This Year Was a Disaster. We Hope the Sequel Is Better.
There is usually a ton of big releases and a blizzard of Oscar speculation around the end of December. But with the Academy Awards postponed and many theaters closed or half empty, this film year ends with a shudder of existential fear in Hollywood and beyond. In 2020, Netflix expanded its reach and two of the surviving legacy studios – Warner Bros. and Disney – stepped up their streaming platforms. This is the latest sign of a change in business strategy that is likely to outlast the pandemic. Shortly before 2021, our critics are examining the film industry in crisis and wondering what the future might look like.
AO SCOTT Is this the end of going to the movies as we know it? You and I are unable to predict, and since we are film history students we know that film deaths are old, false news. Early death notices have been filed about every ten years at least since the clay hit. The art form has changed constantly, as has the way we consume it: “As We Know It” includes movie palaces, drive-ins, grindhouses and multiplexes; and also network TV movies of the week, VHS, Blu-ray and now streaming.
Still, the situation feels different at the moment, maybe more catastrophic. I don’t doubt that after the pandemic, people will want to go back to the cinemas, as well as in restaurants, nightclubs, concert halls and bowling alleys. But a change in the industry that was underway before Covid-19 appears to have accelerated. We have sometimes used “the studios” as a slightly anachronistic synonym for Hollywood. Are we entering the age of “platforms”?
MANOHLA DARGIS Good Morning Sunshine! I hesitate to offer any great divination, but we know that films, or rather the American film industry, are in an ongoing crisis. In the past, the industry has always found a way to circumvent recent calamities, often by exploiting (or even absorbing) perceived threats such as television. The threat posed by streaming is of a different magnitude: the internet has changed everything, including the way people see entertainment. The rest is history and a few million dollars for Jeff Bezos.
We’ve talked a lot about how the pandemic accelerated this final shift, even if the bigger change came with the advent of home video. As soon as people could choose what to see, when they wanted, the old days were over (again). Depending on who you speak to, the films themselves – or at least how the newest generation understood what “the films” meant – were over. I’m old enough to remember when Steven Soderbergh made films that opened in theaters. They were events and exciting. I couldn’t wait to see them. Now he’s dropping a movie about HBO Max and I’m like, “Huh, I think I should see this one day.”
SCOTT Glad you mention Soderbergh who was a thoughtful observer of the industry despite having worked in almost every corner of the industry. For over three decades he has made small and medium-sized indie films, large studio franchises, premium cable series, self-distributed passion projects, and now features directly related to streaming. When some of his colleagues, notably Christopher Nolan, raged against Warner Bros.’s decision to have its 2021 films simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters, Soderbergh was more confident and saw a short-term economic fix rather than a tectonic shift in business. “The theater business is not going away,” he told The Daily Beast. “There are too many companies that have invested too much money in the prospect of making a movie that will explode in theaters – there is nothing like it.”
True enough. There’s no better way to make a billion dollars – or get back an investment of hundreds of millions – than to get a global blockbuster out in theaters. And Disney and Warners will likely carry on in this business, along with all the other old studios that are left when the theaters are full again.
But what about the small and medium sized films that depend on the theater system to find their audience? They follow a path that begins at festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto, where critical enthusiasm can spark early interest. Then they open in some cities, build word of mouth through reviews and media coverage, and eventually – if everything goes right – reach a wider audience and potentially win some awards. Parasite followed this pattern, as did Moonlight, and I don’t know if these films would have had the same impact or success if they had been dependent on digital release.
DARGIS Neither of them would have had the same effect if they had bypassed the theaters. In the US they teased their distributors wonderfully: “Moonlight” opened in four theaters and “Parasite” opened in three, which caused a frenzy among certain moviegoers and let the films drip, drip, drip into cultural consciousness until Oscar night. This slow rollout is in complete contradiction to the Binge-It-Now ecosystem of, for example, Netflix, which algorithmically forwards you to the next object to watch before you’re done with any of its offerings.
The life cycle of a streaming movie is different from that of a show like The Crown. When a new season starts, the PR machine starts over. It’s like the show has been reborn. There’s a new round of media coverage, more reviews and features. Non-franchise movies fade out faster and at best can look forward to being featured in a streaming manual with 49 other titles. The independent film ecosystem has always been incredibly fragile. It’s hard to make and release in a Disney-dominated world. Independent films need to be brought into our collective minds. On Netflix, they become another platform loss leader alongside David Fincher.
SCOTT It can seem grumpy to complain about Netflix – and perhaps hypocritical, considering how much comfort and distraction it has brought in this fearful, homebound year. The company has acquired and produced an impressive variety of films, including some that may never have got the green light for the studio. Even with Fincher’s influence and reputation, Mank would have been a difficult task – a story about a writer who drinks a lot and meets his deadline, in black and white. But it found a home next to “Cuties”, “The Queen’s Gambit”, “Hillbilly Elegy” and 800 indistinguishable Christmas “originals”. Let the algorithm sort them out!
Netflix sells subscriptions, not tickets. The goal is to have a variety of things available that will entice as many people as possible into paying a monthly fee to have access to all of this. HBO Max and Disney + compete on this terrain, but individual films that are played in theaters or on video-on-demand platforms are severely disadvantaged. A single ticket costs roughly the same as a month of streaming before popcorn or parking.
If the theaters are to survive, going to the cinema has to be more than just Netflix outside of the company, meaning the aesthetic and cultural differences between film and television may need to be articulated again. Not only can going to the movies be a negative decision, it can also be a decision not to stay home and stream.
DARGIS But what does it mean to have a “home” on Netflix? It’s like saying a movie has found a home in a huge video store, with comedy in this section, action here, and porn behind the curtain – but now with algorithms. As critics, we tend to focus on the film as an object that is somehow not tied to the viewing conditions. In the past we saw new films in multiplexes with crowds and in smaller projection rooms with colleagues. We watched with defined start and end times, silenced the speakers and didn’t take a break.
The pandemic has intensified that watching things at home changes your relationship with the object. I guess that’s why I’m not really interested in the differences between film and television. There is a lot of bad TV and a lot of bad movies that look like bad TV. They are yak festivals with big heads and emotions, predictable storylines and no edges, and their future is certain, as are blockbusters. As for, films that cannot be viewed while we review our texts are: avant-garde cinema, hard and long documentaries, serious dramas, foreign language films, anything that requires attention, patience and time. I worry about what is not easy to observe.
SCOTT Like you, I’m less concerned about the fate of blockbusters – big money always finds a way – than about movies that are too quiet, too slow, too disturbing, or too strange to watch at home. Including some of our 2020 favorites such as City Hall, Beanstalk, Collective and First Cow. Going to a theater can mean leaving your comfort zone and reaching the limits of your own tastes. Your television will surely exist within these limits and in the literal comfort zone of your living room. Challenging movies can slip to the bottom of the queue too easily, neglected like unread books on the bedside table or glasses of exotic mustard on the back of the refrigerator.
DARGIS I mean, yes, blockbusters are important because they are critical to the remaining big studios. Some of my concerns about the studios are nostalgia for the good (if bad) old days, but I also continue to hope they ditch their current business model (ha!) Which is focused on the same big failures rather than product differentiation. It wasn’t long ago that some of them produce and distribute smaller films that are now going straight to HBO Max (and hello again, Mr. Soderbergh). But yes, I can imagine that Wonder Woman will survive this year.
But what about films like Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow”? It opened in four theaters to great reviews on March 6, just weeks before New York and Los Angeles closed. It landed on VOD in July, earlier than in pre-pandemic times. This was welcome news for those who wanted to see a contemplative film about two men and a cow as early as the 1820s, one of the most dramatic scenes about stealing milk. But for a movie like this to reach the non-cinephile, it takes time to reach heads that are already distracted, viruses or no.
The virtual cinema model that emerged during the pandemic was a great idea, but it’s not always intuitive to use and certainly not as easy as clicking on an app. What is needed is a one-stop, virtual indie megaplex, much like the independent film version of bookshop.org, an easy-to-use e-commerce website that helps small businesses. The pandemic is not over yet and we still have many hours at home before we can go to the movies again.