How Coronavirus is Speeding Up Changes to the Film Industry

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Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

In the context of the dramatic societal changes, illness and loss of life that has accompanied Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), film releases are minor considerations moved well into the background. Still, studios are forced to take radical steps to account for the sheer inability of moviegoers to leave their homes to go to the theater. The immediacy of streaming directly to the home, the phone and device has been rapidly coming for years. Now, through a global pandemic, it’s a necessity rather than a choice.

Theatergoers who enjoy watching films on the big screen will always be willing to do so, especially with IMAX and 3D currently not an option at home. However, that too will eventually change as technology advances as it always does with people able to watch films at home with most of the amenities they can get in a theater. They will also be blessed with the ability to turn around and tell a fellow viewer who can’t stop talking to shut up with a lesser likelihood of getting stabbed than there is when doing so with a fellow theatergoer who cannot shut his or her cellphone off or won’t stop yapping in a theater. It will be less expensive too.

Now though, the film industry from top to bottom has been thrown into suspended animation due to COVID-19. The impact will depend on a myriad of factors. To continue providing content that was scheduled to be in theaters and get some return on investment, streaming services like Amazon, YouTube and Google Play are making films available far earlier than normal. That does not mean studios are panicking and releasing all films this way. It is noteworthy and illuminating to see which films have been moved, which are being released to account for the lock-down, and how it can impact the entire industry sooner than expected.

Films like The Invisible Man, Birds of Prey, Bloodshot and Emma are all available now. The cost to rent them is high at $20, but if it is a replacement for people who would otherwise have gone to see these films in the movies, it isn’t costlier. In fact, if there were several people going to see it and a family, streaming it is cost-effective despite the diminished experience from not seeing it at the movies.

The studios have clearly analyzed the films, the star power involved, how much it cost to make and what the expected gross would be and decided whether it was worth it to stream movies that were set to be released during quarantine and if releasing them or moving them was the better strategy. Like Vin Diesel’s Riddick obsession, Bloodshot is another vehicle that might or might not have caught hold. This is a drastic difference between his role in The Fast and the Furious series. The latest planned installment, F9, was moved to 2021. While the series elicits eye rolls from non-fans due to its preposterousness, it has its built-in audience that will go and see whatever they put out if there’s lots of speed, explosions, an over the top villainy and hand-to-hand combat.

This illustrates the “they’ll go see it anyway” theory to which too many filmmakers have adhered. The Terminator series is a prime example of what happens when a previously successful concept meets disputes over film rights, different incarnations and a final desperate attempt to “return” to the original for a dwindling audience of people who remember that original in the first place. The last film, Terminator: Dark Fate was a bomb. The return of Linda Hamilton to a film that was supposedly the linear connection to the original two films The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The problem was that there were multiple films, television shows and more related to the story with some being quite entertaining. Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor might have been welcomed even as recently as 2005 or so, but the actress was semi-retired and needed to be coaxed back into the role with a chunk of the intended audience saying, “Who?” or shrugging off her return.

Would it have been as big a bomb had it been available for immediate viewing at home? The profit would be less were that the case, but the “bomb factor” could have been mitigated. People had either grown tired of the convoluted and ever-changing storylines or simply no longer cared enough to spend the money to go see it. Filmmakers will need to look at their project objectively and not adhere to the views of sycophants when determining what steps to take.

Films that are essentially guaranteed winners like the latest James Bond installment No Time to Die, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, and Peter Rabbit 2 were all moved so they could be released to theaters. Doing so was a safe bet.

The films that will be most impacted are the period pieces, potential surprise hits, independent films and the lower-tier concepts that are a labor of love with few expectations and sometimes end up finding an audience. With the home viewership, they might rise to the top and it could end up being easier than to try to get that same result from a theater.

The reaction to the theaters being shut down and the need for studios to put into action backup plans that may previously have been limited to “eventually” has sparked this debate. “Eventually” is here. Even in this content-rich world, people are locked in their homes with limited alternatives to stay engaged and entertained without repetition. The Corona-inspired lockdown has sped the concept of “going to the movies at home” and kicked open a door that was incrementally opening anyway. It could be the saving grace for many films that might otherwise have been swallowed up without a viewership they deserved.