This week, it was announced that Cineworld, the biggest cinema chain in the UK, would be closing its doors for the foreseeable future, a decision it made following the announcement that the latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die, would see its release date pushed back from November of this year to April 2021. This news also means that the Regal Cinemas chain in the USA, owned by the same parent company, would follow suit. Odeon, the next-biggest theatre chain in Britain, then made the choice to close a number of its venues on weekdays, and Vue is said to be thinking of similar plans. It’s a major blow to the culture sector for several reasons, most notably the loss of thousands of jobs. It feels safe to say, however, that the news itself was hardly a surprise to anyone, much less those working in film and entertainment. Alas, we all saw this coming.
2020 has been one of the worst years on record for film. Of course, how could it not be given that we’re in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over one million people worldwide? When the spread of the coronavirus became impossible to ignore, cinemas quickly closed their doors, but audiences were already staying away in droves. Theaters tried to reopen with much hype this Summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet acting as a weathervane for the rest of the industry to see if the risk would pay off. It hasn’t, especially in North America, where the film has played in over 2,000 theatres for five weeks and has yet to crack the $50 million mark domestically.
Right now, the industry is running out of options: They can drop their movies theatrically and hope that they can accumulate some sort of profit through an intense slow-burn release model; they can delay those same titles, often more than once, in the hopes of finding a date that will line up with a vague return to normalcy; or they can go straight to VOD, a model that remains financially precarious, especially for big-budget tentpole films.
These options are not new, and frankly, they are indicative of the direction that the industry has been moving in over this past decade. Indeed, a lot of the problems we’re seeing unfold now are ones that were pressing concerns for theaters and studios long before we knew what COVID-19 was. Theatrical attendance was slipping, even as we saw record box office numbers from movies like Avengers: Endgame and basically all the Disney movies of 2019. Cinemas were struggling with razor-sharp profit margins and competition from the increasingly crowded streaming market. The average cinemagoer sees five or six movies a year and they’re usually big franchise efforts that have become so expensive to make that their ability to break even is rooted in whether or not they can gross $1 billion. The international market is now an absolute necessity, especially in China, a country whose large grosses are now crucial for Hollywood success but are questionable in their accuracy and beholden to the censorship of their government. This was a melting pot of problems that the industry had no idea how to properly navigate, even before they were forced to add the coronavirus to their ever-growing list of issues. We were looking at a mass change to the theatrical release mold over the next decade. Now, the time frame for those seismic shifts has been compressed to a matter of months. It’s no wonder we’re all panicking.
A shift to an entirely digital or at-home release model is not as implausible now as it was even six months ago. Once Disney decided to release its $200 million live-action remake of Mulan on Disney+, it felt like the industry had reached a new tipping point. If the options are delaying a film, giving it a limited theatrical release with no guarantee of profits, or dropping it on your exclusive platform where you’ll get all the money, the choice seems a lot clearer than before. With Mulan, however, it wasn’t that simple. The movie still got a theatrical release in some territories, most notably China (where it underperformed), and we still have no idea how well it did financially as a Disney+ premium exclusive. The big downside of streaming (or upside, depending on which side you’re on) is that there’s zero economic transparency. We have no idea if Mulan did well on Disney+ and we probably won’t know the true details of it unless Disney shows us them and someone verifies it. Personally, I question if it was a major success, if for no other reason than because if it had been a big money-maker for the company, we would probably see more big titles given Disney+ exclusive releases.
Theatrical releases are still the safest way for these nine-figure blockbusters to be successful, but that model was already on shaky ground before the pandemic. Now, movies are rushing to fill out their 2021 and 2022 slates with films that they really don’t have any room for. These calendars are organized years in advance for a reason. Very few films are 100% guaranteed mega-successes so they need every advantage they can get. This is why we saw films like Dune and West Side Story pushed into late 2021: They need free reign of the season to flourish. But will cinemas be ready?
Cinemas can’t afford to stay shut but staying open is hardly an option when you can only screen movies at 25% capacity and all the major releases have been delayed, canceled, or shoved on Netflix. The odds of government assistance seem pathetically low, especially in the UK, where our chancellor is now telling people who work in the arts that they should retrain for another job. So, who bails out the cinemas? The other possibility is that the studios do it. The Paramount Decrees, which prevented the monopolizing of cinemas by the studio system, were recently struck down. In a couple of years, there won’t be anything in the way of, say, Disney buying AMC or Netflix taking over Regal. In a decade’s time, don’t be shocked if your local multiplex is suddenly only showing Disney movies.
Cinemas have been through a lot. They survived the advent of television and VHS. They endured through the Great Depression and are finding ways to work alongside the streaming model. Film is the great art form of the past century and it can withstand much, but the current perfect storm of chaos may be tough for even the sturdiest among us to weather. The intrinsic appeal of the cinema, however, cannot be diminished. It remains a thrill to enter a darkened room and see a masterpiece unfurl in front of you. Some of the best cultural experiences of my life have happened in the cinema and I want my future to have more of these moments. Let’s just hope that those doors will open once more.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.