Monday, October 5, 2020

On movies, theaters, studios, streaming and the future of watching

The former Wometco Park 11 Theatre in Winter Park, Fla.

As I'm writing this, more big tentpole films scheduled for 2020 are being pushed back to the next year. "Dune" just announced today it will arrive not in late 2020 but late 2021 -- more than a year from now. James Bond, several Marvel and DC superhero movies, and the car franchise where Vin Diesel tries to conceal his triple-chin have all decamped for greener pastures. Along with most big Oscar hopefuls.

But where to? That's my question.

The math is pretty simple -- if you've got a big-ticket blockbuster that needs that half-billion-plus gross just to break even, you must have packed theaters. And that's not something that's going to happen until springtime at the earliest. Maybe not even then.

So the studios are pulling their wannabe blockbusters until things are safer. Problem is, their partners in the exhibition wing of the model, aka theaters, may well not be around come spring. Regal Cinemas has shuttered all its theaters and I'll bet a week's pay AMC is not far behind. They're the two biggies controlling the lion's share of the nation's screens.

It has been an uneasy alliance for decades between theater owners and studios/distributors. Ironically, now that the law has been struck down that prohibited studios from owning cinemas, I doubt they'd want to.

I can easily envision a scenario come May where COVID is more or less under control and Hollywood is ready to make a big splash back into theaters, and the infrastructure simply isn't there to show their content. It'll be like race cars with no tracks to compete at. 

And by then their key audience will have grown so used to watching new stuff on their phone or home set-up it'll take the truly huge event films to bring them out again.

Movie fans have had to suffer through half a year of smaller flicks with a few occasional big-profile video on demand or streaming releases ("Mulan," "Trolls World Tour") that, at least according to their studios, have done pretty well. Now we could well be looking at a permanent shift.

Even in the best of times, only about 10% of the population were hardcore movie-goers, meaning they went at least a couple of times per month. This is largely teens and young or childless adults. The broad swath probably sees six to 10 feature films in a cinema per year, many more see only a handful, and a not-small contingent didn't go to the movie theater at all

Given the current state of pandemic, movie theaters, streaming services and VOD -- not to mention the quality and type of watching people are growing accustomed to -- what we're seeing is a Darwinian event of rapid, mass (d)evolution in the way we consume movies and shows (between which the line continues to blur.)

I think the issue with theaters is the head of the problem we can see right now and audience behavior is the long, vaguer but more significant tail.  

Between the death-or-crippling of movie theaters, the rise of streaming services and VOD and the slow decay-by-formula of TV, my controversial hot take is there's too much content

There's so much stuff to watch, you don't know what to watch. It's hard for any single creative work to break through the noise. Oscar winners and A-list (or at least B+) actors/filmmakers are making stuff and you don't even hear about it. Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank debuted in a splashy space show one month ago and we've already collectively forgot about it.

Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ and Amazon don't spend much on external advertising/promotion to build up hype for their product, so there's just this constant drip-drip-drip of stuff coming out, and by the time you turn your head to notice it's moved off the homepage spotlight and is lost in the search universe. 

Disney+ does better, mainly relying on its vast kiddie-friendly library with a more judicious schedule of new movies and shows. (And if there's a big power that'll be first to abandon theaters entirely, except for maybe a "Toy Story" sequel or the like, my money is on the House of Mouse, which has cleverly positioned itself with a completely vertical production-distribution-exhibition pipeline with no revenue-sharing.)

Today we live in a world of 10,000 screens where there's an infinite array of things to watch, but the audience is so fractured it's hard for enough of us to coalesce around any one thing to get excited about for long. Remember when "Stranger Things" was a big deal? Now it's just another show. (And one not long for the world, what with Millie Bobby Brown on the A-list fast track -- at least for Netflix.)

I don't know about you, but it's also pretty rare these days I actually start and finish a movie without interruption. Even if you don't have small kids like me, you probably pause or take breaks for the bathroom, snacks, pet interruptions, or just because you're tired and figure you'll finish the rest on your next lunch break. 

This is a terrible way to watch movies, and to be a movie-watcher. You really have to be enveloped in the experience to get the full effect. Think of symphonies played in the middle of a busy city street. 

Some creative works don't translate to the little screens. Not just the big spectacles, but smaller and quieter films like "A Ghost Story."  In the theater I found it languid and beguiling, but on our phone at 11 p.m.? I doubt few people would make it to the end.

(And that's a dirty little secret the streaming services would rather you didn't know about.)

This is reflected not just in the shows/movies and the audience, but also the journalism covering it. There used to be, at most, something 100 people who made a living from film criticism. Probably a couple dozen now. (No, Lester, sleeping in your grandma's basement while collecting $11k a year from your website that you pad out with rideshare driving is not "a living.")

Film criticism has (d)evolved from a rarefied craft to a hobby. I say that without snobbery; I've always been a back-bencher myself who never made more than a small side income from this.

Now there's thousands of critics and not one of them, or even a hundred put together, has the cultural influence of an Ebert of Siskel, or even a Travers or Maltin. We have too many things to watch and too many ways to watch and too many pro-ams writing/yakking about them.

If this seems like an elitist viewpoint, that's because it is. We had better movie/shows imho when there was a narrower funnel creative projects had to squeeze through and hence more oversight of what did or didn't get made, especially on the screenwriting side.

The two most common -- even prevalent -- problems I see in movies today are 1) they're too long, and 2) the script needed a few more rewrites. With 1) often being the result of 2). 

Oh, and the role of editors has been drastically undercut in recent years. Call it the Tarantino Effect. Studios too afraid to say, "No, your movie doesn't need to be 2 hours 47 minutes long." But with streaming/video the dominant distribution, length isn't as much a concern so theaters can squeeze in four showings a day instead of three.

The sum product of all this is to make film seem so much more... disposable. I have long bragged that I've never walked out of a movie theater, but I sure as hell have turned off streaming movies 20 minutes in, or even much later. 

I laughed so hard at Spike Lee's indulgent, lazy "Da 5 Bloods" that I flipped it off -- right at the unintentionally comical "He even walks backward pigeon-toed" part, in case you're curious -- and doubt I'll ever go back, even if it gets Oscar nominations in what will surely be the weakest year in film awards history.

Speaking of, the two critic groups I belong to -- the Indiana Film Journalists Association and Critics Choice Awards (formerly Broadcast Film Critics Association) -- are still planning to give out our annual awards, and it's going to be an interesting process. I'm hoping some of the lower-budget Oscar hopefuls will still come out to vie in a sparse field. 

So, wither movies? I wish I could say. I don't blame anyone who doesn't want to risk going to a theater right now, though compared to other activities people are engaging in quite frequently -- indoor dining, gyms, large political rallies or protests -- sitting in a sparely populated cinema is fairly safe with proper masking and distancing.

Seismic shifts are called that because change can happen incrementally over a long time, but we don't really notice it until there's a sudden, large movement that drops a bunch of homes and cars into a pit. I fear that's what's happening with film right now. As viewing habits rapidly shift to what we used to call "home video," the communal experience of participating in a big event with hundreds of others is likely to become much rarer.

From where I sit I think the studio bean-counters are seriously misjudging the situation. They'd be smarter to keep a steady stream of lower-budget releases to keep the hardcore and heavy-casual fans engaged in the exhibitor platform, and push out an occasional "Wonder Woman" or "Dune" even if it doesn't rack up big numbers. They're so afeared of taking a $200 million write-down that they're endangering the entire future of their industry.

People stopped going to museums in large numbers when it became possible to replicate high-quality images of the art in other, more convenient but less spiritually satisfying ways. We're all poorer, and can get much poorer still.

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