I love movies. We love movies. All of us, right?
Let’s face it, it’s been a tough few years with some serious ups & downs and more than a few fundamental changes in how we all access the movies we love.
Remember when we couldn’t go out? The world shut down. Cinemas/theaters were closed. When they reopened, it was hardly a pleasant experience. Masks. Distancing. Limited services. An atmosphere of wariness. And most importantly seriously limited programming.
So we stayed at home. We got better and faster broadband. We took out an extra subscription to Appletv+ or Hulu or DisneyPlus. We started collecting 4K BluRay discs with focused seriousness. Amazon became our friend. We thought about buying a Kaleidoscape and then we woke up. We upgraded the TV at last.
Our consumption changed. Everything changed. But now we’re (nearly) back to normal, whatever that means.
So, where are we as we end summer 2022?
New players entered an over-populated streaming market. Our choice increased and conversely became more limited. Go figure. Netflix and HBOMax worryingly laid a bunch of people off. Subscriptions are going up. Bandwidth is being controlled. What the Hell is going on? Never good, but more about all that streaming can o’worms in the next issue.
In this issue, let’s concentrate on first runs. The initial window. The Theatrical release.
What about movies with audiences, then? How’s the movie business doing at the sharp end? The short answer is that theatrically, cinemas/theaters are struggling. For example, Cineworld has made its financial issues public and are attempting to restructure blaming the state of theatrical releases post-COVID. They’re betting the farm on the new BLACK PANTHER movie – WAKANDA FOREVER, another Marvel franchise picture that will be released in time for the vitally important Christmas window.
Business Insider says:
Cineworld, the world’s second largest theater chain after AMC Theatres and owner of Regal, said on Wednesday that it is “evaluating various strategic options” in the face of slowing attendance.
“Despite a gradual recovery of demand since re-opening in April 2021, recent admission levels have been below expectations,” the company said. “These lower levels of admissions are due to a limited film slate that is anticipated to continue until November 2022 and are expected to negatively impact trading and the Group’s liquidity position in the near term.”
I think there’s more to it than that, though. Lots of things are contributing to this downturn and blaming one element alone is either naïve or downright stupid.
Yes, it’s a given that COVID has limited supply of available movies – production schedules of ‘tentpole’ pictures often require 2 -3 years from greenlight to release, and the pandemic shutdown sits right in the middle of that. But I think that’s only a single factor. It’s like saying that Jack died from COVID when, although he tested positive, he was run over by a bus.
The real reasons are legion and complex.
- Franchise fatigue. A significant element of cinema audiences has had enough of franchise movies. I mean, they can’t go on forever… can’t they? There are so many causes of franchise fatigue. What if I’ve not seen the previous entry/entries on the big and small screen? What actually IS “canon”? Can I make sense of what’s going on? I’m talking about YOU Dr Strange and your damned multi-coloured multiverse! What if I don’t subscribe to DisneyPlus? What if I don’t care for this, that or the other character? What if I find a cynical formula of low-stakes action and jarringly regular fight/destruction scenes really dull? What if I find relentless CGI boring? Especially when some it looks really bad. What if I don’t get the in-jokes and feel excluded? What if I couldn’t care less about post/mid credit sequences? The list goes on longer than the MCU.
- A dearth of originality. See point 1, above. And factor in the risk-averse conservatism that Cineworld and others show and it’s clear that anything original or unique won’t be given a chance or slot. There are no screens available to anything other than ‘sure fire’ winners. The chains want franchises. They want sequels. They want Cruise. This, of course creates a cycle. Exhibitors tell the studios what they want. The studios see its box-office returns. The studios green-light it. It gets released. People come (or not). And round again. “This worked. Give me another one of those!”. And again. Yes, of course, there’s the familiar issue of audiences accepting just what they’re given and in this context that’s even more worrying. It’s white bread only guys. That’s what we’ve decided you want and that’s what we’re going to give you. Forever. And people stand for it. It’s a endemic malaise in the entertainment industry. Audiences are held in total contempt; they can be controlled, influenced and kept quiet. They’ll buy what they’re told is good. By the way, I’m not sure that attitude works anymore, Mr or Ms Studio Boss.
- Studios. Don’t get me started. The bottom line here is that they’re totally risk-averse, too. If they own IP – what used to be called ‘properties’ but now Intellectual Property is reduced to an acronym – then they’re going to milk it and milk it and milk it. And then squeeze it some more. They’re going to acquire companies (and people) who own IP they can milk, too. IP – and by that I mean ‘successful IP’ – is insurance for the risk averse. Like tying a star into a long-term contract. That worked last time so we’ll do it again and that’ll work too. And if it doesn’t we can always say “Look. It worked before, so don’t blame me!”. This is why we’ve got franchise movies, remakes, reboots and shameless copies. Screw originality! Or as a Studio Head might put it “I love originality. It’s what makes movies exciting. It’s what gets me up in the morning. So give me some originality just like that other movie that made $200million!”
- Movies at home 1. For many, the experience of watching a movie is simply better at home. Let’s take as read that the cinema operator cares about the image and sound. Let’s assume they show it in the correct ratio(s) and that their sound balance/soundproofing is both adequate & correct. Let’s just do that. It’s easier. But we all know that’s often not the case and that really sucks when you’re paying a premium to watch something you’ve been waiting months or years to see! Instead, let’s look at what we can get at home. I’m not just talking about the quality, resolution & size of domestic screens, perfect OLED blacks, short throw laser 4K projection, Dolby Vision picture enhancement, Dolby Atmos sound systems, and the high quality of physical media and, to a lesser degree, streaming. Not just all that. Oh, let’s not forget that my seats are comfier than the regular seats at my local multiplex. The sight lines are good. The carpet’s not sticky. The screen’s not got a Coke splat on it. I could go on. You know what I’m talking about. Yes, all that’s hugely important and significant but it’s only part of the issue.
- Movies at home 2. Jean-Paul Sartre said that “Hell is other people”. I’ve never seen him at my local multiplex, but I suspect he’s been there. Do you want to sit next to someone who’s on Tick-Tock all the time? Or even worse – recording the image from the screen? Do you want to listen to them calling their families or many boy/girl friends? Or just talking to their buddies sitting next to them. Or the crunch/ smell of somebody else’s nachos? Not me, thanks.
- Movies at home. Do you feel safe in a cinema/theater? What would happen if you asked the person in front of you to turn off their phone or – God forbid – be quiet? Are they armed? Could they become abusive? Could it escalate? What happens if a situation develops across the aisle? Do I get involved? Do I alert the management? Is that a risk worth taking? Or do I just sit there in fuming silence and accept that I paid good money to watch some random people fight and shout at each other instead of two guys in spandex fight and shout at each other while destroying yet another nameless American city. This was there before COVID, but it’s got worse after it. Some people just don’t know how to behave anymore. It’s a function of stay-at-home media watching. The reverse of all the good stuff. At home you can take calls. You can surf at will. You can check all your social media that you simply HAVE to check right now. You can talk to the person across the room or at the screen. You can sit there just trashed and get angrier by the second. That doesn’t make it right, of course but that’s what’s happened. In live theatre this is happening all the time and some audience members are destroying the experience for everybody else. Actos on the stage have taken to stopping the show to ask/tell those people to stop what they’re doing or GTFO. Quite a step to take, but it’s needed.
- Movies at home 4. Do you feel safe going out at all? COVID has severely and negatively impacted the way the public feel about going out for entertainment. Again, live theatre – particularly on tour or outside major cities – is majorly suffering. Audiences are way down, and many productions are being cancelled at short notice. I suspect the same thing’s happening in the movie world.
- Movies at home 5. Cost. Times are hard, inflation is burgeoning and money is tight. And it’s getting worse. The priorities are obviously food and utilities, and so entertainment is a cuttable luxury. Or, let’s say a ‘manageable luxury’. If I wait, I can buy a 4K disc for between £20 & £30 ($23 – $35), a BluRay 40% less than that. A DVD for even less. If I can’t wait, I can stream the movie for under £20 ($23). If I wait even longer it might turn up on the single streaming service I’ve retained. But if I take the family to see NOPE in IMAX, which is currently playing at my local multiplex it’ll cost me £80 ($94) for 4 tickets and at least £30 ($35) in concessions. Plus petrol, parking maybe, dinner possibly. Can I afford that? Can I even afford a family?
- The audience. All of this comes down to who’s prepared to go out and actually watch a movie. Film fans, that’s who. You know, the ones most likely to accept a fresh, original movie. The ones who care about image and sound quality. The whole theater experience. The ones who’ll come back again. And again. The one who’ll support you, cinema owners. The ones who aren’t worried about the pandemic. The ones who assume that the rest of the audience are just like them and who’ll behave themselves. Those guys. Those girls. Those people. The ones theater chains are alienating by behaving the way they are.
So, Cineworld (and all the other cinema chains) take a leaf out of the independent cinema experience. Programme locally. Care about the experience. Make it a positive one. Make it pleasurable. Deliver consistently. Be secure. Grow your audience. Engage with them. Engender trust. Offer best value.
It’s not rocket science. It’s what they used to call ‘showmanship’.
So, what am I talking about? What are the actual reasons that are contributing to this malaise? In no particular order, I’d say they are: