Shortening the theatrical window — good or bad?
A few weeks ago saw the signing of a groundbreaking deal between AMC and Universal. This deal reduced the theatrical window of films from around 90 days to 17 days. This means that just a few weeks after movies hit theaters, we will see them pop up on streaming services in some form or another.
It’s certainly a huge step in a continuing direction towards a home-centric viewing experience…but is it a good one? Is this a deal that will ultimately benefit the future of filmmaking and film viewing, or is it just a shortsighted attempt to stay alive amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
Editor-in-chief Joseph Jammer Medina discusses this with special guest Wiggins, who is a self-proclaimed cinema enthusiast. Here’s what they had to say on the matter.
Jammer: Without a doubt, this is a huge move in a certain direction. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen the theatrical window go from a year or more to just a few months. Hell, every so often, you can find a film still in theaters when it’s up for purchase on Apple TV. Those who have read and listened to my opinions know that, in the grand scheme of things, I’m all about the home experience.
Yes, theaters are great. I see animated films, blockbusters, and arthouse pictures in theaters whenever possible. But in the midst of a pandemic, there’s no way in hell I’m risking getting sick just so Nolan can sleep at night knowing Tenet is being watched in theaters. The theatrical experience can be special, but to me, I’ve had just as many special experiences viewing movies on my phone, laptop, or home theater setup. In this time of the great unknown, giving audiences the option to experience great stories without risking their health is, in my opinion, a great thing.
Keep in mind, this is looking at the concept from a purely selfish point of view. If it were up to me, we’d see no film releases outside of streaming for the next year, leaving most blockbusters for August of 2021. But since theaters and studios need to make money to make ends meet, I’d much rather shoot for the home theater option.
Wiggins: Let the games begin! My opening (and I feel, closing) argument is quite simple: the system is actually not broken and so there is no need to tinker, or fix it. And specifically this: by keeping the status quo of the theatrical to VOD window, nothing is being taken from those who value the home viewing experience that you don’t already have; however, shortening or abolishing the theatrical window could very likely take a great deal from those who value the magic of a theatrical, communal filmgoing experience – to say nothing of the tens of thousands of jobs worldwide that are housed in brick and mortar “movie palaces” that will be jeopardized by the “have it now” mentality.
Last year, Disney made over $11 billion dollars worldwide from their theatrical releases. True, blockbuster comic films (mostly via Disney) have made it harder to release more adult-minded fare in theaters already, but smaller studios and distributors who are willing to make smart choices that break the mold prove adult audiences are still more than willing to support theatrical experiences if given something fresh and inventive (see: Us, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hustlers, Knives Out, Ford v Ferrari, John Wick 3, Parasite). All this success in the cinema trickles down to the home-viewing advocates fairly quickly and with much more fanfare and excitement; and you still get all that direct-to-your-family-room content from Netflix, Hulu, and all the other streamers!
With all the above, what would you think is a valid reasoning to change the model? To be sure, I haven’t seen near the excitement for a lot of the new Hollywood releases that have been pushed to VOD in the wake of Corona. There’s just something less special, generally speaking, about a straight to VOD release.
Jammer: I can see your point, but I’d say part of the reason why there hasn’t been a lot of enthusiasm for VOD movies is that the ones released just weren’t that awesome. And, the reality is that, without some big changes, many theaters are going to implode anyway. You say the system isn’t broken, but whenever theaters get around to reopening, there may not be many theaters left to show anything. Sure, when all said and done, there will likely be a company willing to invest and fill the void, but the future of our world is uncertain, at best. If nothing else, a potential pandemic is something any investor will consider when looking at future businesses, and theaters have shown themselves to be some of the biggest risks in that regard.
And I can understand you talking about moviegoing audiences who “value the magic of a theatrical, communal filmgoing experience,” but I’d argue that we simply don’t know that value for mainstream audiences. Yes, many film geeks like us love the communal experience of going to a theater. The dim rooms, the surround sound, smell of popcorn. It’s a big part of what many of us value in watching a film. But there have been no studios willing to test a true digital release of a blockbuster. Well, not until Mulan, which hits next month.
The reality is that while the system isn’t broken, studios simply have yet to explore an alternative. For all we know, a hybrid theatrical and digital release could yield the most profit.
And, come on! How can we look at an industry where I’m to spend $10 on a bottle of water and box of candy (lest the industry collapse due to lack of money) and say that it isn’t in desperate need of rethinking?
Wiggins: Hmm, well I think you may be shooting yourself in the foot. I’d rather see theaters rethink their approach then fold to the threat of streaming. Drive-ins are seeing a resurgence, which is great. Those “floating cinemas” I keep reading about in France (and soon, San Diego?) sound super fun. There’s 4DX, and dine-in theaters that combine the cost of dinner with a movie ticket. The forced break that the coronavirus has inflicted will hopefully give theater owners a chance to rethink things like amenities and cleanliness within the theater and innovate.
I really don’t think, longterm, film fans will be happy with the options they’re given content-wise if theaters disappear. Movies made for a big screen translate well to streaming, but content made for streaming doesn’t really translate well to a big screen. Even Game of Thrones, with top-notch production values, still felt small when I saw it on an Imax screen during that brief experiment HBO did.
So, what you will start getting is content that feels… smaller. Less magical. Why spend extra money on a big Dolby 5.1 sound mix when the film is just gonna stream in someone’s family room, or worse, on their iPhone? Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars pushing the envelope forward on groundbreaking VFX when you’re cutting out a billion-dollar industry (theatrical) that allows you to recoup said costs? For all its success, there’s still not enough money in streaming to justify big-budget films the likes of which we’re used to on the big screen.
The have-it-now mentality may seem like a quick fix, but will have long term consequences that don’t excite me at all as a lifelong film buff. I agree $10 on a bottle of water is ridiculous, but as I said, you are not losing anything by not going to the cinema and waiting a few months for new content to pop up on your favorite streamer. If the cinematic experience is not something you value as much as others, it costs you nothing to skip it and wait out a streaming release, but losing it will cost many others quite a bit. And in the end, for some of the reasons I’ve listed above, the trickle-down effect will most certainly extract some storytelling magic from the content we will get moving forward.
And finally, art isn’t free. Many rely on it as their livelihood. Already I see people complaining that a $25 rental on iTunes for a premium VOD release is too much. This mentality is basically going to price Hollywood out of making movies. You can’t cut out an entire vertical source of income for the studios and still expect a movie to show up on iTunes for three dollars. You can’t complain that $25 is too much on iTunes for a film that cost over a hundred million dollars to make. In larger cities, $25 is the cost of a ticket for one person, versus the large family or groups of friends that may be sharing the experience at home together for the same amount.
Jammer: You make some pretty good points. At the end of the day, it very much has to do from our different perspectives. You keep pointing to the big-screen experience as “magical.” While I agree that there are pros to theaters, magical is not a word I’d use to describe it. It’s just sitting in a dark movie theater, away from distractions that could keep you from your immersion (assuming you have a good audience). Yes, it has the power to elevate experiences in some cases…but magical? Eh, it’s a subjective thing, and I suppose I just attribute less value to it.
That being said, as the pandemic continues on, I do find myself itching to go out. My desire to do more streaming would UNDOUBTEDLY have an effect on the theatrical industry in terms of numbers. But, as you said, there are plenty of innovations to be had. In forcing theaters to innovate, perhaps we could get some better communal experiences. Fewer theaters that ultimately immerse us that much more. Maybe theatrical will be less common, but could that make them that much more unique and meaningful in the long run, assuming a business model can be found to work? For example, creating a more widespread experience more comparable to the Alamo Drafthouse, where you can get full dinners and an audience who respects theater etiquette?
Wiggins: Let me clarify “magic” a bit more. Have you watched any of the Avengers: Endgame audience reactions? Check this one out, but there are many others.
Yeah, you ain’t getting the kinda moment at home with a few friends. And Marvel doesn’t own the copyright on those kinds of crowd reactions. I remember experiencing the same thing when I saw Independence Day for the first time, and certainly couldn’t forget the “ooh’s” and “aah’s” when Jurassic Park came out. What’s more, I’ll predict we get less Endgame level movies in an all-streaming future, since it’s unlikely you can recoup blockbuster financial investments (which benefit from individual repeat ticket buyers) at home.
You may cite Game of Thrones high-production value, but that size of TV series is few and far between, took years to build up, and I’d say still falls short of the technical craftsmanship of your average Marvel, DC, Harry Potter film, etc. And as a side-note, many were unhappy with the way Game of Thrones ended; citing a focus on spectacle over story. I think many of us have found Netflix’s “event films” a bit underwhelming as well, despite them knocking it out of the park with most of their series. Even Lady and the Tramp, going direct to Disney+, just felt like it was missing that magic polish and sheen that so many Disney theatrical efforts have. There are just certain things television does well and certain things cinema does well and it’s ok to let them keep doing those things well without tinkering.
“Magic” also comes in the shutting off of the outside world. The cinema can be a sacred place, almost spiritual for some. Of course, that’s assuming you have an audience that plays ball with the “phones off” rule (on that note, I’d love to see more theaters like ArcLight here in Los Angeles that really protect the cinema experience and prohibit phones, talking, etc). The home viewing experience can be intimate and fun, but I think we can all admit it is sometimes degraded by nearby cell phones, pets, kids, snack breaks, to-do lists, etc. And don’t even get me started on the latest degradation; Netflix’s new playback speed option which I find absolutely horrific. Is nothing sacred to the A.D.D. generation? I don’t agree with those who support this new feature saying similar options have been available on audiobooks for years.
Books are read at different paces by every reader and are designed to be picked up and put down at your leisure. That is not so for film, especially when created by a true artist or auteur (Christopher Nolan, say) who chooses the pace they want you to consume their story. For me, going to the theater forces you to shut off from the outside world and your daily life a bit more and relax into a narrative. Usually leading to a better, deeper focus on storytelling as the artist intended.
At any rate, it’s obvious the world is changing, and the old saying “innovate or die” applies as much to film as it does any other industry, but I’d suggest proceeding with caution when altering the theatrical window. Two or three months is not a very long time to have to wait for your favorite film to pop up on iTunes, if that’s your preferred way of experiencing a story. I think Alam Drafthouse and other cinemas that are offering a more immersive and dare I say, decadent experience, are a great step forward because they offer more creature comforts (emphasis on comfort, with those reclining chairs) and turn your entire night into more of an event with dinner, drinks, etc that make the three hour and increasingly expensive journey seem more worthwhile. Still, I think for many, not much is broken about the current system. Millions love to go to the cinema. Millions love to go to live theater, concerts, Nascar races, football games, etc. A shared and insular experience with an audience can be electric and invaluable; some of your fondest memories. In the wake of COVID-19 and stay-at-homes across the globe, we should realize that now more than ever and try to protect said experiences.
Jammer: Clearly, the magic you speak of has to do with a shared experience with audience members. I agree, that’s a great aspect of the movie-watching experience. I think where we differ is the type of shared experience we value. Yes, it can be fun to watch a horror movie with a huge audience or a blockbuster, but I much prefer a more intimate experience with a handful of friends. No, we won’t be getting those big screams and cheers in Endgame, but to be frank, I’m that dude who’s quietly trying to ignore the screams and shouts so I can hear what the hell is going on in the movie. So, it’s all about personal perspective.
When it all comes down to it, cinemas do offer a unique experience, but I’m just not sure I personally value those specific things enough to care terribly about theaters slowly bleeding themselves dry.
Then again, who knows? With COVID happening, when theaters open back up, I may be eating my words and clawing my way to my local theater with renewed vigor. Let’s just hope that, by then, this new deal between AMC and Universal hasn’t slowly doomed the future. Hopefully, theaters will continue to innovate. Innovate or die.
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