On February 22, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that on March 5, after being closed for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theaters in New York City would be allowed to open again. The reopening of a key market could be a welcome salve the US film industry, which has seen drastically reduced profits because of the pandemic. But this is hardly a return to normal. Setting aside that theaters must operate at only a quarter capacity, with no more than 50 people per screening, the media landscape has already been drastically upended, and in some ways there may be no going back.
In December 2020, it was announced that all 17 blockbusters on Warner Bros.’ 2021 feature slate — which includes titles such as Dune, The Matrix 4, and Godzilla vs. Kong — will be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO MAX, the dedicated streaming service for WarnerMedia (the parent company of Warner Bros., and a subsidiary of AT&T). The films will each be available on the platform for a month after its respective premieres, after which they will be pulled for a time before later getting both video on demand and physical media releases. This is, of course, a drastic departure from the normal framework for releasing major films, typically a 75- or 90-day window of exclusivity for theaters before any other release can happen. But then, everything since March 2020 has been a drastic departure from the norm. The Warner announcement was the natural endpoint of 2020’s acceleration of streaming’s ascendancy within cinema.
In the fall of 2011, Universal attempted to test the waters of releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on video on demand (VOD) platforms with its ensemble comedy Tower Heist. Essentially every theater chain balked at the prospective loss of revenue and threatened a boycott, leading the studio to back off from the plan. Early in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was only starting to build in the US and it was unclear how long the lockdown would last, Universal went ahead and released their animated tentpole Trolls World Tour directly on VOD, sparking outrage from theaters, especially AMC. The two parties later came to an understanding over the matter, but the cracks were in the dam.
Trolls World Tour had the biggest digital premiere ever, grossing over $100 million on its first weekend. Meanwhile, after multiple delays, Warner Bros. and Legendary stubbornly went ahead with a theatrical-only release for Tenet, but its $400 million worldwide gross wasn’t nearly enough. (That a movie can earn $400 million and still be considered a flop is an entirely different headache of Hollywood logistics and accounting that’s beyond the scope of this article.) More damagingly, Tenet releasing solely in limited, barely attended theaters ensured that it had almost no cultural footprint; most people have only gotten to see it this month as it hit VOD, and so reactions are scattered and unfocused. With theaters still closed in major markets in the US due to the ongoing pandemic, studios have had to choose from only bad options. Succumbing to simultaneous theatrical and VOD premieres is the least-bad decision as WarnerMedia sees it, the only possible way to make an “event film” look like any kind of event again.
There are many more complicated factors behind this decision as well, of course. Peter Labuza offered a good summation with a broader look at the current media landscape. Put simply, even beyond concerns about COVID and the loss of revenue from having major titles just sitting on a shelf, it seems AT&T and Warner execs saw this as a good opportunity to prop up HBO MAX, which has been flagging since its launch in 2019. And one would do well to keep in mind that plans are sure to shift in some way. Since Dune director Denis Villeneuve criticized the all-streaming decision, rumors persist his film might be shifted back to a traditional theatrical run. Setting aside any possibility that maybe, just maybe the COVID vaccine will actually be distributed widely enough to make moviegoing safe again this year (I’ve learned to never be too optimistic about how the US handles this crisis), there will likely be further fights with both theater chains and production companies over this move. The dismay on the part of theaters is understandable, given that the pandemic lockdown left both AMC and Regal hanging by threads. (At least until AMC was possibly bailed out by Reddit users, of all things.) With more tentative reopenings and the vaccine rollout gaining pace, who knows what the moviegoing model for this year will ultimately look like. But for many film lovers, its the long-term landscape of the medium that’s most worrying.
Cinephiles have been bemoaning the decline of the theatrical experience for years, and some worry this may be the stake through its heart, that Warner’s move signals the final collapse of theaters in favor of streaming — the death of film in favor of “content.” Measured voices have pointed out that there are plenty of reasons to believe Warner representatives when they say this is only a temporary stopgap dealing with extraordinary circumstances, and that by 2022, assuming things are somewhat back to normal (he said, knocking on wood), we can look forward to seeing blockbusters in theaters regularly again. As filmmaker Steven Soderbergh pointed out in a recent interview, for all the business incentives that have been driving entertainment companies to prioritize streaming in recent years, there’s not yet anything in place that can supplant a sweet, sweet billion-dollar take from a single production.
But of course, movies are far more than just studio tentpoles. The greater worry is that this will not kill off theaters per se, but will further lock out both non-mainstream films and theaters. Small theaters have already felt the pinch under COVID, and who knows how much longer they can weather it. Creative solutions like sharing profits from virtual cinemas can only go so far. And smaller theaters offer a valuable service not just in showing independent, international, and/or art films: Through repertory screenings, they expose people to pieces of cinema history they might not otherwise seek out. But these venues were in trouble even before the pandemic, with Netflix swooping in to purchase venerable theaters in both LA and NYC. The Supreme Court’s repeal of its 1948 Paramount decision in 2019 looks to have opened the door for even greater vertical integration within media. We see the effects of this kind of corporate consolidation and control not just in business, but also in what art we are able to consume, and how. Disney is notoriously tight fisted about allowing repertory venues to play any of its films, and since it acquired 20th Century Fox, it has apparently been doing the same for that studio’s catalogue. Corporations desire greater control, and digital distribution offers them a model wherein consumers can never actually purchase goods from them, but only be lent them for a while.
There are also the more subjective, intangible elements of “the theatrical experience” at stake here. Seeing a movie in a theater is qualitatively different than watching one on your TV, laptop, phone, etc. The presence of a crowd, the all-encompassing sound and visuals, the drastically reduced temptation to look at a different screen, and other factors make for a different appreciation of a movie. I’m not one to get overly precious about this the way many other cinephiles do. (I think about one friend, wholly dismissive of the sacredness of the theatrical experience, who cites the time a stranger sitting next to her shot up with heroin in the theater during John Wick.) And we should be wary of fetishizing the theater too much. Alamo Drafthouse is a chain that prides itself on preserving “the experience,” but that hasn’t stopped them from facing numerous allegations of employee abuse and neglect. Still, I understand people’s anxieties over losing this, over theaters increasingly favoring only blockbusters as time goes on, while the movies they want to see become only available online, if at all.
And corporations only want to increase their stranglehold on “content.” Increasingly, we run into the fact that due to the relative youth of film as a medium, the vast majority of its works are under copyright and its ridiculous strictures (all thanks to Disney wanting to ensure no one else can get their hands on Mickey Mouse). Pair this with the rest of the facts on display, and these studios’ shared desire is clear. These increasingly monolithic companies chase a future in which they have full control over vast libraries of art and media that people can only access precisely as said monoliths wish.
Whether you consider yourself a cinephile or just an average theatergoer, there’s not really much you can personally do to influence where things go from here. Sure, put your money toward whatever you want to succeed, and always try to support the filmmakers you like, but we are but droplets compared to the greater tide. I think I’d get in some kind of trouble if I openly endorsed piracy as an alternative to corporate strangulation and the inaccessibility of vast reserves of film (an alternative that basically anyone could easily learn how to do, were they so inclined, just saying), so I won’t say more on that subject. As a literal handful of entities come to own art and every conceivable way you can access it, these issues will only intensify. In the meantime, do whatever you most feel safe doing to see the movies you like.
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