Vijaya Laxmi Tripura
Back in 1978, on October 10, the New York Times headlines was – ‘No New Movies, Till Influenza Ends’, that was during the deadly second wave of Spanish Flu. A century later, during the Covid-19 pandemic, film industries are again facing a critical juncture. It is not because new films have not been coming out. Through video streaming services, video-on-demand, virtual theater or actual theater, a steady diet films have been releasing. Since mid-March, more than 460 movies have been reviewed by The Times.
But the only exception, until recently is – most of the released movies during the pandemic were not big-budget spectacles Hollywood runs on. In October, the Walt Disney Co. experimented with the $200 million “Mulan” as a premium buy on its fast-growing streaming service, Disney+ — where the Pixar film “Soul” has been released on December 25.
In November this year, WarnerMedia announced that “Wonder Woman 1984” — a movie that might have made $1 billion at the box office in a normal summer — has finally been planned to be released on the streaming platform.
Much remains uncertain about how the movie business will survive the pandemic. But it’s increasingly clear that Hollywood won’t be the same. Just as the Spanish Flu, which weeded out smaller companies and contributed to the formation of the studio system, COVID is remaking Hollywood, accelerating a digital makeover and potentially reordering an industry that was already in flux.
Expressing pessimism about the world getting rid of the Covid-19 fear, veteran producer Peter Guber, president of Mandalay Entertainment and former chief of Sony Pictures told The Columbian, “I don’t think the genie will ever be back in the bottle. It will be a new studio system. Instead of MGM and Fox, they’re going to be Disney and Disney+, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, HBO Max and Peacock.”
Many of the pivots in 2020 can be chalked up to the unusual circumstances. But several studios are making more long-term realignments around streaming. WarnerMedia, the AT&T conglomerate that owns Warner Bros. (founded in 1923), is now run by Jason Kilar, best known as the former chief executive of Hulu. Last month, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek, the Robert Iger heir, announced a reorganization to emphasize streaming and “accelerate our direct-to-consumer business.”
Universal Pictures, owned by Comcast, has pushed aggressively into video-on-demand. Its first major foray, “Trolls,” kicked up a feud with theater owners. But as the pandemic wore on, Universal hatched unprecedented deals with AMC and Cinemark, the largest and third-largest chains, respectively, to dramatically shorten the traditional theatrical window (usually about three months) to just 17 days. After that time, Universal can move releases that don’t reach certain box-office thresholds to digital rental.
There’s widespread acknowledgement that the days of 90-day theatrical runs are over.
“Windows are clearly changing,” says Chris Aronson, distribution chief for Paramount Pictures. “All this stuff that’s going on now in the business was going to happen, the evolution is just happening faster than it would have. What would have taken three to five years is going to be done in a year, maybe a year and a half.”
That condensed period of rapid change is happening at the same time as a land rush for streaming market share, as Disney+, HBO Max, Apple and Peacock try to wrestle for a piece of the home viewing audience dominated by Netflix and Amazon. With theme parks struggling and worldwide box office down tens of billions, streaming is a bright spot for media companies, and the pandemic may offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lure subscribers. “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Soul” are essentially very expensive advertisements for those streaming services.
It can be easy to cheer such moves, even if their financial performance remain cloudy (no studio has been transparent about its viewership numbers or digital grosses) and their long-term viability uncertain. Can you replicate $1 billion in box office in new subscriptions? And for how long will the one-time bounce of a new movie (unlike a series staggered over weeks or months) drive subscribers once streaming services are closer to tapping as many homes as they can?