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What if the studios decide they don’t need cinemas?


The Aurora Theater in East Aurora, New York.
Photo: Hannah Buehler / WKBW-TV

In a normal year, big movies don’t come out on Labor Day weekend because it’s too late to compete for summer bonuses and too early for awards season. But with many theaters across the country finally reopening, this Labor Day will be defined by the premieres of two great films that also represent a bifurcation: Together, they can determine not only which films we see, but how we see them. the rest of this year and maybe for much longer. One, from disney Mulan, will bypass US movie theaters entirely and debut on Disney + on September 4, more than five months after it was originally scheduled to open in theaters. The other, Warner Bros. ‘Christopher Nolan’s often postponed film, Principle (opening September 3), made a bet on the big screen.

For film studios, this is a defining moment. With a huge backlog of films waiting to be released and production either restarting or starting on others, Mulan and Principle raise the question: does the year in the movies have to include leaving home? Yes Mulan underperforming, theaters will live to fight another day. But if Mulan is a smash and Principle hovers financially or, worse, makes headlines on theater-based viral clusters in a few weeks, it’s hard to imagine regular theater – or major releases – picking up again before the arrival of the New Year, a vaccine or both.

On paper, Mulan looks like the strongest and safest bet. Some 2020 films intended for wide distribution have already been streamed – Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island Created on VOD, Apple bought the Tom Hanks WWII drama Doggy style, and disney hijacked Hamilton to Disney +, a move that has undoubtedly increased its now impressive subscriber base by 60.5 million. And the Sundance shot Palm springs, which Neon and Hulu paid over $ 17 million to acquire, became a Hulu-only version this summer. But Mulan is different – it cost $ 200 million, and the company’s choice to release it through Disney + means nothing is on the table. The price of $ 29.99 (which you’ll ‘own’ the movie for as long as you’re a subscriber) is steep compared to a movie ticket, but for families who would have gone to see it together, it’s a no-brainer. And since it doesn’t have to share its revenue with theaters, Disney has to sell far fewer virtual tickets to make a profit. Yes Mulan works, it’s not a big leap to imagine Warner, who kicked off HBO Max so badly that an executive suite pogrom quickly followed, trying to bolster his service by using it for his debut. Wonder Woman 1984 (release scheduled for October 2) or Dune (December 18). Besides, why wouldn’t Disney follow up Mulan with Black Widow (scheduled for November 6, this is the film behind which three years of Marvel’s timeline are trapped) or Pixar Soul (November 20)?

One of the reasons is Principle. Expectations for films that have so far tested the box office in theaters – The new mutants, an X-Men movie already on the shelves for two years, and Imbalance, Russell Crowe’s road rage thriller acquired by brand new distributor Solstice – couldn’t have been less. But for months now, Nolan’s film has been considered the first big screen to see after the pandemic, and with the very existence of theaters in jeopardy, the studio has apparently decided that the Publish part of the post-pandemic is negotiable. (“Cross your fingers and hope people across the country sitting in a dark room with strangers for two hours don’t get sick” sounds more like a results-oriented prayer than a rational plan; one expert has it. compared to Russian roulette.) If Principle does even well – recognizing that most cities impose reduced capacity for movie theaters – this may be enough justification for studios to postpone their decision to release their bigger movies, many of which will instead continue to hold back until that time. that full-fledged theatrical releases become possible.

This is already happening with Warner Bros. ‘musical In the heights and Godzilla vs. Kong, Universal Fast and Furious 9 and Halloween kills, and Paramount A Quiet Place, Part II and Top Gun: Maverick, who are all trying to skip the pandemic completely. None are now planned before spring 2021 at the earliest. They are the equivalent of wealthy people who packed their cars and scampered off to their second home – their second home being “the future” – when things started to take a turn for the worse. It was sort of a vote of confidence in theaters, a statement that the wait might be more appealing than abandoning a decades-old cultural habit and business model.

But for how long? We’re already seeing signs of how easily studios are ready to ditch theaters. Disney is said to be set to sell one of Fox’s last legacy movies, The woman at the window, to Netflix. Meanwhile, struggling Paramount (its market share was just 5% in 2019), which sold Aaron Sorkin The Chicago 7 trial, as well to Netflix, for over $ 50 million, is set to sell its adaptation of Tom Clancy Without remorse to Amazon and decided that his post-apocalyptic comedy Love and monsters, which was due to open next February, will go directly on VOD in October.

Even in the best-case scenario, which seems less and less likely, this fall’s list of big movies in theaters will still be a lot thinner than usual. And that will not reverse the giant paradigm shift that is underway. For a century, studios have been in the center of Hollywood, and as often as some of these companies have changed hands, their names have been recognizable longer than we are. But now, apart from the ever more dominant Disney, only a handful remain – Warner, Universal, Sony and Paramount. And it’s surprisingly easy to imagine a world in which they’re no longer Hollywood’s only creative engines but rather content providers to new production / distribution players: Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. These companies, along with the streaming services owned by the old studios (Disney’s Hulu and Disney +, Warner’s HBO Max, Universal-owned Peacock, and CBS All Access, which shares one owner with Paramount), are becoming the dominant forces behind what looking at us and where we look at it. And, more often than ever, it’s at home, competing with what used to be called television.

But old habits are dying, and studios, having missed out on summer, are now trying to open films to qualify for awards – a strategy that may involve nurturing films in specific locations for months, a tailored approach. which this year is extremely difficult. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and most other industry awards groups have mandatory extended the eligibility deadline from December 31 to February 28 (Presidents Day weekend – that’s the new Christmas). It’s a nifty way to save time – but maybe not enough time. Oscar season is usually the time for independent companies – both studio-owned companies like Searchlight Pictures, Focus Features, and Sony Pictures Classics, and non-independent companies like A24 and Neon – to pitch their offerings. most preferred. But the four festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) where the year’s most promising “little” films are often released have reduced – and, in many cases, virtual – lineups this year, with few top Americans and English. -films in language. Like their big-budget counterparts, many of the most anticipated independent films, like Wes Anderson’s all-star comedy The French dispatch, were just put on ice until things changed. This is, if they change, since the educated, affluent, older audience, drawn to indies, are exactly the kind of people happy to stay home until the movie arrives to them.

What can be most striking at this point is the lack of a master plan (or any plan). To restart production, elaborate protocols are created for everything from Netflix dramas to Jurassic World: Dominion, which grew with a 107-page health manual and an entire hotel praised as a safety bubble for its cast and crew. But the studios don’t have detailed suggestions on how to release films; they just stare at a horizon of uncertainty and express the wish that “maybe things will get better” at some never-ending date. Publish-Principle, tough decisions about October and November films will have to be made quickly. As more films go into production and the pressure from this end of the pipeline increases, it will become easier for studios to tell room owners that even though there will be a lot of great films. for them every time the pandemic ends, by then they will. releasing their films in any way keeps their audiences (safely) fed. It starts to feel more urgent; companies cannot stay on invisible films indefinitely. Something must be sacrificed: films or films. The matched destinies of Mulan and Principle can determine which one prevails.

* This article appears in the August 31, 2020 issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe now!

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