A bold catchphrase circulated the online world amidst the Covid 19 pandemic initial lockdown: “artists are second responders.” With deep respect to our first responders and frontline workers saving lives, the average citizen did their part by staying home isolated with no contact to the outside world. What we thought would be a few months has turned into almost a year.
What has kept those people from stir crazed insanity and/or boredom while at home doing their part has been the arts; specifically online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and a personal favorite The Criterion Channel. In this context the art of film did save some minds at the very least.With government mandated lockdowns in place, the movie theater has become a thing of the past since March of 2019, yet we are collectively watching more movies than ever before…from home.
There is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the way we consume content, but the truth is, technology combined with creativity was already on this path. The circumstances at hand just accelerated what was to come from a gradual decade evolution to an overnight new era. This sudden change has had dire effects on the film industry at large due to stalled productions and thousands of movie house closures across the country.
Where does this leave those of us working in or just watching movies who are longing for a Golden Era experience of film with big productions, big premieres, and big movie theater opening weekends? Where does this leave the moviegoer, the move makers, and the movie theater?
Beginning with movie making itself, it’s been a paralyzing year. Hollywood’s 2020 domestic revenue is down 80% from the previous year and grossed the lowest ticket sales since 1998.
As of now, production companies have managed to keep high tier film and flat screen TV’s safe through rigorous and required Covid protocols that include daily testing, quarantining, hand sanitizing stations, temperature checks and essentially creating a virus free bubble. It’s working, but there is a catch: it costs about 10% of the production’s budget. The already hard-to-raise finances to make a film just became even more expensive. Which is exactly why for the most part we are only seeing studios with big budgets able to facilitate these costly protocols.
Regardless, content is being created, albeit at a much smaller scale both on set and at large within the industry with an eager audience in need of entertainment like never before.
Upon a film’s release in the near future the battle of the movie theatre versus online streaming will continue on as it has been in the recent past. Though at the moment with thousands of movie theaters permanently closed, including powerhouses such as AMC and Regal Movie Chain, online streaming is winning.
These prolonged closures have many theaters facing bankruptcy without aid from the government and the stakes for the Golden Era movie going experience couldn’t be higher. Even prior to the pandemic, the trend of studios skipping the theaters and releasing certain movies directly to consumers via streaming was on the rise. With a seemingly endless pandemic, the advancements of technology, and the current desire of the audience to be entertained from the safety of their own home, it appears that trend is here to stay.
Warner Bros. will release 17 films –including Dune, The Matrix 4 and The Suicide Squad — to its HBO Max streaming service for 31 days the same day they debut on the silver screen in 2021, shattering movie-release norms….
The online premiere of Wonder Woman: 1984 from Warner Bros. also broke the mold, but only grossed 16.7 million its opening weekend, with its predecessor grossing 103.2 million in the first weekend alone and 822.3 million total domestic revenue. While streaming may be the way of the future, the audience seems to be longing for the past.
When the pandemic finally does pass, and if theaters are able to withstand the absence of financial aid and government restrictions, what will the movie theatre experience even look like? One thing is certain, the future of attending the movies is going to be expensive; the Covid safety procedures would be passed on to the movies goers in the form of higher tickets and concession prices.
Which gives reason to believe that in a post lockdown world with endless streaming options costing less, a night at the movies will become a special occasion, instead of the casual outing it was in the old world… with streaming dominating the new one.
Even before the pandemic, smaller independent films were increasingly being financed and shown on streaming services- and the the industry is taking note and adapting. A-list movie stars such as Margot Robbie along with her production company LuckyChap are embracing the streaming platforms. LuckyChap is partnering with Amazon in a First Look TV deal to create television projects that will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime.
Bonafide movie stars that would traditionally only star in films intended for big openings on the silver screen and to be Oscar contenders, like George Clooney and Christopher Walken are pivoting into starring in movies exclusively for the streaming service Amazon Prime.
There was a time when movie stars would not entertain the idea of performing for anything other than the big screen, which changed immensely in the past decade with the small screen creating larger than life stars on shows such as in Breaking Bad with Bryan Cranston, Games of Throne with Emilia Clarke, in Mad Men with Jon Hamm, Fleabag with Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
This shift in perspective saw the likes of movie stars such as Jane Fonda, Viola Davis, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew McConaughey taking world of TV. Similarly, the same kind of shift in visual arts is engrossing the industry; from the traditional movie theatre premiere and the weekly released episodes on Network TV to the online streaming premieres of film and binge style series release.
The demand for content is higher than ever; while consumers are at home with time on their hands production will continue carry on, even if being down by 80% as it currently is, with extreme safety measures in place to deliver content to the online platforms of the future, while a cabin fevered audience awaits for the comeback of the theatre- and “real life” in general.
The old model for cinema is not broken, just disrupted and due to that disruption it has created an entirely new realm for movies to exist within. In many ways, the pandemic has simply accelerated the changes that were already happening in the industry. Since its conception, people have been sounding the death knell for cinema …and cinema has always survived.
The truth is, cinema has died many times; it died in 1929 when silent films turned to “talkies,” in 1955 when more than half of American households had a television, in 2007 when Netflix launched the creation of streaming followed by original content, and now, in 2020 with theatre closures brought on by a global pandemic- but it is always born again.
While this moment in time is the end of an era, it’s also the birth of a new one. The collective irreplaceable experience of the magic of the movie theatre will still exist, but streaming cinema is the future brought to us at the speed of light by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Megan Penn is a Los Angeles based, New York born actress and writer. Megan has a passion for stories in which women are in the drivers seat, along with a bad case of retrophilia.