There is something perversely entertaining about witnessing the collapse of the film industry in real time. It is almost like watching a movie, or several different kinds of movies: dark comedy one moment, high-stakes drama the next, then segueing into surreal horror.
The genres combined this week when, over the span of a 12-hour news cycle Tuesday, the nerves that have been rattling Hollywood for the past six weeks (but have been plaguing decision-makers for a while) burst in full public display.
First, there was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s tweak to its Oscars rules. Previously, any film that hoped to snag an Academy Award needed to run for at least seven days in a Los Angeles movie theatre – forcing streamers such as Netflix to go through a song-and-dance of booking any multiplex that would be kosher with opening a film the same day it became available for home viewing. Now, with all theatres shuttered, the Academy is making room for digital-only releases, so long as the film already had a “planned theatrical release.”
Leaving aside logistical questions as to how the Academy is going to determine which movie had a genuine release plan prepandemic – or which producers will fudge the line and say, “Yeah, sure, we always planned to open this tiny little movie in theatres. Why not?” – the decision makes sense in a self-serving fashion. If the 2021 Oscars only honoured movies that played theatres, it would have almost no movies to honour. But the decision also throws the rest of the year’s release calendar into chaos.
If studios no longer need theatres to garner Oscar prestige, are they going to release their precious awards-bait wares into the video-on-demand (VOD) market and treat this year like any other? Or are they going to wait until next year to let the business, and the world, sort itself out? Will the 2021 Academy Awards look like a grab bag of movies that decided to risk it, and mediocre films that were always destined for the low-tier VOD market? It all promises to be extraordinarily messy.
The decision also exacerbates tension between producers and exhibitors. Theatre owners have long been fighting any shrinking of the “window” – ie, how long it takes for a movie to go from the big screen to the small. Producers typically want to make their movies available to as many different kinds of audiences as quickly as possible to maximize revenue (for traditional studios) or grow subscriptions (for streamers). One thing holding producers back from telling theatre owners to shorten the window was Oscar prestige, which required paying homage, or at least lip service, to the theatrical model. Now that this point has been temporarily eroded, the industry can expect all manner of complications.
Case in point: A few hours after the Academy news broke, an ugly war of words between multiplex giant AMC and Universal Pictures spilled into the press. Thanks to the success of Trolls World Tour, once destined for cinemas, but instead released digitally this month, NBCUniversal’s chief executive Jeff Shell said that, even when theatres reopen, he will release movies both theatrically and on VOD. AMC chairman and CEO Adam Aron fired back, saying that move “represents nothing but downside for us,” and that his company will boycott Universal movies. A day later, Cineworld, which owns the Regal chain and is planning on acquiring Canada’s Cineplex, said it, too, would bar Universal titles from its theatres.
There are two ways to process this fight. There is the sky-is-falling view, which posits that this scuffle marks the true death of the multiplex, by suicide. Are AMC and Cineworld, currently bleeding money, really going to refuse Universal blockbusters such as F9 that might save them once the world is back to normal? Then there is the pragmatic view that this is all saber-rattling, and will end with compromise: a shortening of the window, say, but with exhibitors getting a larger chunk of the box-office to compensate.
Either way, it is terrible optics. When the rest of the world is locked down and frightened for their lives, starting a street fight over how audiences access much-needed entertainment betrays a deeply miscalculated sense of the public mood – a mood that Hollywood is supposed to be able to decipher with ease.
There are a couple other subplots lurking in this tumult, too. There is the demise of the big-screen comedy, thanks to various studios seizing the shutdown as an opportunity to sell off their traditionally lowest-performing films to streamers. There is the continuing collapse of the film festival landscape, with Locarno being the latest organization to go all-digital (another major festival is rumoured to be announcing the same strategy next week). And there is, way off in the margins, the potential for a rash of roguish COVID-19 productions, which abide by certain countries’ more lax public health rules to push through filming. The Mickey Rourke-led horror film Warhunt just wrapped in Latvia, where crews donned masks, had their temperatures taken twice daily and disinfected equipment. I’m not saying Rourke is an industry harbinger, but a movie called Trolls World Tour might have just changed the business, so anything is possible.
Whatever the next few months bring from a public health perspective, all these film industry tremors are not going to be simply washed away. If the current crisis can indeed be thought of as a movie, I shudder to think what the sequel might look like.
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