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.

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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.

Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max Isn’t Just the Best Choice, It Was The Only Choice

All the world is waiting for you, in the comfort of their own home.

Wonder Woman 1984, which is the last studio blockbuster standing on the theatrical release calendar, retains that status but now comes with a significant caveat: It will also be available day-and-date, December 25th, on Warner Bros.’ HBO Max streaming service.

That news came just a couple days ago, and not a moment too soon. Earlier this month there were reports Warner Bros. was considering a significantly tightened window of just two weeks between the movie coming to theaters and then to streaming. Indeed, as time ticked by that 12/25 release date seemed increasingly in doubt, given campaigns for major movies like this generally begin in earnest six weeks or so out.

In a significant shift in tone since the beginning of pandemic-related changes in studio release plans, when theater owners and NATO put out statements sounding like Luigi and Dino visiting the Army base, the CEO of AMC Theaters commented by saying it’s all good, and that this is the best solution for everyone. At the same time, Universal Pictures has signed deals with both Cinemark and Cineplex theater chains allowing the studio to shorten the theater-to-home video timeline to just over two weeks.

That change in rhetoric is welcome, especially since Warner Bros., like many other studios over the last eight months, is making not only the best choice but really the only choice when it comes to the movies it’s holding on to.

First, it’s a sign the studio is reading the broader societal landscape as it exists at the moment. The Covid-19 pandemic is, at the moment, essentially out of control in the U.S. and while a vaccine may indeed be on the way, the soonest it will be widely available enough to have a measurable impact on the population is likely the summer or fall of 2021.

Along the same lines, it’s a hedge against the last month of 2020 being even worse in terms of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. While the CDC, as well as many governors and mayors across the country, has (finally) formally stated people should not travel or gather for Thanksgiving there are going to be plenty who ignore such recommendations and warnings. If/when that happens, cases – including deaths – will be spiking (again) just a couple weeks before Christmas Day. That may well lead to another round of stay-at-home orders and business closures even more restrictive than those put in place in recent days.

Third, it’s an acknowledgement by all parties – WB and exhibitors – that there’s no further financial relief for theaters or any other party coming from the federal government. Not only are Republican officials not taking any steps to meet with House Leader Nancy Pelosi, but Treasury Secretary and Man Who Constantly Looks Like He’s Waiting to Get Back To Kicking Orphans Steven Mnuchin recently announced he is ending several stimulus programs, the impacts of which will likely be felt well into the Biden Administration.

Outside of all that, it does seem that this may finally be the crack that brings the entire dam down. As Peter Kafka said, the pandemic has provided the impetus for the movie industry to fully come into the present and make some substantive changes. The kinds of deals exhibitors are making were first floated a decade ago but roundly rejected at the time. Meanwhile, studios have spent that time building up their own brands and distribution infrastructures, all of which is being brought to bear right now. Those deals, then, are the best chance exhibitors have for survival.

This has been such a wild week in the distribution and exhibition industries that, as big as the Wonder Woman 1984 news is, it’s not by any means the only big beats in this space. Paramount announced it had finally officially sold Coming 2 America to Amazon, which scheduled it for early next year, and there’s rumors Disney could shuffle some of its upcoming live-action remakes of Cruella, Peter Pan and others to Disney+ as it seeks to clear the shelves while playing catch-up when theaters are fully reopened.

It’s great that Warner Bros. will continue to support theaters with the WW84 release, but making it available via streaming is also an acknowledgement of the current realities. There really wasn’t any other option available, at least not one that was feasible long-term.

Comparing Box-Office, Streaming and Other Movie Reporting

How much longer do we have to wait?

In the first few weeks of Hollywood’s grand experiment of circumstance, where studios take movies previously bound for theaters and release them on other platforms, there was the realization that the reporting of box-office results was going to be put on pause. Studios have, for many and various reasons, never really shared VOD numbers. And the streaming services have similarly never been forthright and transparent with their viewership information.

Because releasing that data had never been a regular feature prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t surprising it wasn’t shared in the initial months. But now it’s been several months, long enough for things to have shifted from “highly unusual” to “still not ideal but hardly the exception to the rule” and those results are still not consistently forthcoming.

Which is not to say that some numbers haven’t trickled out here and there.

As reported by Pamela McClintock at The Hollywood Reporter, Universal made a big deal of reporting numbers from its initial experiment with releasing Trolls World Tour via PVOD. Recently Netflix released another of its occasional snapshots of what’s become popular there, including recent features like Enola Holmes, Project Power and more. But because those numbers aren’t subject to any sort of third-party verification and can’t be compared to anything else, it’s nearly impossible to determine what exactly they mean.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the viewership data from Netflix – and Amazon Studios, which recently claimed massive numbers for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – are the rough equivalent of those that would come from Comscore and other sources for theatrical box office results. The question then becomes this:

If the movies are so popular, why is something like The Old Guard such a small part of the cultural conversation?

After all, if tens of millions of people have actually watched Enola Holmes, then where are the tens of thousands of GIFs being shared on Twitter? Where are the bushel loads of think-pieces? Where, in short, is the buzz that should accompany a success of that magnitude?

The answer, it seems, is in how drastically the marketing for these movies differs from those that traditionally would receive theatrical release.

First let’s look at some numbers.

According to Netflix’s statement, Enola Holmes was watched by 76 million households in its first four weeks. While we don’t know exactly what “watched” means (it could mean 10 minutes, it could mean 90 seconds, it could be the whole film), we can view it in the context of Pew’s research stating the average U.S. household consists of 2.58 people.

From there let’s be conservative and say half of those 76 million households watched the entire movie. That’s 38 million households.

Now, in order to try to create an equivalency between that and the kind of reporting we would get from a theatrical release, we take that 38 million and multiply it by 2.58 to get a little over 98 million. That 98 million, then, is the approximate number of movie tickets that would have to have been sold for the movie to perform that well if it were released in theaters.

To put that in context, Avengers: Endgame sold 94.2 million tickets in 2019, making it the highest grossing film of that year. Enola Holmes, then, would have outperformed every other movie of last year, including Frozen II, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and others.

A very different marketing pitch

Some have dismissed Netflix’s numbers – and with good reason because of the lack of transparency – because of just that kind of apples-to-apples comparison, as well as because there aren’t the same tectonic cultural shifts that accompany those major theatrical releases.

Allowances have to be made, though, for the substantial differences in how these movies are consumed. That list includes:

  • The ease of streaming something versus actually going to a theater
  • The lack of incremental cost for streaming each title
  • The lack of additional cost for each individual watching the movie

Here’s where we get into the differences in the marketing campaigns for a major theatrical release like Avengers: Endgame compared to a major Netflix release like Project Power.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcMBFSGVi1c&feature=youtu.be Avengers Endgame (screen grab) CR: Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios had to convince you that one weekend – opening weekend – was the optimal time to see the movie, lest you miss out on a major cultural moment and have the experience ruined by loose-lipped strangers online or in person. To do that it sold the film as the biggest of events, one that had to be experienced in theaters, with lots of movie stars and familiar characters. It had to be worth $10-20 per person, not including concessions, dinner, gas and time spent traveling to and from the theater.

Netflix, in contrast, just had to convince you the movie looked interesting enough to turn on when you were able. It didn’t even have to be in one sitting, and you didn’t even have to be solely paying attention to it. You just had to be sufficiently motivated by the trailer or any of the number of in-app promos it placed for the film.

That’s a much lower hurdle to clear, one that makes me inclined to more or less believe the viewing numbers it releases, especially after doing the math outlined above.

While I’ve never been a huge fan of box-office horse races (like anything else, numbers can be made to mean whatever you want them to), it would be great if Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and other streamers started putting out verified, legitimate numbers. Likewise, studios could benefit from providing 1-to-1 reporting on VOD. But it seems like we’re going in the other direction, with studios becoming less transparent in their results, not more.

In the meantime, we would all do well to keep what numbers are available in the context of the platforms they come from and adjust accordingly.

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.

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.

Expect Streaming and Premium VOD to Stick Around

Just like the rest of society, there may not be a return to what was once normal.

To hear studio executives tell it, they turned to Premium VOD and streaming during the Covid-19 quarantine only out of necessity. Movies like Trolls: World Tour, The High Note, Artemis Fowl and others were pulled from the theatrical schedule and released on home video platforms because the studios had no other available choices. Theater owners, as well as NATO, made various statements about how they would remember how studios have turned against them, but most of those statements seem to have faded in intensity over time.

During a virtual CineEurope presentation, more studio heads made more comments about how excited everyone was about theaters reopening, confident that audiences are itching to get out of the house and see movies on a *real* big screen again.

That belief seems to be rooted in the basic idea that not only are behaviors ripe for changing but that outlets for that changed behavior will be available. Neither may actually be the case.

One study from Google indicates that consumer habits that have been evolving over the years may have taken firmer hold during the Covid-19 shutdowns across the country, meaning people are less likely to venture out and about for their shopping and entertainment fixes. In some ways that may be tied to bigger shifts across society and within the economy, including the higher frequency of someone working from home, the newfound love of cooking for themselves and more.

Those shifts as they relate to streaming behavior are expected to be represented at this year’s Newfronts as media companies make their virtual presentations to advertisers, positioning those platforms as the place where people are and they need to be. Spending on streaming entertainment isn’t expected to fade anytime soon either. There may be some level of subscription fatigue happening, but that’s likely only because people dipped their toe in so many different pools during the early days of stay-at-home orders, taking advantage of free trials or deciding now was when they were finally going to watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” and then cancel Hulu after finishing it. So it may be that these behaviors have now become entrenched in many households.

Add to that the ever-changing landscape of the theatrical industry, one that is already working from a deficit in part because the issue of wearing masks has become one with all sorts of political implications and beliefs. Add to that the recent shift of both Tenet and Mulan to August and it’s clear the summer movie season has all but vanished. There may be a few titles that still come out in drive-in locations and the handful of theaters in states that have done a better job of containing outbreaks, but that’s it.

In short, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what’s next for the public health crisis we’re in the midst of and what the retail response to that is going to be. Texas and Florida are reversing course and closing bars again, while other states like Illinois are doing alright and slowly reopening more and more businesses.

It won’t take much for premium VOD to become much more popular than it already is. Really it seems to come down to 1) Price, and 2) Selection. If Wonder Woman 1984 were available to rent day-and-date with theaters, it would be massive, especially if that rental were just $9.99. To date the titles have been kids films and mid-tier dramas, but a blockbuster at a reasonable price would be a game-changer, one that could potentially blow the market wide open. That price point would be a stark contrast to the cost of taking a family to the theater, including the sunk time in driving etc that goes with it.

Premium VOD may never land as big a fish as WW84 or Black Widow, but it’s very likely it becomes a regular part of studio’s release planning, especially for the kinds of titles that are felt to have only moderate potential for theatrical success. Even so, that price point will have to come down, especially on the kids titles where the value for parents is in repeat viewing.

It won’t be long given the continued issues around what businesses are or aren’t open and what the protocol is for visiting them before the behavior around staying at home and bringing the world there solidifies even more than it already has. Studios will have to adapt to that, as will the theater owners who have been avoiding this conversation for over a decade.

What Streaming Services Can Do To Up Their Game

As streaming services seize the day, their shortcomings become clear.

There are any number of streaming services – though notably not the big three or four – offering extended free trials or other incentives right now, hoping to capture the attention of people who are locked at home at the moment. Those audiences aren’t going to the theater anytime soon, so may as well try to hook them.

Most all of these services will make much the same pitch they’ve been making for a while now, one that’s based around their own selection of content, especially whatever originals and exclusives they’ve managed to produce or acquire. They will hope people find the balance of content and price point attractive enough to continue on for a while, occupying the rotating fourth “Other” position alongside mainstays including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Disney+.

Most of the streamers feature roughly the same functionality, including search and various forms of recommendations, often based on a combination of what you’ve watched previously and what the company is working to promote at the moment. They also have at least a handful of shortcomings in common.

First, Lack of Context

A big, consistent problem with streaming offerings is that the content available is almost always presented as a one-off. Here’s Raiders of the Lost Ark followed by a handful of random 80s films and then Temple of Doom. That they are part of a series or have any other connective material is completely missing from the presentation.

In other words, there’s no context.

When I look up a particular Coen Brothers film what I’m presented isn’t whatever portion of their filmography is available but a selection of what the algorithm feels is “similar” to what I’m looking for. And when I finish watching one, I’m more likely to get a recommendation for whatever the corporate priority is at that time, not another movie from the same filmmakers or with the same stars.

Part of this is due to the ever-changing nature of the lineup on these services. The Bond movies bounce around from one to the other every few months, as does the Star Trek franchise. Why bother building a hub for these films when they’re just going to be gone soon?

Disney+ does the best job of solving this problem, mostly because they have such strong brands. All the Star Wars, Pixar etc material is helpfully grouped, and watching one leads to a logical and contextual suggestion for what to watch next.

As additional media companies repatriate their content under their own banner, it will be interesting to see how they handle this issue. But Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others that still rely to a great extent on licensed material could do much better with the original content they *do* own.

Second, Lack of Peer Recommendations

Given how big a role recommendations play in the business model of most every streaming service, you’d think that they’d approach the issue from all angles. Instead they’ve focused almost exclusively on their own systems, completely missing out on the word of mouth that many other businesses of all types rely on.

To be clear, the specific problem is on-platform recommendations, which even filmmakers acknowledge is lacking. Off-site recommendations, especially those happening on social media, are still a thing but there’s no peer voice coming at you at the moment you’re in the app or on the site, just when you’re elsewhere.

This is part of a bigger problem, which is a lack of social features on many of these sites, but while I don’t necessarily need to see everything my friends are watching on Hulu, I would sometimes like to see what they’ve been watching. More accurately, I’d like to know if something I’m *considering* watching is something they would recommend. Make it a toggle switch, maybe, a feature to turn on and off when I want that extra level of insight.

Third, A Feed

Good Lord it can be maddening trying to navigate some of these sites looking for the most recent additions to the catalog. Some have sections called “New Releases” but those looking shockingly similar to what’s displayed in the “Featured” section more often than not.

It’s become common to see news stories toward the end of the month with lists of what’s coming to Amazon, Netflix and more in the next month, but actually adding them to your list is cumbersome. You need to go to the app *after* that date and either search for it or hope that it happens to appear on the front page.

There are a few options on how to get around this. First would be to just offer a straight RSS-type feed of new releases, both as a firehose and by category/genre. No, it doesn’t actually have to be RSS-based (though making one available would be great) but could be a Twitter-type page of updates showing what’s new.

On Spotify this would be even easier, and the foundation for it is already baked in. Spotify lets you “follow” artists and bands, yet there’s no subsequent section or feed of new additions by those artists and bands.

These are just a few of the areas where significant improvements could be made. As more and more players come on the scene, the existing powerhouses may find they have to up their game and overcome some of these shortcomings, all of which could make them stickier and improve subscriber retention.

Watching Movies Alone Together

Even introverts enjoy the occasional communal experience.

It’s entirely possible we won’t see a major new movie released in theaters before August. That scenario becomes a very real possibility with every new announcement from a studio saying they have pushed out the release of a high-profile film to either later in 2020 or into 2021. Just yesterday Sony moved Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Morbius to March of next year, the latest acknowledgement that theaters won’t be reopening anytime soon.

At some point the big exhibition chains will have to figure out what reopening actually means, especially given the titles available to play are going to be much different than what was originally expected. And while drive-in locations are finding themselves more popular than they’ve been in years, independent theaters, like many small businesses, may not have the resources to make it that long and aren’t going to get the same federal bailout dollars the bigger players will.

Some of the studios that already put their movies out before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of theaters and other venues across the country have sent those titles to home video much earlier than expected. Those changes are bringing more interest and attention to transactional VOD, but consumers are sometimes finding the ~$20 price point for a new release much harder to swallow. Not surprising considering the percentage of the country that’s newly out of work because their employer has closed, reduced staff or altered hours in some manner.

So subscription-based streaming has come along to fill in some of the gaps. A number of services have offered new or extended existing free trials in the hopes of luring customers who find themselves isolating at home and looking for something fresh instead of scrolling through the same Netflix recommendations for the 47th time. The numbers show that streaming at home has increased as statewide lockdowns expand.

It’s a Group Hang

The new reality has also led to an interesting phenomenon: The group viewing party.

In the last week, director Cathy Yan hosted a group watch party for Birds of Prey the day it hit digital download stores.

 

Shortly after that, Nerdist got everyone to watch Clue at the same time. And today AFI launched its MovieClub, which features the tagline “Movies to watch together while we’re apart.” The first feature there is Wizard of Oz, and links are helpfully provided on the page for anyone who doesn’t already own it to download the film so they can join in the fun.

 

It’s a pretty remarkable adaptation to this new and unpleasant reality. While the theatrical exhibition business has lost some of its luster recently, with actual ticket sales falling in 2019 compared to 2018, watching movies remains a communal experience. We instinctively want to share it with others, even if we can’t be in an actual theater with them at the time. It enhances everyone’s viewing, whether it’s pure enjoyment or a hate watch.

A Ground-Up Movement

Like most such behavior shifts, this one is notable for springing from the grassroots. Many started by coordinating over social media and then using Twitter hashtags to organize the conversation and show who’s participating. And the newly-popular Netflix Party Chrome extension, allowing multiple people to watch the same movie at the same time, comes from a third party and not the company itself. AFI’s MovieClub appears to be at least one of the first official efforts along these lines.

My hunch is it won’t be the last.

Most of the bigger recent pre-Covid releases have already come to VOD, but some smaller titles are still hanging out there, while others are forgoing even the pretense of theatrical release and going straight to digital. It would make a ton of sense for some of these smaller studios to organize group viewing events in an attempt to raise the profile of those films and generate some word of mouth buzz. Filmmakers who were shut out of key festival appearances and are now seeking buyers in the streaming services can also rally their followers once those deals are signed and come to fruition.

There’s a lot of potential here, whether it’s a studio or organization that gets people watching as a group or if it’s a filmmaker or actor behind the effort. For new releases, there’s an option of including this activity as a key part of a movie’s marketing as well, one that’s baked into the campaign at its outset.

More will come, whatever form they take, because we all like watching movies with other people, even in an non-traditional setting.

NATO: Fewer People Went to Theaters in 2019

We’ve already seen that box office revenue was down in 2019 by a noteworthy 3.9 percent. That news in and of itself was bad enough given how up and down the last few years have been, with the fate of the industry riding largely on how much it can pull from a handful of blockbuster franchise releases.

Last week another wave of bad news hit when the National Association of Theater Owners revealed attendance – the actual number of tickets sold – fell 4.6 percent in 2019 from 2018 levels. The only reason, then, that the revenue drop wasn’t as big was that the average price of a ticket (including premium formats) was up to $9.37 at the end of the year.

While movie-going is still an enormously popular activity, the trend continues that it seems to be increasingly one available primarily to the well-off.

As Erik Hayden at THR points out, that average movie ticket price is higher than the monthly subscription rates for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and other streaming services. And right now 39 percent of respondents to a recent survey are paying for three or more such services (including music) at a time.

For the consumer, then, it comes down to value. $9.37 can buy one movie ticket, but it comes with the obligation to make the necessary arrangements to leave the house. And how often are people going to the theater themselves, and what other activities are they adding on to that trip? Even a solo trip will likely end up costing significantly more than that.

Compare that to the $7-10 a streaming subscription cost, which comes with far fewer additional burdens. While each service has its own library of material, the options available on any one of them are substantive enough to keep most people occupied for hours if not days. And the perceived risk involved is much lower, as blowing $9 on a single movie that winds up being a dud is a huge disappointment while the couple hours you invest in a movie on Netflix is fine since you can check your email as you finish it with few regrets.

What Does the Audience Want to See?

At some point the theatrical exhibition chains are going to have to figure out how to live in a world that includes both their business and that of the streaming producers, who continue to bank on the idea that original features and series are the key to success. The stocks of AMC Theaters, IMAX and others took a hit at the end of last year because of big-budget bombs like Cats and even the perceived disappointing results of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

But those are the movies they booked, influenced in part by the studios who put on persuasive presentations at CinemaCon and assurances that people will come see known properties. Meanwhile, they keep shunning anything that comes from Netflix, even if it’s from high-profile filmmakers and comes with massive buzz attached. Netflix may have far fewer titles than it did a few years ago, but it has proven a serious player in the awards game and that’s come with the subsequent industry attention.

So, then, how interested in the future of movies are the theater chains? And what do they see their role being? Their core business model, after all, means they are at the whims of studios that make questionable decisions for a number of reasons without substantive input on those decisions.

If people are willing to pay $25-30/month combined for a two or three streaming subscriptions but continue to signal they are balking at the $9+ for a movie ticket, there’s no clear path for theaters to adjust their business models other than to keep jacking prices up, getting more out of a shrinking pool.

That seems unsustainable in the long term, but perhaps those in charge are just hoping to get through the next quarter unscathed and then leave it for the next person to figure out. The choices being made now, though, will have serious repercussions for everyone, especially the audience.