We all love films. It’s what unites us. And you don’t need me to tell you: life as we know it has changed completely. Watching Hollywood all but completely implode over the past month or so has been a surreal phenomenon. All walks of life have been impacted by the spread of the virus but the film industry is arguably one of its biggest victims; and further to that, it is our cinemas that have been and will be hit the hardest.
While the bigger studios will quickly get back up and running again once the world gets back on its feet – with the numerous delayed productions rushing to meet predetermined dates – the future looks far less secure for the exhibitors who screen those projects. When the threat is gone and our lives begin to revert to normal (or a new normal, whatever that looks like) our cinemas will open their doors again and welcome us back in. But what on earth will they be showing?
Films were rescheduling themselves long before the cinemas officially closed when the lockdown was imposed. No Time To Die set a precedent by flying the nest first, followed quickly by the sequel to A Quiet Place and then Peter Rabbit bolted. Even that handful sent exhibitors queasy with nerves – but now, with almost everything completely uprooted and some, like Sony Pictures, completely exiling their summer slate to the perceived safety of 2021 – it’s an even murkier scenario for cinemas seeking a box office hit.
As of the moment of publication, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the only major release not to reschedule, following Disney Pixar’s Soul recent departure from June. The writer-director of the Warner Bros blockbuster hopeful has been a long advocate of the cinema experience, releasing a beautifully-penned letter attesting that he would stand shoulder to shoulder with the cinemas that present the film as he made it – it would be foolish not to think that the man has stood his ground here, offering the faintest glimmer of light to exhibitors at the end of a dark tunnel.
It is a brave, admirable and potentially dangerous decision. There’s great potential for the first big film opening when the cinemas fling their doors open – assuming people aren’t too nervous about returning to public spaces. Tenet is holding its ground for as long as possible, scraping together the little that could remain of a “summer box office”. It’s tentative, a delay is not out of the equation whatsoever, but it’s something to hang on to.
Because each and every delayed title gives general audiences one less incentive to go back to the multiplexes, each studio to pull their films is eliminating a cashflow that would see our cinemas stabilise quicker. Again, we shouldn’t blame studios too much for this, it’s both a call for public health and safety and to protect their profits, but there is no real point in delaying movies if there are no cinemas to show them when this is all done.
This is not simply about the schedule clearing itself for the foreseeable future either. Further complicating matters for cinema owners has been the rush from distributors with titles playing in the multiplex when they shuttered to shift new releases online – some after only having played in auditoriums for a matter of days. In the UK, everything from The Invisible Man to Misbehaviour, Birds of Prey to Bloodshot has been screened on demand, for audiences to buy or usually rent from their own home at a premium price.
Desperate to plug their losses, studios have quickly mobilised to (perhaps rather cynically) capitalise on the cinema closures, excited by the prospect of an increased number of eyes on the small screens and plenty of spare time on people’s hands. Many of these features had theatrical life left in them, almost all of which will have been stifled by their digital relocation. It is uncertain whether cinemas will be willing to show these titles when they return, with many breaking the sixteen-week theatrical window, which usually prevents a film from landing on digital download, streaming or physical release less than four months after its cinema debut, in order to protect cinemas and offer exclusivity to them. Already the cinema-studio bond has been put under great strain.
According to a source with industry contacts though, Universal has supposedly earned the most of the ire from within the industry over their Trolls: World Tour tactics. The animated sequel was expected to debut in theatres in April but, in a shock move, was announced to be premiering at home, skipping the cinema completely. It’s a move that has broken an implied contract and caused anger from cinema chains in particular, with them losing out on a film that would have brought families back to the tune of $300 million – if it performs anything like its predecessor, that is. If it’s caused as much tension as to be believed, Universal – responsible for the Jurassic World franchise, the Fast and Furious saga and Blumhouse productions among many – will struggle to regain trust, and could receive reduced scheduling when our cinema slate becomes more competitive again.
There are some studios supposedly willing to help out. In China, as cinemas were initially reopening, there were discussions for the studios to reduce the percentage of the ticket sale they took. In the UK, an average of 40% is taken from each ticket sale by the studios, with the remaining 60% staying with the cinema. A reduced percentage would see venues maintain a bigger portion of the fees, helping them to get back on their feet quicker. We can hope that studios are willing to follow suit in the UK, but there’s no assurance that audiences will be willing to return to their multiplexes anyway, and certainly not in big numbers, with such a small handful of titles likely to be scheduled for the first two months or so after the doors open.
Another option would be for studios to open their vaults to older favourites returning to the big screen, it would at least fill the screens with something. The unveiling of Disney+, featuring their biggest family-friendly hits and many of the acquired 20th Century Fox titles, complicates this however, and could potentially remove the attraction of their recently-launched service.
It is crucial that we do not become complacent. You and I, who likely live and breathe the cinemagoing experience, will relish the opportunity of going to our local picture-house when we next can, but with so much new digital content now at our fingertips, the fear would be that going to the cinema is viewed as an unnecessary luxury and people begin reducing the frequency of their visits. The rise of the new streaming services on the scene was already somewhat concerning by guaranteeing these films a streaming home within months of exiting theatres, but this situation has arguably brought deeper scrutiny over the value of a cinema trip.
I don’t know what you do. I genuinely do not. But films are a team effort, from the writers and directors and artists that craft the product, to the distributors who ensure that it is seen as widely as possible, to the cinemas who exhibit the weird and the wonderful, the blockbusters and the art house. It’s so, so, so important that these bodies are working to save the ecosystem of Hollywood because, frankly, none of them could survive without the other.
Cinemas are facing an insurmountable challenge here, one that puts their very existence in jeopardy. While the studios hold most of the power here, there are a couple of things you can do if you are in the financial position to do so: think about purchasing a gift card or membership to your local indie theatre; it will give our beloved theatres some form of cash flow during this difficult time and you’ll receive all the benefits when the doors are open again and we’re invited back, as well as, I’m sure, their undying love and appreciation. Additionally, some have fundraisers ongoing that would appreciate any pennies or pounds, and others have released merchandise as well.
Hollywood, be there for your cinemas. Studios, be there for your cinemas. They need you as much as you need them. And, after this, we’ll certainly need them too.