So what is to become of the cinema industry in a post-covid world where the big Hollywood studios are now also streaming platforms. Is cinema about to go the way of Blockbuster?
It would’ve been weird to suggest in the early 2000s that a practically unheard of mail-order DVD company would effectively shatter the Blockbuster video rental chain.
In fact, one – maybe too good to be true – anecdote claims Netflix founder Reed Hastings was laughed out of the room when he pitched Blockbuster CEO John Antioco with the idea of a partnership at the turn of the millennium.
Fast-forward to 2021 and new future shaping partnerships seem to be signed in Hollywood almost every week, though these deals don’t involve cinema operators.
The latest such deal was struck this week as Amazon sealed a US$8.45bn deal to buy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the studio behind the James Bond, Rocky and Hobbit movies.
Now, the studio has been quick to promise that it won’t drop the cinema release for ‘No Time to Die’ or any future Bond movie.
Amazon doesn’t really need to lock away Bond behind the Prime Video paywall, a parallel or even slightly delayed streaming debut would capture a substantial portion of the market share away from Cinema theatres.
Covid lockdowns created new norms all over the place and for some industries, potentially cinema, there may be no going back.
London-listed operator Cineworld Group PLC (LON:CINE) saw its shares rise, slightly, this week as it reported better than expected box-office for its reopening weekend in the UK as restrictions receded. Meanwhile, Odeon-owner AMC (WallStreetBets reddit circus aside) is also seeing its shares on the front foot.
Cinema operators are set to get a boost from pent-up demand, according to Danni Hewson, financial analyst at AJ Bell, even if streaming presents a longer term threat.
“One thing directors and film fans will tell you is there’s nothing like watching a movie on the big screen; the fact we’ve not been able to do so for many months will certainly have created pent up demand, something Cineworld was quick to highlight to investors. And for good reason – they’ve been haemorrhaging cash whilst cinemas stayed dark and social distancing will impact takings in the immediate future.
“But there’s a bigger fly in their popcorn, lockdowns made people hostage to their TVs and streaming services took full advantage.
“New customers were wooed, they splashed out on bigger screens and sound systems, and habits were formed. Then there’s the money, lots and lots of money went into the pockets of these businesses, money they’re now funnelling into content – both new and old.”
Hewson said Amazon’s MGM takeover has further blurred the line between old school film making and what was once derisorily spoken of as straight to tv content, whilst also highlighting at film studios had been experimenting with multi-platform releases even before the pandemic.
Evidently, the pandemic accelerated the growth of the so-called ‘direct-to-consumer’ model used by Disney+ and Warner Bros’ HBO Max which have released of a number of high profile movies whilst cinemas were closed.
‘Cruella’, a Disney live-action movie based on the Cruella de Vil character from 101 Dalmatians, is the next one (released Friday May 28).
It follows ‘Mulan’ and ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ which were the two prior Disney+ Premier Access releases (each charged at £19.99 for users to stream), and, comes ahead of the July release of Marvel’s Black Widow.
In late 2020, Warner Bros pushed the envelope further than Disney as it announced that its entire 2021 cinema release schedule would be streamed via HBO Max, in parallel and on the same release day.
Warner’s HBO Max hosted the release of DC Comic’s ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ on Christmas Day and its upcoming ‘same day premiers’ slate includes sequels to the ‘Suicide Squad’, Space Jam and Matrix movies among others.
It is practically unthinkable that Amazon won’t take a similar approach after paying close to US$9bn for MGM.
Very little imagination would is needed either to see the potential for a possible small-screen expansion of the Bond universe, should Amazon execs follow the blueprint laid out by Disney which has driven its subscriber number significantly in the past year with series spin-offs for both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.
Perhaps we get to see a weekly series following other characters, after all we’ve barely heard a peep out of 008, 009 or 001 through 6.
Or perhaps, and the studio heads can have this pitch for free, they make a comedy mockumentary in the style of The Office following the boffins at Q Branch, ideally starring Richard Ayoade or Stephen Merchant.
This is speculation plucked from thin air, of course, Nevertheless, Amazon already has some form in this area. The exclusive to streaming Amazon Originals catalogue for example already has ‘Jack Ryan’, ‘The Purge’ and ‘Hanna’ series, all of which are TV reboots of Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, ‘Treadstone’ is a series about CIA black-ops teams set in “the world of Jason Board” (presumably developed under a working title like The Bourne Regurgitation).
Who knows how it all plays out, but its probably safe to bet that the world’s most dominant and efficient retailer didn’t stump up the best part of US$9bn just to have a few movie premieres or simply to qualify for Oscar nominations?
What is quite clear though is the cinema business is forever changed as it emerges from the pandemic.
“Theatrical windows have narrowed, and cinema chains are acutely aware that calculations are being made about how valuable the box office really is,” Danni Hewson added.
“At the moment it’s thought those sums still come out in favour of the cinema, Disney has been tight-lipped about how much Mulan made last year, and Hollywood loves a red carpet.
“But the landscape is changing rapidly and if the scales tip those in charge of the money may well ditch the glamour in favour of the bottom line.”