Corona and the Future of Cinema

In case you’ve been living on the moon for the last few months (incidentally, please let us know how you’re getting an internet signal, I can’t even manage that in my garden) you’ve probably noticed that the world is in a spot of bother right now. In fact, that might be a typically British under-sell of the current global crisis. Truth is, thousands are dying, and the world is on lock-down.

The wide-reaching implications of the ongoing pandemic are perhaps too numerous to list and are otherwise well above my pay-grade. Truth is, I haven’t the foggiest idea as to when we may be able to move freely again, and, rather worryingly, those in charge don’t seem to know much more than we do.

As I type this, The U.K. is still on complete lockdown (more or less) now into its fourth week, and with no discernible end in sight. With plenty of misinformation and hearsay flying around, it’s impossible to pin down those observations that are grounded in fact, as tends to be the case with most things, the pandemic has been sensationalised by the media, and speculation and innuendo is rife. Depending on which newspaper you read, we could be allowed out of our homes by June, or no sooner than September, and this doesn’t help unease.

But what of my particular area? What’s going on with events on my own homestead of cinema, and film production in general? Well, not a whole lot, inevitably. In fact, let’s not mince words, this pandemic is a disaster for the film industry, a business that is always in a precarious financial position due to high-stakes, high-budget gambles to begin with has been decimated by an outside cause that, quite frankly, no-one could ever foresee.

All of the cinemas are closed, so no films are making any money at the box office. Production work on future films can’t be started due to various lockdown rules, the whole industry is in limbo, and quite rightly, fearing for its own future.

It is causing studios to re-evaluate their distribution methods. With cinema releases out of the question for the foreseeable future, a few films have made their way to VOD, with notable releases such as Bloodshot, The Invisible Man and Trolls: World Tour either migrating straight from the cinema, or skipping that avenue altogether in the case of Trolls.

While traditionalists like myself will tell you that no home experience could ever beat seeing the film first in the cinema; studio executives will not be so sentimental. Especially if the VOD releases are a success.

Looking at Trolls again for a minute (a release that only saw a brief big-screen release in a few Asian markets, as well as the few drive-in cinemas), it seems to be the flag-bearer for VOD releasing right now. Sources indicate that the film has made $80 million in its first ten days on VOD, and with studios being able to reclaim a higher percentage of the profits from a VOD release than a theatrical one, it means that the film is well on track to make back its costs, if not more.

Now, the thing to bear in mind with these figures is, unlike with box office figures, which are compiled independently, a VOD chart is compiled without oversight, this is if a studio decides to publish VOD figures at all. Because of this, it’s difficult to equate at-home sales to box-office performance.

However, one such indication that the direct releases are a success is Warner Bros’ decision to change their summer release Scoob (a new animated interpretation of Scooby-Doo) to a VOD release. Both Trolls: World Tour and Scoob had potential to be big money-makers at the cinema, both films being aimed at families and being released around school holidays, and the decision to move Scoob to an exclusively on-demand release tells me that Trolls was indeed a big-hitter on VOD.

With the advent of a film being successful without the cinema, does this open an avenue for studio executives with their eye on the prize to move permanently into this framework? It remains to be seen. To be honest, and this is a completely baseless view, so take it for what you will, I think the long-established tradition of a cinema release will be a tough one to break. Even if a few films are successful on VOD, there is an undeniable stigma attached to being ‘straight-to-VOD’ that will take more than a few mild hits to shake off.

Meanwhile, other media services are doing great business while people are sat at home. Netflix has reported an additional 16 million sign-ups to its service (rumours about Carole Baskins involvement are, sadly, unfounded) an impressive number given the increase in competition for the streaming market, with Disney+ now available in most areas.

It hasn’t just gained subscriber numbers, however, as films once destined for cinemas might end up on several streaming services. Disney, for instance, have moved their summer release Artemis Fowl to an exclusive Disney+ release, skipping its once-planned big screen run; and it’s easy to see this trend continuing the longer the pandemic goes on.

Outside of VOD and streaming, the future of cinema is uncertain. Dozens, if not hundreds of films have either had their release delayed, or their entire production. With James Cameron’s long, long, LONG gestating Avatar sequels suffering a further pushback, and the seemingly doomed The New Mutants pushed back for what feels like the 100th time.

No matter the project, big or small, its fate is sealed with the virus showing no signs of slowing. Titles like No Time To Die and Furious 9 have been pushed back to November and next March, respectively, and while this isn’t likely to badly affect the larger franchises, it’s easy to see why certain studios might be worried for their financial stability.

Will cinema even be relevant when all this is over? Will immediate VOD releases have rendered a big screen run obsolete? Especially in an age where most households have a large enough TV set-up, it looks grim for the humble cinema’s immediate future.

As I say, the routine of a cinema release is likely to be a difficult one to break, while home video is a nice money spinner, it has never been the main source of profit for a film, this has always been the cinema, and I think that’s why the vast majority of distributors have chosen to delay, rather than release on demand, because there’s a lot of money to be left on the table.

Thinking practically, the reason the profits are larger in cinemas is the price attached. Whereas a digital release will cost £15 and be able to be viewed over and over again by any number of people, be they family members or friends, cinema tickets are roughly £5 each, and often more expensive than that, a studio executive would much rather a family see their film in the cinema, where they’ll pay more collectively for the experience than pay one flat fee for unlimited viewings, it’s basic economics.

Realistically, for film to be tangible as a VOD-focused industry, films would need to cost £25 each, which people just won’t pay for one film, at least they won’t pay that much to watch a film at home, when they can take their family all to the cinema for a similar entry price.

Yes, the current situation is a trying time; no films are being released, none are being made either, so no money is being made, but as long as there is a string of films doing well enough on VOD, I don’t see too much reason to panic just yet. In fact, there is a chance that the pandemic might yet have unforeseen positives. By the time we are allowed to go to the cinema, we’re certainly going to need something like a cinema trip to look forward to, so more might be willing to go and see the latest blockbuster, so there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, even if we don’t truly know how far away that light might be.

For a comprehensive summary of all films affected, and their new release date, this Wiki page may be helpful:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_of_the_2019%E2%80%9320_coronavirus_pandemic_on_cinema#Films

 

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