Is it the end of cinemas?
For the past four decades or so, the world has been enamored with the concept of what we have come to know as summer blockbusters. In 1975, Steven Spielberg unofficially invented the concept with his summer smash Jaws and global pop culture has not been the same since. In the ensuing years, summer blockbusters, i.e., the moviegoing experience, have become a staple of summer social life in many countries. And, naturally, this period has become a golden goose for movie theater owners, distributors, and big Hollywood studios, raking in roughly 40% of the year’s total haul.
So you can imagine their consternation when the year 2020 came around with COVID-19 in tow. The pandemic effectively put a kibosh on the revenue festivities, slicing global box office sales to 70% of what they were the previous year as theaters were closed for months following COVID measures. In North America, historically the world’s biggest market for movie releases, earnings totaled $176 million last summer. Compared to the previous summer season, that is a 96% decrease. And as a whole, last year the North American box office plummeted to its lowest tally since 1981.
But the film industry is looking to make the 2021 summer season a return to form in the U.S. and beyond as COVID cases have dropped significantly, vaccination rates have reached somewhat reassuring levels, and theaters are kicking their reopenings into high gear in key cultural capitals like New York and Los Angeles.
It is going to be an interesting summer
This is all happening just in time because there is no shortage of movies this summer season. The list of releases spans 2020 awards season re-releases and a slew of Hollywood tentpoles — big-budget movies whose earnings are expected to compensate studios for their less profitable movies.
And with budding hits like A Quiet Place Part II, Cruella, and In The Heights on the docket to kick off the season, the odds of recouping losses are looking good. To top it off, F9, the ninth installment of the Fast & Furious franchise, also made its debut in international markets last week and generated USD$162.4 million. That constituted the best opening of a Hollywood film since the pandemic began. If this international run is any indication, there will likely be more beaucoup bucks where that came from when it hits the U.S. and Canada on June 25th.
All of this has Hollywood boldly optimistic about movie theater attendance this summer, despite having suffered a topsy-turvy year of high hopes and false starts. In fact, so emphatic is their optimism that many prominent figures in the film industry came together last week Wednesday for a four-hour presentation about their love of the cinema at a Los Angeles AMC theater.
At this event, a dozen movie studios dropped previews of their summer movie offerings between the speeches of high-profile speakers — among them Arnold Schwarzenegger and uber-film director and producer J.J. Abrams — who took the stage. The core and oft-repeated message of the presentation? “The Big Screen Is Back.”
The streaming platform boom is a major factor
The optimism is certainly warranted, but is it grounded? After all, there are some caveats to all this fanfare. There is still the matter of streaming services — mega streaming platforms like Netflix, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime Videos have reigned supreme in recent years and even more so during theater shutdowns. Furthermore, every major studio, with the exception of Sony, now has an affiliated streaming service.
Disney’s highly anticipated Cruella, for example, will be hitting movie theaters in the U.S. today but will simultaneously be available on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ for USD$29.99 (and it is not the only movie that will have this kind of release this season).
Adding to this, with Amazon having bought MGM Studios this week for a cool USD$8.45 billion — which will bring classic Hollywood franchises such as James Bond and Rocky to Amazon’s Amazon Prime Videos — the power of the stream continues to swell.
But that’s not all, there is another footnote to the comeback of the big screen — movies will run in theaters for only 45 days, cutting the decades-old 90-day theatrical window smoothly in half. And this is beside the other damages inflicted by COVID, which other parts of the world are feeling as well.
COVID has gravely altered the landscape of European cinemas
Cinemas in three of Europe’s biggest film markets — France, Italy, and the U.K. — are proving to be a bit uncongenial to Hollywood’s advances at the moment. France, Europe’s biggest theatrical market in terms of admissions, reopened its cinemas last week Tuesday with an audience capacity of 35% and a 9 p.m. curfew, limiting screening times. Over in the U.K., theater capacity is a factor as well, at least until June 21st, when COVID measures are expected to be relaxed. Fortunately, the same goes for France. In these countries, local releases are doing a decent job in sparking interest among audiences in anticipation of when theater capacity increases in late June.
Italy, however, is another animal. While the country is momentarily also dealing with limited seating capacity and a curfew, which will also be relaxed later in the season, the biggest recalcitrants to box office sales there are Italian producers and distributors. Many of them appear to be unhelpfully reluctant to release hotly anticipated Italian productions to cinemas to warm the public up to moviegoing again. They seem to favor streaming platforms. This may leave audiences there cold to the arrival of American blockbuster offerings as the season progresses.
Conversely, the narrative could not be more dissimilar in the Asia-Pacific region, another important film market. Earlier in the year, there were already reports of audiences there rushing back into theaters in droves after they reopened, whipping up record box office numbers. In China, box office returns for the first 10 days of January were more than 50% compared to the same period last year. Japan, Taiwan, and many other countries in the region were also recording record attendance. Even India was experiencing a surge in theater-going before its COVID situation took a disastrous tumble. And, mind you, this region was facing similar challenges with its cinemas — last year COVID forced theaters there to shut down and caused many worries in the region’s movie business as well. So this bounceback tale certainly gives a counterpoint to the ‘Death of Cinema’ maxim.
It could go either way
If we are to believe the Hollywood notables at the Los Angeles AMC last week, the audience is chomping at the bit to get back into theaters. J.J. Abrams, for one, stated that some of his best life experiences have happened in the cinema and he is thoroughly convinced that moviegoing will come roaring back this summer season.
But regardless of what Hollywood studios say, we have to face facts, the movie business may never be quite the same again. The way things are playing out in Europe is a telling indication of this. Tim Richards — CEO of European cinema giant Vue, which operates across the U.K. (90 cinemas), Poland and the Baltics (45), Italy (36), Germany (31), the Netherlands (19), and Denmark (3) — is particularly pessimistic about this summer season. He expects European film market earnings to only reach 2019 levels by the year 2023.
And truth be told, American cinemas, in particular, were already in dire straits even before the pandemic hit. Due, in part, to the rise of streaming services. This made many film executives signal that the future of moviegoing will probably involve some moviegoing and some moviestaying (watching movies at home). Small wonder then that this year many movies will be rolled out in theaters and on streaming simultaneously. In several instances, the theater part will be bypassed altogether.
But we mustn’t call a time of death on the cinema experience just yet, the Asian theater-going rebound has proven that. And it is still going strong — of the $162.4 million F9 made in international markets last week, $135.6 million came from China. And earlier this year the BBC also reported some sold-out screenings in New York when theaters started tentatively reopening there.
But the COVID era has made many fools of analysts and rash prophets so, at the end of the day, it is anybody’s guess how this will all play out. It all boils down to a matter of what will win out in the global film market — a movie-watching experience you can rewind, pause, and turn off or the mystique of watching a movie with a crowd. Ironically, we can grab our popcorn and watch which way it turns.