As I download the Warner Brothers app, required to preview “Wonder Woman ’84,” and watch the back and forth over the studio’s decision to move its entire lineup to HBO Max for the foreseeable future, and browse the menu of Netflix, Disney+ etc. titles available online, I am starting to wonder if there’ll ever be a day or indeed a need to go back into a movie theater at any point down the road.
It’s been obvious to me that studios regard theaters and the cinema experience as a bloody nuisance. Whatever they had to do to invest in digital projectors back in the early 2000s, covering the ShowEast cinema owners and operators convention that used to take place here in Orlando, you always got the feeling they were doing it grudgingly. It would save them money, in the long run. But they held out as long as possible to see if they could sucker the cinemas into spending the money by themselves.
Go to any film festival where “industry” folks congregate, and the people with the most contempt for sitting in the dark, undistracted, watching a film on the big screen stand out — cell phones out constantly, bouncing in and out, ruining the experience for others because they’re above that.
Filmmakers have always been the ones lobbying for prestige presentations, for their work to be seen on the big screen in a communal setting. Christopher Nolan is merely the newest and most vocal to state that case. Everyone from Spielberg and M. Night to Campion on down the line has made the case for the magic of the cinema.
But I can tell you where most viewers have migrated over recent years, and it’s no news flash. Much of my traffic in readership comes from reviews of Netflix titles — films, not series, BTW.
HBO Max getting on Roku is a big deal for PPV/VOD and “trial offer” subscriptions, and gives them a chance to compete with Disney, which pulled in millions of subscribers with “Hamilton” and “Mulan” and everything else they’ve pushed into streaming (“Soul” had a theatrical run weeks ago, and shows up on Disney+ in days).
Amazon is pouring money into production, not nearly as much as Netflix. Paramount has its own network, bundled into a Roku “free” (commercials included) channel, and others are following suit.
CBS has puts its failed film distribution attempt behind it and is going all in on Pluto TV, a free streamer of archival movies and TV shows downloadable to your PC and loaded onto Roku TV sets.
Meanwhile, the big theater chains — AMC, Regal, Cinemark — and their smaller rivals are struggling to stay in business long enough to “come back,” although mass bankruptcies, lease lapses and nationwide theater closings on the order of what we saw in the late 90s seems inevitable.
Since March, I’ve seen maybe four films on a big screen — “Tenet” being the big deal, a horror title here and there. I’ve missed more films that went theatrical only from smaller distributors this year than I’ve seen. I don’t need to see Jim Caviezel’s latest, distributors that make no effort to get their product reviewed (Bleecker Street, Roadside Attractions) are slow to pick up on how little anybody misses their product.
If I can get Amazon theatrical to be as diligent at promoting their fare as their series division (I have access to every series and doc they offer), I’ll be covered, accessing every movie that’s a part of the online film conversation. And as much as I’ll miss communal ritual of the Church of the Cinema, I won’t miss the drives to the theater, boorish fellow patrons and sheer inconvenience and inefficiency of me going to the movies rather than having the movies come to me.
In other words, I’m just like everybody else in that regard.
Will it mean an end to $300 million franchises, particularly the comic book ones? Possibly. Disney’s not going to let Marvel die, and we’re seeing a rise in the buzz about Marvel “series” in recent weeks, but tentpole movies seem to be receding into the horizon — pushed further and further back.
We won’t know how all this shakes out until next summer, when the Trumpdemic will be less of a worry and more people risk going out to do things we used to do in indoor group settings. But I can see a day when the cinema is like a concert hall, visited only on special occasions for pricey special events. It’s just a question of whether there’ll be cinemas open to upsell this new business model and make it work.