Film Industry Changes That Are (Maybe) In The Offing
When this pandemic is finally over, the world will have changed in a number of ways. Like instead of shaking hands, from now on we may just exchange friendly waves from a six-foot distance. (Also, Tom Hanks won't be allowed to leave his house except for in a padded hazmat suit, because he's an American treasure goddammit.) Movies, too, will undoubtedly change forever -- and not just because next year's Best Picture Oscar will probably go to Sonic the Hedgehog from sheer lack of competition. We have some guesses as to what the future of the film industry might look like, starting with ...
We Could See Way More Low-Fi Indie Movies
Pretty much every major movie and TV production has shut-down at this point, from The Batman to Batwoman to other projects that don't feature people dressing up like bats. While Hollywood has a backlog of finished projects ready for movie theatres when they aren't as empty, studios still won't release them immediately after the pandemic subsides. Big-budget blockbusters like Mulan and Black Widow will likely be given "two or three weeks of lead time" once theatres reopen in order to build-up hype. They'll also likely "test the waters" of public interest with mid-budget or microbudget films first.
Not only is this an opportunity to highlight smaller films, but super-small films are the only kind of movie that can be made right now. It may be some time before giant crews are able to assemble; but a lot of us have tiny movie cameras housed inside of our phones. With so many folks locked down, but with access to iPhones, could we see a wave of low-fi feature films? Kind of like Dogme 95, the Danish film movement co-created by Lars Von Trier? (But fueled by a global pandemic instead of just pretentiousness?)
It's already happening to a certain extent; Shazam director David F. Sandberg made a short horror film starring his wife while quarantined.
Lots of features have been shot on iPhones, including films by Steven Soderbergh, director of Contagion -- you know, the movie we're currently all bit-players in. So go ahead and make a movie set inside your home starring family or pets, it could be your own janky-looking King Lear. Hey, we're not getting that Avatar sequel any time soon.
Only Blockbusters Will Go to Theatres
And as much as we'd like to see smaller films do well, this crisis may eventually accelerate an already growing trend: only hugely expensive movies play on the big screen. The theatrically-lucrative mid-budget flick is such a rarity these days, the world was positively gobsmacked at the success of Knives Out, a movie that literally starred James Bond and Captain America. Warner Bros. has already "started to divert" its mid-budget releases to streaming platforms. Disney's strategy similarly involves releasing smaller movies straight to Disney+ and putting only the giant franchise pictures out in theatres. In light of the pandemic, it's doubtful this trend will change; if anything studios will double down on this arrangement. Hollywood's existing business model involves pouring money into potential billion dollar blockbusters, using funds from their last hit movie -- which seems less like a sensible business plan and more like a senior citizen who spent their entire pension check on scratch-and-win tickets.
So with the film industry set to lose tens of billions of dollars during this shutdown, studios won't try to recoup their losses with less profitable products. And during the shutdown, more modestly-budgeted new movies have been released straight to video-on-demand, further cementing it as the home for non-giant-explosion movies, while potential blockbusters like Black Widow and Fast and Furious 9 have, instead, been delayed. When movie theatres reopened in China (before re-closing) they underscored the point that cinemas are home to big-budget spectacle, re-releasing past blockbusters like The Avengers series instead of, say, movies where people grab a bite to eat with a dude named Andre.
Summer Movies Might Not Be a Thing Anymore
For some reason, when the weather gets sunny and warm is when we typically like to spend our days inside a darkened room watching flickering images of other people doing stuff that frankly looks exhausting. The summer movie season wasn't really a thing until Jaws. Before that, studios were wary of releasing movies in the summer because audiences were typically "at the beach or the pool." Jaws changed all that-- not only by making swimming seem like a terrifying bloodsport, but through its irregular nationwide release and giant advertising budget, which gave studios a template for how to market movies in the summertime.
This was soon followed by Star Wars and every movie containing the words "Michael" and "Bay." But now it seems like this summer won't be as movie-filled as most. A lot of upcoming blockbuster releases are being delayed, often to dates that aren't in the summer; Ghostbusters: Afterlife has been rescheduled for next March, and Top Gun 2 will come out on December 23 -- because what could be more Christmasy than air strikes and gratuitous beach volleyball scenes?
Even more dramatic could be the giant gaping void that is summer 2021. Every blockbuster set to open next summer has been delayed; the new Mission: Impossible movie, Jurassic World: Dominion, The Matrix: Generic Subtitle to Be Determined. When these movies are able to complete filming, their release dates will likely be spread throughout the year.
Movies are Going to Try and Hit Every Demographic
A lot of the most profitable Hollywood projects of all-time have been "four-quadrant" movies-- stories that appeal to men and women, both young and old. A movie like Titanic is a great example of this; a movie about young love starring a teen heartthrob set against the backdrop of a History Channel re-enactment. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have pretty much perfected this tactic. Take Spider-Man: Homecoming which cast both Zendaya and Michael Keaton, or Captain America: Winter Soldier which found our fresh-faced heroes battling Robert Redford (a.k.a. your mom's hall pass).
If Hollywood is going to try and recoup its massive losses, we wouldn't be surprised if every tentpole movie in the next few years is similarly calibrated to appeal to as many demographics as possible. Which on one hand, can be a good thing; diverse movies with broad appeal aren't inherently bad. But it also means that studio releases will likely only continue to become increasingly familiar and less idiosyncratic, presumably until they kill Martin Scorsese once and for all.
Movie Theatre Chains are Going to Become Theme Parks, Possibly Owned by Studios
Unfortunately, there's no cure for the coronavirus that involves injecting your eyeballs with a 90-minute dose of Keanu Reeves gunning down Russian mobsters -- meaning movie theatres are in big trouble. AMC theatres will likely file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and some are wondering if movie theatres will even be a thing in the future. Assuming that theatre chains survive this pandemic, what steps will they go to in order to stay in business? We're guessing it will involve more gimmicks.
Theatres have already been trying to bolster profits by adding premium experiences like IMAX and other large format screens. Not to mention D-BOX (which shakes you around) or 4DX (which, in addition to motion, adds water effects and even smells, for those of you who want your theatre filled with Kylo Ren's B.O.).
Some theatres even have friggin' playgrounds inside the theatre, so kids can watch a Pixar movie while running around like Legends of the Hidden Temple contestants. In 2018, Canada's biggest theatre chain, Cineplex, got 44% percent of their box office revenue from "premium" tickets. They also added arcades in most theatres as part of their "diversification strategy." If these measures were employed sparingly before, in the face of this latest economic calamity we might only be able to see mainstream movies with a bunch of pricey bells and whistles added. Theatres as low-key amusement parks could very well become the standard.
As for who owns the theatres? That, too, could change. In 2019 the Department of Justice announced that it was planning to overturn the Paramount consent decrees, antitrust laws enacted back in 1949 that prevented movie studios from owning theatre chains. Meaning that movie studios could potentially buy some of these troubled theatres, which they're seemingly champing at the bit to do. In 2018 when the DOJ only hinted at reversing these laws, both Netflix and Amazon attempted to buy the Landmark Cinema chain. Unfortunately, this has a laundry list of negative consequences for moviegoers -- it would hurt independent theatres, stonewall smaller releases, and if, say, Disney owned a theatre chain, what would prevent them from releasing Marvel movies only on their screens? And what would prevent them from charging more pre-ticket for Avengers VII: Mission to Moscow?
If you're not alarmed yet, the reason why movie studios were able to create that problematic monopoly in the first place was, in part, due to the 1918 flu pandemic. In 1919, the head of Paramount "started aggressively buying out as many closed or on-life-support movie houses as he could find." So a year from now you could very well find yourself sitting in an Netflix-branded theatre watching the newest Adam Sandler flick while your seat vibrates like a broken washing machine.
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Top Image: Marvel Studios