Unless you work for Amazon, companies selling face coverings, hand sanitizers, household paper products and adhesive tape used to mark six-foot distances at retail outlets, you probably had a less than stellar 2020.
From leisure travel to sporting events, restaurants and public gatherings to hair and nail salons and everything in-between, the U.S. and global economies suffered through conditions not seen since the Great Depression nearly a century ago.
Even during the Depression, beleaguered and stressed-out citizens were able to find refuge in the dark alongside their fellow citizens while enjoying a few hours away from the often stark realities of life. With the arrival of COVID-19, the traditional movie-going experience was forever upended and will likely never be the same again.
The first and most-decisive, pro-active industry response to COVID-19 came from Universal Studios. At the time when the bulk of movie theaters were closing in March, Universal had two titles in the box office Top 10 ("The Invisible Man" and "The Hunt") and was about to release a third ("Trolls World Tour").
Rather than wave the white flag, Universal made the best of a bad situation by offering these titles on demand for $20 a pop. While "The Hunt" made a modest profit, "Trolls World Tour" took in close to $50 million and "The Invisible Man" ended up raking in over $130 million. That's not bad for a movie with a relatively paltry $7 million budget.
This move did not sit well with AMC theaters, which, in late April, announced a boycott of all future Universal titles. It will be interesting to see what happens this April when Universal plans on releasing "F9" — the latest in the "Fast & Furious" series (the most lucrative franchise in Universal history). If even still afloat, will AMC decide not show "F9" out of pure spite?
In the wake of the "F9" one-year delay, a number of other high-profile, potential blockbuster titles followed suit, all moving from 2020 to 2021. These include (in chronological release order): "The Sopranos" prequel "The Many Saints of Newark," the 25th James Bond installment "No Time to Die," the dystopian thriller sequel "A Quiet Place, Part II," Marvel's "Black Widow," the "101 Dalmatians" spin-off "Cruella," the Disney family adventure "Jungle Cruise," "Top Gun: Maverick" (actually delayed from 2019), the Peter Jackson-directed Beatles documentary "Get Back," the long-anticipated reboot of "Dune," and Steven Spielberg's eyebrow-raising remake of "West Side Story."
While not the lone 2020 hold-out, filmmaker Christopher Nolan's sci-fi thriller "Tenet" was easily the highest profile and eventually became the industry's bellwether. Adamant about receiving a 2020 theatrical-only release, Nolan eventually pressured Warner Bros. to agree on an August 26 unveiling. Usually a dumping ground for summer B-titles, August was not kind to "Tenet" and to date it has taken in a relatively embarrassing $54 million in the U.S. yet performed respectably everywhere else with a take of $293 million. It is worth noting most U.S. action movies almost always do better overseas.
For eight solid months, studios, exhibitors, members of the press and business analysts of every persuasion have been falling all over themselves while prognosticating, hypothesizing and trying to predict when the movie industry in general and specifically the theater business will return to normal. There are as many theories as there are "experts" offering them but the simple truth is the movie business will never be the same as it was prior to the arrival of COVID-19.
After the total ban was lifted in the summer, a smattering of art-house venues and independent exhibitors chose to open up while strictly observing social distancing and limiting seating to 40% of house capacity. Screening new and recent artsy stuff alongside "classic" titles such as "Back to the Future" while charging just $5 for a ticket still wasn't enough to lure back most die-hard movie fans. Some locations which offered alcohol and "finer" dining options fared slightly better but nobody was exceptionally thrilled with the results.
In October, AMC went as far as to offer package deals where up to 20 people could pay $99 for private screenings, yet were limited to roughly a dozen and a half titles, none of them made in the last decade. If you wanted something more recent – such as "Tenet" – the price would shoot up to $349, or $17.45 a head; not really that great of a deal. These offers were only for admission and did not include any chemically-drenched popcorn, mammoth-sized boxes of candy and tankards of fountain soda.
Humans are not only creatures of habit, but also beings which tend to acclimate well when given limited options. When told we couldn't leave our homes for months, we recalibrated and turned our living space into private screening rooms.
With electronics getting better and less expensive by the day, watching movies at home with more food choices, no distancing and the (highly underrated) ability to hit the pause button, not going to theaters soon went from being a hardship to a blessing, and no company capitalized on this "new normal" better than Netflix.
Beginning in 1997 as a hard-copy, DVD rental-by-mail service, Netflix's first (perhaps unintended) conquest was bankrupting Blockbuster Video, a brick-and-mortar dinosaur which, like the big studios, put all of their attention on commercial, high-profile titles. Netflix offered lesser-known, under-the-radar stuff, foreign films, documentaries and TV shows that Blockbuster had largely overlooked.
Switching over to streaming in 2007, Netflix began producing their own content in 2013 with the series "House of Cards" and eventually took the plunge and began making original feature films.
For their first few years, Netflix was considered by the big boys to be an ugly step-sister wanna-be but all of that changed in 2018 when "Roma" – a depressing, black and white, subtitled period piece – received 10 Academy Award nominations, won three and almost snared the Best Picture Oscar (barely losing to "Green Book"). With the 2020 Oscar race stalled in the starting blocks, the early favorite – if you want to call it that – is the Netflix produced "The Trial of the Chicago 7," written and directed by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "The Social Network").
As much as the studios would like for it to be true, a new calendar year is not going to change their fates. Going from a logjam trickle to a burst-the-dam flood of blockbuster hopefuls inundating theaters which are already on life support is not the answer. They can operate on 40% capacity around the clock and it still won't get them out of the red.
As much as the major studios would hate to admit it, Netflix (and to a lesser extent, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+, et. al.) have reinvented the wheel when it comes to distributing feature films. They're going to have to bite the bullet and make their precious productions available on-demand. They'll lose some perceived prestige, a bit of face and will initially recoil at the idea of following the ugly stepsister's lead but they're almost out of options.
Isn't it better to cut your losses and make back some of your investment than to continue sitting on your product and/or going back to an antiquated business model which is all but doomed to failure?
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is based in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on floridamanradio.com. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles and is one of the scant few conservative U.S. movie critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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