Thursday, December 10, 2020

Reserved Seating: What's Going On With Movies?

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who have thoughts on the evolution of cinema.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: We’re pushing back our All Pacino review a week to discuss the ramifications of the groundbreaking announcement from last week that Warner Bros. is releasing their entire 2021 slate day & date to both movie theaters and their streaming service, HBO Max. We’ve never seen a move like this before, where essentially the traditional way of seeing mainstream big-budget films is going to be to watch it on streaming platforms and not in movie theaters. Like most people, I’m mixed on the situation; however, my gut impulse is to be excited that I can watch movies sooner and not have to wait until a healthy moviegoing environment (post-vaccines) exists. The past eight months of seeing every new 2020 release at home instead of in theaters has solidified my position that the most important part for me is seeing the movie as fast as possible (legally) more so than the best moviegoing presentation. Also, being away from AMC Theaters for several months made me realize how much I disliked the evolution to homogeneity their theaters have undergone in the past 10 years. I was sick of them but had very little choice (other chains exist near me, but there’s far less of them than AMCs) on where I saw new movies. Dolby Cinema and IMAX are great, but I’d gladly replace them for the convenience of watching three new movies at home on a Saturday compared to having to go out to a theater, sit through trailers and commercials, pay for concessions and drive home in order to see something like Mulan (2020). The evolution to streaming is giving theaters an opportunity to transform and I hope they do but we’ll get into that later.

Rob, when you heard the news of Warner Bros. moving their 2021 films to be available on HBO Max, what was your reaction?
Rob: It felt inevitable, to be honest. Once Tenet stumbled domestically and Mulan was sent straight to Disney+, it was only a matter of time before one of the studios made a gigantic move like this. What’s curious to me, though, is how WarnerMedia is maintaining that this is a temporary change lasting only for the calendar year. We all know that’s bullshit, right? I understand that there’s only so much they can say publicly right now -- I’m sure there are a thousand moving parts on the business end that we’ll never know about -- but it’s not as if the movie industry as a whole hasn’t been slowly shifting toward streaming-only content for a few years, now. Major auteurs, mid-range comedies -- hell, everything that isn’t a $200M blockbuster is moving to VOD, anyway. This feels like a windfall for the major movie studios (of which there are fewer by the year) looking to have total control over their product from conception to delivery (almost a return to the vertical integration of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which is already on its way back), so I really don’t see theaters as they exist today becoming the primary distribution model again, especially once the expectation is set that a consumer will have the choice between staying home or going out. WarnerMedia may claim that the move is temporary, but once that choice is offered, the industry will have a hard time taking it away.

And look, it’s no secret that I’m not romantic about the theatrical experience. I haven’t missed it during quarantine, and I won’t miss it once it goes away for good. What I am worried about, though, is the possibility that the actual medium of Motion Pictures will slowly fade away under this new model. As David Sims notes in this piece for The Atlantic, it would take a significant number of new subscribers to match the “gross box office” profit of each major blockbuster, and so the future of the industry seems like it will go one of two ways:

1. Studios will continue to make and market hundred-million-dollar projects and maintain a profit-sharing relationship with theatrical exhibitors (once they reopen) because billion-dollar grosses are fun and energizing and appealing. They will continue to roll those grosses into new projects. Some will succeed and some will not. Same as it ever was. They will also port content directly to their streamers on an individual basis, determined, I assume, by its box office potential.

2. Studios will take this opportunity to lure new subscribers to their dedicated streaming services and then slowly taper off the big-budget risk, maintaining the viewership with longer-form episodic properties that, while not as explosive profit-wise in the short term, spread the risk over multiple IPs for multiple years. They will build subscriber bases through the same habit-tracking algorithms they’re currently using (and likely improve them using all the new data), ensuring that every consumer has their own personally curated entertainment hub.
I’m no MBA, but which one feels like a smarter business decision? Many of the non-cinephile folks I talk to during my day say they “don’t have time” for movies anymore, and they prefer the shorter-burst episodic stuff. Others say they want the binge-worthy experience of a longer narrative that isn’t hamstrung by a two-hour runtime. Wouldn’t Netflix and HBO rather keep their eyes glued on their screens for eight-to-twelve hours rather than just two? I still prefer movies to TV, but I fear they’re going to fall completely out of fashion.

On the other hand, will people really want to subscribe to a streaming service just to see a single film? Will they be willing to subscribe to ALL the services when that becomes the only option? It’s hard to tell.

Adam: One aspect I find interesting is if a studio knows roughly how much money it’s making from one of their streaming services each month, there isn’t the urgency for a movie to gross $1B dollars anymore to be considered a success. The studio just needs to keep feeding the beast to keep people around. As a result, I’m hoping that filmmakers and movie stars regain some autonomy because it’s not so much “How will this play in China” but more “We need to attract Martin Scorsese to say we’re the home of his new movie.” My hope is that some marquee value when it comes to talent returns. I think the mega-budget IP will still exist if movies are all on streaming, there will just be fewer of them which personally I’m okay with because they’ll feel special and not like appointments. Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul feel special to me in a way they probably wouldn’t if they were just another big-budget film premiering in theaters.

When you mention algorithms for some reason my brain went to curation. I understand they’re not the same thing and the latter is more innocent than the former. However, one hope I have with the move to streaming is how movie theaters will react to the new normal. I’m probably being an idealist, but I’d love it if AMC or Regal took an Alamo Drafthouse approach and made moviegoing a true special event. For example, in January I went to an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin to see a 5-movie mystery marathon called “It’s the Pitts” celebrating the career of Brad Pitt. That day I watched Moneyball, 12 Monkeys, Spy Game, Killing Them Softly and Se7en. It was the best moviegoing experience I will have all year. This is something movie theater chains can easily replicate and charge a premium price ticket that keeps butts in seats all day, ordering food. If movie theaters pivot to becoming more special event focused (or even better, use curation to build up moviegoers film history such as a series on late '60s-early '70s counterculture a punch card where you get a prize at the end) then I see a firm place for them to not only exist but also become the place movie lovers value most when seeing movies. There’s no reason movie theaters can’t function like museums - celebrating film history while also introducing new exhibits (in this case, new movies that are also on streaming) and charging based on a subscription model themselves. I’m not confident this will happen. It’s easier for businesses to become set in their ways and die out sometimes than to adapt. Just look at what happened to Blockbuster Video. But isn’t it worth a try?

Rob: I’d love to see this happen, but my cynicism about the commercial arts forces me to conclude that studios would just start buying up existing chains and using them exclusively for their new releases. It’ll be some kind of marked-up “deluxe experience,” I’m sure. Disney will turn your local AMC into a Pixar theme park, etc. I love your idea, though. It just feels too specialized toward niche audience members like you and me to be sustainable.

Adam: I don’t think studios will buy old movie theaters unless it’s a flagship like the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles or something. The move to streaming shows they don’t care about theaters as much anymore, so I find it hard to see studios investing in brick & mortar. During the pandemic, studios have been very generous offering their back catalog to theater chains to have movies to show. If they continue to do that and theaters add some curation it could be a good thing.

Outside of the convenience of being able to watch Dune or The Matrix 4 at home instead of in a theater, I’m surprised with myself by how on board I am for what could be the slow death of movie theaters. But it had to happen. Moviegoing has become so bad in recent years from being trapped in reserved seats to the disintegration of basic manners among moviegoers for the other people sharing the experience with them. Just as much as technology will always adapt (bigger screens, better sound), I’m sure a hidden reason why the perfect home theater has become so appealing over the years is because people who love watching movies can’t stand the environment they’re forced into to see movies. This was a gradual and inevitable shift and I’m pretty excited to see what happens. Aside from one of two repertory theaters in the Chicagoland area, the theaters I grew up with (and would have nostalgia for) are long gone so I’m not going to cry over the closing of a megaplex except from the standpoint of people losing their jobs.

Rob: For sure. It sucks that people will be out of work. It also sucks that a potential new generation of cinephiles won’t have that theatrical nostalgia to build from throughout their lives, but again, I’m a video store kid. My movie love came from pulling things off the shelves more than it did sitting in movie theaters, so I’m sure a new Netflix generation can find their own in similar ways.

On a related note, how are you feeling about the state of physical media? The boutique label boom is great for library titles and restorations, but do you see major studios putting new releases out on disc much longer? I got a FYC screener for Palm Springs this week, and I realized it might be the only physical copy of my favorite 2020 movie I’m likely to see.
Adam: I don’t buy as much physical media as I used to. Of my ten favorite movies from 2019, I only own copies of three of them, which would have been unheard of for me back in say, 2010. If a new movie is as memorable as The Irishman, for example, then I take the Dr. Malcolm approach (“Life finds a way”) that a boutique label of some sort will pick it up even if the major studio doesn’t go forward with a physical release. I’m a bad person to ask this question, to be honest. When I hear people concerned that their digital purchases are going to disappear, I’m like “That’s never happened to me.” And if it did and the movie meant so much to me, I would buy a physical copy. If a physical copy didn’t exist, I would be bummed for 10 minutes and then go have lunch, thankful for the ride the digital purchase gave me along the way. Plus, it’ll find it’s way onto YouTube. Every out of print movie does.

Rob: Fair enough!

Adam: Sorry for the worst answer ever. I don’t think Hulu will ever get rid of Palm Springs. These streaming services need their “originals” to build up a library, so they don’t have to spend $100M to keep episodes of Friends. That doesn’t solve the physical media problem, but maybe it does if the concern is the movie will vanish entirely.

Which Warner Bros. 2021 releases are you looking forward to the most? Are you sad we probably won’t be able to see The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard together in a theater? We can text each other during it and if I’m not replying it’s because I #WalkedOut of my home.

Rob: Dune! Not only am I sad that we won’t get to see it, but I’m also sad that the theater we saw The Hitman’s Bodyguard recently closed its doors for good. So maybe I AM emotionally invested in this whole thing? Who knows?

Adam: We’ll be back next week with our review of Wild Salome/Salome, starring Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain. Until next time…

These seats are reserved.

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