As a thorough 2000s kid, I had to wait until my treasured childhood relics really began disappearing to properly rant about “the good old days”, and at long last the day is here.
Movie theatres have been a priceless commodity all throughout my childhood – places mesmerizing in their aesthetics and presentation, from the ancient arcade cabinets to the sharp neon, to the gigantic movie theatres, going to see a movie in those days was a complete experience. It was a big event in Russia, and especially once my family migrated to America, we could watch big American movies on big American screens in big American theatres just a block away from our house.
And as many of my childhood relics, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have brought the movie theatre industry to the brink of extinction. Our movie theatre put up more of a fight than others, I admit – even tried to temporarily rebrand itself as an outdoor cafe – but with the biting chills of northeast winter that’s no longer an option. Today it sits down the block just as it did in the summer, closed and dilapidated, “BE GO D TO EACH OTHER” (somebody nicked the “O”) spelled out in the marquee as a foreboding farewell. The poster for “Parasite” still flutters on the display, running now for 14 months and counting.
Remember when the pandemic first hit, and people were still discussing whether they should fully reopen by Halloween? Remember all the feel-good summer ads from non-essential businesses promising a swift return? Optimistic underestimations of a time past.
Well, “Parasite” may have had the opportunity to make its money, but many films didn’t, and more yet 2021 releases are stuck in purgatory. Warner Bros. in particular had a busy schedule with multiple blockbusters, such as “Suicide Squad”, “Godzilla 4” and “Matrix 4” set to release this year. Their solution? Stream the release, all at once, on their Netflix imitation- I mean premier streaming service, HBO Max. The decision was as spontaneous and far-reaching as the merciless marketing (think back, you’ve definitely seen at least one ad in the past few weeks), and has sent less-than-content ripples through the movie industry.
Few decisions made by Warner Bros. however have been met with this much consistent controversy. Director Christopher Nolan, certainly an industry kingfish, went public stating he has “never seen everybody so upset with one particular industry.” In his words, the movies he and fellow actors, writers, directors and producers have worked so painstakingly on – under quarantine restrictions no less – have been reduced to “loss-leaders for a fledgling streaming service.” Other figures, such as “Suicide Squad” remaquel director James Gunn, have less vocally expressed their displeasure at the unannounced decision.
While it is perfectly reasonable for filmmakers to be upset at the loss of customer attention, revenue, and even experience that the digitization of their releases will yield, you have to see the other side of the coin. Warner Bros. have to make their money back. The entertainment industry already paid the price of excessive optimism about the lockdown lift before. With the boom of Netflix in particular as the de-facto quarantine-friendly recreational service, companies have to start making big decisions and scrambling for a niche in the digital streaming market.
And while celebrities and workers are (rightfully) dejected, you will see the move is garnering some praise online. The media coverage is too helping spread the good word, with a top headline proclaiming HBO Max the “best streaming service right now – sorry Netflix”. Entertainment-starved customers have the right to be excited, and HBO has the right to capitalize on this excitement as much as it can.
I’m not just here to notify you of an opportunity to finally watch something new – this move is crucial in a different way. Warner is releasing all of its blockbusters online – this was no light decision for them, given the IPs present here. How much money these movies rack in online will decide their strategy for future releases.
Consequences of a digitized cinema
If it fails? Adopt the conservative approach, keep sending films to movie theatres once the lockdown lifts, and get back to more-or-less the status quo.
But if it succeeds? Oh boy, this may open some floodgates. If the films in question make their money back, this will be a sign to Warner that this strategy works. It works to skip past the theatres altogether and confine all your releases to a streaming platform. This may spell early doom for the silver screen altogether, a few producer giants are all it takes for the rest of the industry to follow suit. This will alter not only how movies are made (keep in mind how many blockbusters are shot with the cinema experience in mind), but how you will access your films.
For better or worse, get ready for a future where all the new releases will be locked behind increasingly specified subscriptions. How much you want to see the latest Need For Speed versus an upcoming Disney remake (let’s face it, neither franchise is going to die anytime soon) will then ultimately depend on which service you are giving monthly money to.
The invisible hand of moviegoers
What makes this moment all the more crucial is that you, the consumer, have the final say. The businesses will follow the money, and with how pervasive the marketing has been, if the maneuver flops, Warner Bros. will only have their strategy to blame.
Which route to follow is ultimately up to you. If you like having all your media online, consider this article a notification of how you can help digitize the movie industry once and for all. If, like me, movie theatres are an important childhood relic, and a beloved pastime for you, and you don’t want to see them gone even earlier than predicted, then maybe sit this one out. “The Suicide Squad” isn’t going to go anywhere, and if the venture doesn’t start racking in digits within the first few weeks, I guarantee the company will cave. This really is an important decision for them, so rest assured Hollywood’s top executives are watching this transition with anxiety.
I love movie theatres. I love the experience, I love the ordeal, I even love its many, many inconveniences. I do not want to see them go the way of movie rentals just yet. Is my view on the situation tinted by rosey nostalgia goggles? Absolutely. Are these just the ramblings of a proverbial boomer, holding onto obsolete industries instead of letting the market evolve? That’s for you to conclude.
Contrary to my own biases, either option isn’t inherently good or bad. Just indicative of how quickly you want the wheels of market change to turn.