The battle for overall supremacy in the streaming wars has ramped up a gear — and a new impact on cinema releasing is likely to be felt in the exhibition community. Patrick von Sychowski looks at what the proliferation of platforms means for the movies.
The recent launch of streaming platforms to compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime throws the question of release windows and content owners’ relations with theatres into focus once again. Less than a year after the “Roma” controversy, an even bigger fight blew up with the release of Martin Scorsese’s $160m gangster epic “The Irishman”. With the start of Disney+, Apple TV+, NBC-Universal’s Peacock, a souped-up HBO/Warner service, as well as UK’s BritBox, Jio’s First Day-First Show in India and other local competitors, comes an increased spend on original content.
While much of the content on these new sites’ roster is episodic TV, these platforms are also keen on feature films, which is where the conflict with cinemas rears its head again over the length, if any, of release windows.
After the release of “Star Wars: the Last Skywalker” this Christmas, the next in the saga will be “The Mandalorian”, released on Disney+ with no (announced) plans for any cinema outing. TV releases have crossed over for big-screen engagements, whether ABC’s Marvel series the “Inhumans” or the “Friends” re-release. This feeds into the growing ‘event cinema’ niche that cinemas have come to rely on for a significant proportion of revenue — 2%-3% for regular sites, but as much as large double-digit figures for some arthouse cinemas. Included in this are re-releases, such as “The Matrix” 20th anniversary earlier this year.
This theatre of war sees conflicting allegiances, with Netflix now being a member of the MPAA, Hollywood studios are pulling old titles from theatrical availability even as cinemas are refusing to screen new films without guaranteed release windows. Cinemas are thus turning their backs on new films, even as they decry not being able to play decade old films. Where is this all headed?
“Irishman” not welcome in cinemas
Netflix’s big awards gamble is Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour return to the gangster genre. As you can understand, the streamer is looking to get returns for its investment, but any hopes that it could recoup that in box office and not just subscribers were dashed early on. In the UK, Cineworld, Odeon and Vue all made it clear that they would not show it without a standard release window. On the other side of the Atlantic, Regal (owned by Cineworld), AMC and Cinemark similarly shut the door.
Netflix has instead re-doubled its strategy of ‘four walling’ the release by having its films screened in smaller circuit cinemas where it has rented auditoriums and is consequently also not obliged to share the box office numbers with Comscore and others. It is employing a similar strategy for its other end-of-year prestige titles, such as Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” and Eddie Murphy’s “Dolemite Is My Name.” Netflix has saved the biggest ‘four walling’ for “The Irishman”.
Netflix rented Broadway’s Belasco Theatre for a one-month engagement of the film from 1 November to 1 December. In true Broadway fashion the film is having eight screenings per week, from Tuesday through Sunday, with additional matinee performances on weekends. The 1,016-seat theatre that was opened in 1907 was equipped with special projection and sound equipment for this limited engagement. Tickets are $15 and no doubt sold fast to those that couldn’t wait to stream the film from 27 November. “The opportunity to recreate that singular experience at the historic Belasco Theatre is incredibly exciting. Ted Sarandos, Scott Stuber, and their team at Netflix have continued to find creative ways to make this picture a special event for audiences and I’m thankful for their innovation and commitment,” Scorsese is quoted as saying. It is no coincidence that Martin Scorsese’s home town was selected for this engagement, as it is also home to many Academy, BAFTA and various guild voters. In some ways it also completes the circle for cinema as in the pre-sound days there was a mad scramble to find large enough venues for major blockbusters like D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (193 minutes, compared to 209 minutes for “The Irishman”). Meanwhile negotiations are ongoing in LA for Netflix to acquire, invest in or upgrade the world-famous Egyptian Theatre as its own screening cinema, instead of renting it or using other non-conventional cinema venues such as The Hollywood American Legion Post 43 Theatre on North Highland Ave. As “Deadline” notes, “A film historian like Scorsese appreciates the irony of returning to exhibition’s roots just as the viewing experience keeps evolving.” It was also the case that Orson Wells toured and screened his “Citizen Kane” in tents across the US when the film found itself locked out by the major theatres after pressure from the Hearst organisation. It seems that Netflix and Scorsese are thus in good historical company.
The ‘horror’ of Disney ‘vaulting’ Fox
As we all know, Disney has for years been locking up its princesses in a vault and now they are joined by the likes of Anastasia, Princess Poppy and Crown Princess Tilde of Sweden, as well as “The Princess Bride” and “The Prince and the Showgirl”. These are just some of the 20th Century Fox titles and characters that have become subject to Disney’s practice of ‘vaulting’ films.
For years, Disney has been guarding its animated library by only allowing old titles to be re-released in cinema and on home video roughly every 10 years for a limited time. This way, new generations were introduced to the Disney magic of “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, without saturating the market. Far from just a corporate policy, it was highlighted to consumers in adverts notifying people which films were about to “go back into the Disney Vault”, in words often spoken by noted voiceover actor Mark Elliot. This practice of releasing two to three movies per year from its catalogue of 34 feature animations and sequels came to an end in August 2019, with the Disney+ service launching in November, meaning that the Disney vault had effectively come to an end for home releases. On the cinema side, however, Disney has no plans to make its animated back catalogue of classics available for theatrical re-release, not least as it is busy creating live-action remakes of films like “Jungle Book” and “Dumbo”.
So, consumers subscribing to Disney+ can rejoice at replacing their entire VHS/DVD collection with instant access to the animated classics, though it means that said titles will not be available on Netflix, YouTube or even on Disney channels. But what about theatrical re-releases?
The 20th Century Fox catalogue that was the main reason for Disney to buy the studio contains several ever-greens that are frequently shown in cinemas, including “Alien”/”Aliens”, “Fight Club”, “The Sound of Music”, “The Princess Bride” and Christmas favourites such as “Home Alone” and “Die Hard” (which is a Christmas movie, end of discussion!). The reaction to the ‘vaulting’ has been strong and negative from repertory cinemas, such as the Bristol Watershed (see panel, right).
Equally worrying is the impact on the popularity of recent musicals that has seen Fox films such as “The Greatest Showman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” play and return to cinemas more than a year after their initial release, with 12 months being the cut-off date for Disney’s cinema ‘vault’. The one exception is the perennial midnight cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, which will continue to be allowed to be shown in cinemas, with toast, squirt guns, fishnets, dress up and all.
It may thus be a small consolation that the most famous cinematic drag queen of all time (sorry Priscilla), Rocky Horror’s Frank-N-Furter, will continue to strut his stuff on the silver screen, even while the rest of Fox’s royalty remain locked away in Uncle Walt’s vault next to his own frozen remains.
[Just kidding. Contrary to urban legends, Walt Disney was not actually cryogenically frozen but is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, close to Hollywood. Disney on Ice is thus a myth — unless you mean the skating show.]
Can Streamers and Cinemas Be Friends?
Will new streaming operators force Netflix to reconsider its strategy, given that it faces a three-front war for new subscribers, archive content and talent to produce more? It will be undercut by the likes of Disney+ which will charge as little as $5/£5 to win new subscribers even if it is making a loss. It will lose popular content such as all Disney titles. Meanwhile Apple is luring talent such as Steven Spielberg and Reese Witherspoon to create new shows for it.
With Netflix now a member of the MPAA, there are hopes it may start acting more like a traditional studio. With cinema content being re-defined by the increasing importance of live events and re-releases, to cater to changing audience preferences in an experience-oriented economy. A recent study by UNIC and Coca-Cola found that one of the top preferences for Millennials would be to watch the latest major TV shows in cinemas with friends.
The nature of cinema is thus changing and content, including films, becomes more fluid in where and how it is consumed. Given the collapse of physical home media (VHS/DVD retail and rental) and the fact that streaming has not yet replaced this in value, there seems little to be gained by doing away with the theatrical window of exclusivity. Instead we’re likely to see more experimentation with distribution platforms and special releases, even as content owners become more controlling of when and how they release certain titles. There is no law that states Netflix et al cannot be friends with cinemas and work together. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings doesn’t view cinemas as competition — instead he identifies the video game Fortnite and sleep as two keys challengers. It remains to be seen if the new batch of streamers will change that.
“Parasite” avoids “Roma” lock-out
In the shadow of “The Irishman” controversy, this year’s leading Best Foreign Language Film awards contender narrowly avoided a “Roma”-style fate at the UK box office thanks to a single tweet. Though “Roma” won several BAFTA and Academy Awards, it lost out on the Best Picture Oscar, partly due to it being accused of not having a “meaningful release” in cinemas, as stipulated by the rule of the film awards academies. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” was awarded the Palm D’Or in Cannes and is predicted to win the accolades for Best Foreign Language Film as well as possibly being nominated in other categories. It was purchased for UK distribution by Curzon’s sister-company Artificial Eye, for an undisclosed sum. Curzon Artificial Eye titles, such as “Cold War” are typically released day-and-date in both cinemas (its own and others) as well as on the Curzon Home TVoD platform.
Yet as of March this year Cineworld-owned Picturehouse announced a change of policy that it would not show films that did not adhere to traditional release windows. A distributor from another company suggested Curzon could not afford to lose Picturehouse given what it had paid for “Parasite”, as streaming revenue would be unlikely to make up for the significant portion of arthouse screens such a release could net. With no release date given for “Parasite” in the UK, even after it had already been released in several European territories, the resolution arrived on 9 October in the form of a tweet from Curzon CEO Phillip Knatchbull: “We always judge a film on its own merits before deciding on a release strategy. As a Palme d’Or winner and Oscar Best Picture contender, ‘Parasite’ is an exceptional international foreign language film which we believe can compete on a wider level with any film in the marketplace.” This meant “Parasite” would get a 16-week theatrical release. Knatcbull saw major “multiplex potential” for the title and the distributor would put significant P&A spend behind it. The home release would have to wait until after the awards season.