While these experiments have yielded different results for different films – Greyhound did well, Raya and the Last Dragon flopped – there’s been a clear takeaway. Hollywood still needs cinemas, and it needs us to return in our droves as they reopen across the world. Omdia’s research shows that video on demand claimed $1 billion in consumer spending globally in 2020, which pales in comparison to the $30bn lost by cinema over the same period.
For big blockbusters, streaming simply cannot match theatres. The new James Bond movie, No Time To Die, is instructive here. The film, to be distributed by MGM in America and Universal in the rest of the world, has been postponed repeatedly because of the pandemic. In October 2020, rumours (which MGM denied) began to circulate that the studio was shopping the film around to streaming platforms for $600m; no one bought it, explains Hancock, because it was way too expensive. It’s questionable whether streaming will ever bring in enough revenue to make blockbusters like Bond, which could gross more than a billion dollars, a viable proposition.
The rise of Netflix, then, has warped the media industry, and forced major studios to adopt a business model that, at the very least, has some question marks over its longterm viability. Tara Lachapelle at Bloomberg, for instance, calls it “fundamentally broken”. “Spend billions of dollars to create an endless supply of content, then sell monthly access to this deluxe all-you-can-eat buffet for little more than the cost of dinner at McDonald’s.”
One long-term change we may see as a result of the pandemic is in the length of release windows. Both Paramount and Warner Bros. have announced a maximum of 45-days exclusivity for cinemas – half the typical 90 – going into 2022. This is a coup for studios. “Other than stuff like The Greatest Showman, most films make 80 per cent of their box office in the first three weeks, and then they’re gone,” says Kathryn Jacobs, CEO of cinema advertising company Pearl and Dean.
Streaming will also continue to change the industry profoundly, particularly as companies like Netflix and Amazon finance more and more films for their platforms – Sony has agreed an exclusivity deal with the latter – and Disney continues to tinker with the most profitable way to release its films (Cruella, out next month, will come to Disney+ at the same time as cinemas). Release schedules will continue to be in flux. “Because people are working flexibly from home, perhaps they’ll go on a Wednesday, rather than wait and go on a Friday to a multiplex,” says Jacobs.
The billion-dollar question that remains, then, is whether there is an appetite for consumers to return post-pandemic. Will they fear catching some new variant of Covid-19, or have they gotten used to the convenience of home streaming? Or, perhaps, many will consider the cinema an unnecessary luxury in a time of economic recession. Early signs suggest not: Godzilla vs Kong has managed to rake in an impressive amount despite restrictions, while New York cinemas have reported sold-out seats (albeit at 25 per cent capacity).
Cinemas have been battered by the pandemic – forced to watch, helpless, as their streaming rivals have hoovered up tens of millions of new subscribers. But despite Hollywood experiments, the economics of huge blockbusters simply don’t work without your local multiplex. “First it was telly that was gonna kill us, then it was VHS, then it was having more than four television stations in the UK,” says Jacob. Like James Bond, the cinema industry refuses to die.
Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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