The Pandemic Changed How We Watch Movies And It's Not Going Back Anytime Soon

2021 has been as unpredictable as 2020 when it comes to the way films were released.


The arrival of the No Time To Die in two weeks feels like something of a milestone in the ongoing state of flux that is film distribution. The latest James Bond is hardly the first of 2020's delayed blockbusters to finally hit screens--F9: The Fast Saga, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and A Quiet Place: Part 2 all finally reached theaters this year. But with an original release date of April 2020, No Time To Die was one of the first films to be delayed, and the 18 months between that date and its final US debut on October 8 will be the longest wait for any major movie in the COVID era. It's also a period of time that has seen previously unthinkable shifts in the way Hollywood distributes films and how audiences consume them.

One year ago, GameSpot published this article, which tracked the events of 2020 so far, and made some predictions for what would happen next. At that stage, there were still several big movies lined up for theatrical releases in the final three months of the year. Ultimately, none of these arrived as expected--Wonder Woman 1984 debuted on HBO Max at the same time as the theaters that managed to remain open at Christmas, while Soul was sent straight to streaming. Free Guy was pushed deep into 2021, and Coming 2 America was sold off to Amazon and released months later. With no vaccine at that point and a second (or third) wave of COVID-19 about to hit many countries, the future seemed as unpredictable as at any stage of the pandemic.

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In early December, Warner drew a line in the sand with the shock announcement that it would send every single movie on its 2021 slate to HBO Max on the same day they hit theaters. This wasn't just the films expected in the coming few months, such as Wonder Woman 1984, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Mortal Kombat. It was also hugely anticipated movies that weren't due until the end of 2021--such as Dune and The Matrix Resurrections--when the world might conceivably be a very different place.

It's hard to overstate how dramatic this move was. Only a few months earlier AMC engaged in a public feud with Universal over the latter's decision to release Trolls: World Tour to streaming, and now another studio's entire multi-million dollar slate was going to direct to digital for a whole year. The fallout was considerable. Christopher Nolan condemned the move and ultimately walked away from Warner after 20 years, while Wonder Woman 1984 star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins were reportedly paid $10 million each to compensate for the loss of a wide theatrical release. Nevertheless, Warner didn't backtrack on its plan, and every single film it has released in 2021 has been made available to HBO Max subscribers on the same day they hit theaters.

While no other studio went quite as far as this, it was clear that the days of long theatrical windows were over. The pandemic has coincided with a point in time when studios are fighting it out to gain subscribers for their streaming platforms, and the lure of huge movies to drive subscriptions has proved irresistible.

Every studio has taken a slightly different approach. Disney created the Disney+ "Premier Access" tier for certain films, including Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, and Cruella, while putting Pixar's Soul and Luca on the standard subscriber version. Paramount announced that its biggest theatrical releases--such as Top Gun: Maverick--will head into Paramount+ after just 45 days on the big screen, while its Mark Wahlberg sci-fi thriller Infinite skipped theaters entirely and debuted on the service.

Universal also opted for a mixed approach, keeping huge movies such as F9 for theaters only, but making Paw Patrol: The Movie and next month's Halloween Kills available on Peacock on the day they hit cinemas. The only major studio without a streaming platform--Sony--sold some of its more family-friendly movies to Netflix (Mitchells vs The Machines) and Amazon (Hotel Transylvania: Transformania), while keeping the theatrical model for big hitters like the upcoming Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

The theatrical chains have been largely powerless to stop this dramatic shift away from a release model that they controlled for decades. For all the support that the "theatrical experience" received from filmmakers like Jenkins and Jason Reitman at the recent CinemaCon--a convention for theater owners--no one really expects the business to return to the way it was in 2019. The studios--and most importantly, their shareholders--are desperate to carve out their own space in the increasingly crowded and competitive streaming arena. Made-for-streaming originals are all very well, but it's those high-profile films that would've normally enjoyed long theatrical runs that will keep audiences from canceling their subs.

But while it's easy to see why the studios are keen to drive subscriber numbers with high-profile movies, it's hard to know exactly how the economics stack up. Unsurprisingly, few of 2021's movies have come close to the box office results that we'd have expected two years ago, and taken on those numbers alone, very few will have broken even, let alone made a profit. But of course, that's now only part of the story.

Studios are extremely reluctant to release streaming and subscription figures unless they are spectacularly good (as Disney did with Black Widow), but it's not hard to imagine that production budgets will have to come down for some films. Does spending, say, $175-$200 million on movies like The Suicide Squad or Jungle Cruise make sense in a world where the audience knows they might only have to wait a month and a half to watch it at home? Will a movie ever make $1 billion at the worldwide box office again? ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish recently made it clear that producing content for Paramount+ is an absolute priority for the company and even the biggest movies would be hitting the service after just 45 days in theaters. Such a short window would've caused outrage and boycotts from the theater chains two years ago--now it's about as good as they can hope for.

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The other issue--and cost--that studios are now potentially facing is keeping the talent happy. The fall-out from Warner's HBO Max decision was very public, and Scarlett Johansson's July lawsuit against Disney was even more dramatic. Johansson alleges that Disney's decision to make Black Widow a Premier Access title greatly reduced her expected earnings and broke her contract, leading to a surprisingly personal and widely-condemned response. But despite Disney's initially antagonistic tone, it's quite clear that the studios will have to look at alternative compensation for stars and filmmakers if box office receipts continue to be affected by streaming. Emma Stone subsequently signed a deal with Disney for a Cruella sequel that reportedly takes this into account, while Disney CEO Bob Chapek recently acknowledged that "the world is changing, and the talent deals going forward will have to reflect the fact that the world is changing."

But despite all these changes, the studios still view the theatrical experience as a vital part of their business model. Paramount pushed Top Gun Maverick to 2022 because of concerns that the surging Delta variant might affect its potentially massive box office take (which will be needed to cover its enormous budget). Conversely, the surprisingly good results for Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings encouraged Sony to move Venom: Let There Be Carnage forward several weeks to early October. Despite this difference in approach, both studios believe that a theatrical release was still by far the best option for these high-profile films.

There are obviously still a huge number of questions about what 2022 will hold. We know that Warner will revert to a theatrical-only model once more, with an HBO Max release following after a 45-day window. Equally, the future of the Disney+ Premier Access model is in question. Disney has already committed to a theatrical-only release for its six remaining 2021 movies, including Eternals and The King's Man, with a standard Disney+ release following--you guessed it--45 days later. The huge drop in box office receipts for Black Widow compared to the theatrical-only Shang-Chi was undeniable, and the short window seems, on the face of it, the best compromise between making money, adding streaming subscribers, and keeping the talent and theatrical partners happy.

But this is Hollywood in an ongoing pandemic and if the last 18 months has taught us anything, it's that predicting the future is a fool's game. Everything has changed--and it continues to change. See you in 12 months.

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