Streaming in the Age of COVID-19

by Ronan Solomon, Staff Writer

It’s been a tumultuous last few months for the entire world with the coronavirus (medically titled COVID-19) officially being labeled a global pandemic and an international health emergency. The United States has been hit the hardest, somewhat unsurprisingly considering the unwillingness of many Americans to actually follow proper social distancing protocols and lockdown regulations, with the most cases in the nation actually belonging to our own Cook County.

Aside from quarantine, many other things about our lives have changed or been closed as a result of these unprecedented times, including restaurants, sporting events, schools, public transportation, and live concerts. However, one medium of entertainment whose future lies in particular uncertainty is that of cinema, and the movie theater experience as a whole, especially considering the convenience and profitability of digital streaming services which many people seem to prefer to going out to watch the newest films.

Streaming has only gotten more reliably popular during quarantine as the theaters officially closed in March like all the other venues, and everyone has been stuck inside much of the time with nothing to do but watch Netflix and sit on their couch. With new original content still being consistently released on these services and some movies previously intended to get theatrical releases in the spring being dumped onto these platforms in order to meet their initial release date, the pandemic seems to be changing digital entertainment in a way that could potentially have long lasting effects.

Can the movies be saved when this is all over, or is this current reality going to be the new normal?

2020 began with a promising slate of new movies releasing in the spring months, with major releases like “A Quiet Place Part II,” “Mulan,” “F9,” “Black Widow,” “No Time To Die,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” and more preparing to hit theaters. However, with the pandemic reaching the USA around mid-March, most of these films that were supposed to come out have been rescheduled to new release dates by their studios so as to make money when the country reopens, as well as achieve an important theatrical release. However, some films whose releases were cut short by the lockdown met a different fate. Movies including “Birds of Prey,” “The Invisible Man,” and “Emma” were forced to terminate their theatrical runs early after spending about two to four weeks in theaters.

Similarly, after its September 2019 release date was infamously canceled when the president expressed anger at it, the controversial survival horror film “The Hunt” released on March 13 – which turned out to be the very worst day the studio could have chosen, considering the lockdown began that night. The movie’s understandable flop at the box office as a result was an unfortunate killing blow to hopes of theatrical success for a film which had struggled so hard to get there in the first place.

The most notable casualty of this cinematic doomsday, though, was the Pixar film “Onward,” whose ill-fated March 6 release date came a mere week before quarantine began, serving as a harsh message to the acclaimed animation studio who are famously known to put a much higher level of effort into each project than other studios in the industry. It seemed the entire industry was put on hold, which was simply unluckily bad timing for recently released movies as it seemingly stopped them dead in their tracks.

Interestingly, it turned out to not be the true end of the road for these films. Films that were released in February and early March didn’t get to complete their theatrical runs, but they were able to find a second life in a new home. In the coming weeks of quarantine “Birds of Prey,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt,” “Emma,” and “Onward” were released digitally on demand to rent for roughly $20 each. Under normal circumstances, $20 is how much it costs to buy a movie on demand, whereas the option to rent is typically about $5 and usually becomes available two weeks after the film is first available to buy. While $20 to rent feels excessive, there are somewhat justifiable reasons for it when considering the overall situation the studios are in.

As the theatrical runs of their movies were cut short, they got much less money than they hoped for and were expecting pre-coronavirus, therefore upcharging people for the films on demand. Additionally, the executives knew everyone was stuck inside with little to do, and would want to find entertainment in order to escape the boredom, so people would likely want to watch brand new movies from the comfort of their own homes. While these high prices were perhaps somewhat manipulative in this way, they made sense, and people paid for them anyway. These films thrived throughout quarantine, and going digital ended up being the perfect opportunity for them to recoup the money they should have gotten all along in theaters. 

In the coming weeks, this began to have intriguing effects, signaling a potential change for the entertainment industry – which, while more convenient for general audiences, aren’t necessarily all good for the future of cinema. This soon began to play out by mid April: Lockdown had been in effect for a whole month, and a new fiasco was already on Hollywood’s hands, coming from seemingly the least controversial film that one could possibly think of: “Trolls World Tour.”

Originally intended to be released in theaters on April 10, the children’s movie was instead put on VOD the same day for $20, similar to the films discussed previously. However, the difference this time was that it didn’t have a half-life theatrical release before being dropped on demand – it actually opted to go on demand the same day it was supposed to come out, instead of being delayed until a later date in order to release in theaters when the quarantine was over. In a major surprise, “Trolls World Tour” ended up breaking records, becoming Universal’s most successful day-one rental, and making almost 100 million dollars in total – almost the same amount of revenue for the studio as the first film did in theaters in 2016. As a result of this, Universal stated that in the future, they may employ a similar tactic of simultaneous theatrical and digital releases – something which angered many theater chains, such as AMC, who announced shortly afterward that they would no longer play Universal films.

And just this past Friday, two new films, Pete Davidson’s “The King of Staten Island” and Disney’s “Artemis Fowl,” which were intended to be released in theaters, were instead put on premium VOD and streaming on Disney+, respectively, in order to meet their release dates and make the studios convenient money from home. In the next few weeks, the numbers will show how well these films are truly doing. It’s clear things are being shaken up by the age of streaming and digital on demand releases, causing rifts between studios, theaters, and streaming services that must be fixed if the theatrical experience is to truly be saved. 

However, all hope is not lost yet. Most of the filmmakers working today are fighting hard to keep this art alive by making sure their projects get a proper release in theaters, simply by delaying them later in the year until it’s safe to go out and see them again, as well as plausible to truly make money (taking into account the public’s wariness to return to a public space like a movie theater right away). Perhaps no one is as invested in this idea as acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, the man behind intelligent blockbusters such as “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Dunkirk” whose films are only truly acceptable to watch on a massive screen with a giant sound system. His incredibly anticipated new film “Tenet” is releasing July 31, and is still slated to release in theaters. Nolan has been stubborn throughout the pandemic, refusing to delay his film by more than two weeks from its original July 17 release date, but is adamant about two things: that the theaters will certainly be back open by the time “Tenet” releases, and that his film will be the very first film to bring back films to theaters.

Whether that ends up happening remains to be seen, although it would certainly be a hugely important moment for an industry that seems to be going in a convenient, digital route as of late that may actually be much more harmful than it seems.

Movies aren’t really going away, but the act of going to the movies may be if these issues aren’t appropriately solved – an event which would signal the death of cinema in its purest form. Right now, only time will tell, but we can help as film fans by collectively supporting these theaters and filmmakers as soon as we’re able to again to ensure that Hollywood gets back on track.

I know I’ll be at the multiplex opening day.

Categories: Features, Reviews

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