may be why initial downloads of the app were relatively low.

The lineup of 50 titles is a mix of news, reality series and, notably, what are being called “Movies in Chapters.”

The latter are scripted series, the final runtime of which is said to be roughly equivalent to a feature film. Hence the label, which is an attempt to spruce the content up a bit instead of calling them “shows.”

Traditionally when something is referred to as a movie, it’s understood to be a singular entity with a defined beginning and ending. It generally runs between 75 minutes and three hours or so, and when it’s done, it’s done. Sure there may be sequels and such, but each is still it’s own thing, standing on its own and clearly identifiable from its title.

In recent years there have been various attempts to chip away at that definition as producers and others work to associate themselves with the prestige factor that is the designation “movie.”

The Perpetrators

Peak TV: In many ways Quibi’s stab at rebranding their content is the next logical step in the rhetorical journey has been happening with the talent and platforms behind what’s been dubbed the “Peak TV” era. Producers and showrunners, especially those behind series at HBO, Netflix, FX and other outlets have frequently used some version of “It’s really more of a 10 hour movie” to describe their series, trying to not only get people to tune in for the whole thing but promise them one big arc, not lots of little ones.

Franchises: The debate has been running for several years now as to how to classify movies like those part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those stories are so interconnected and keep picking up the baton where the previous installment left off that in many ways they’re more like episodes of a television series than the traditional movie → sequel progression. The manner in which the story never seems to end undoes the notion that movies are defined within the structure of themselves.

Too Staunch Defenders

On the other end of the spectrum you have parties like NATO and film festival organizers who insist a movie should be so narrowly defined as to exclude content that would otherwise easily be included. Unless a title plays or is guaranteed to play in theaters for a specific period of time and in a specific manner, they would argue it isn’t actually a movie and is therefore ineligible for awards consideration or showcasing to festival audiences. Feature releases produced by or premiering on Netflix, Hulu or other streaming services are cast aside, referred to disparagingly as “television movies” to set them apart and bestow lower-class status.

Both those who seek to loosen the definition and those who seek to restrict it too tightly are overdoing it. A movie should be a single moment, not a collection of material. Nor is a movie unique to its distribution platform. Those arguing otherwise have some sort of stake in the game, hoping to bend the definition to include whatever they’re working on in order to make it seem more valuable.