The end of December usually brings a flurry of big releases and a blizzard of Oscar speculation. But with the Academy Awards postponed and many theaters shuttered or half-empty, this movie year closes with a shiver of existential anxiety in Hollywood and beyond. In 2020, Netflix expanded its reach, and two of the surviving legacy studios — Warner Bros. and Disney — beefed up their streaming platforms, the latest sign of a shift in business strategy that is likely to outlast the pandemic. As 2021 approaches, our critics examine the film industry in crisis, and wonder what the future might hold.
A.O. SCOTT Is this the end of moviegoing as we have known it? You and I are not in the business of making predictions, and since we are students of film history we know that the death of movies is old, fake news. Premature obituaries have been filed every decade or so, at least since the arrival of sound. The art form has been changing constantly, and so have the ways we consume it: “as we have known it” includes movie palaces, drive-ins, grindhouses and multiplexes; and also network television Movies of the Week, VHS, Blu-ray, and now streaming.
Still, the situation right now feels different, perhaps more cataclysmic. I don’t doubt that people will want to go back to movie theaters after the pandemic, as they will to restaurants, nightclubs, concert halls and bowling alleys. But a shift in the industry that was already underway before Covid-19 seems to have accelerated. We’ve sometimes used “the studios” as a slightly anachronistic synonym for Hollywood. Are we entering the age of “the platforms”?
MANOHLA DARGIS Well, good morning, sunshine! I’m hesitant to offer any grand divinations, but we know that the movies or, rather, the American film industry is in a state of perpetual crisis. In the past, the industry has always found a way of circumventing the latest calamity, often by taking advantage of (or even absorbing) perceived threats, like with television. The threat posed by streaming is on another order of magnitude: i.e., the internet changed everything, including how people watch entertainment. The rest is history, and another couple of gazillion bucks for Jeff Bezos.
We’ve talked a lot about how the pandemic has accelerated this latest shift, even if the larger change occurred with the advent of home video. Once people could choose what to watch when they wanted, the old days were over (again). Depending on who you talk to, the movies themselves — or at least how the latest generation understood what “the movies” meant — were over, too. Me, well, I am old enough to remember when Steven Soderbergh made movies that opened in theaters. They were events, and exciting. I couldn’t wait to see them. Now, he drops a movie on HBO Max and I think, “Huh, I guess I should watch that one of these days.”
SCOTT I’m glad you mention Soderbergh, who has been a thoughtful observer of the industry even as he’s worked in just about every corner of it. Over three decades he’s made small and medium-size indie movies, big studio franchises, premium-cable series, self-distributed passion projects, and now straight-to-streaming features. When some of his peers, notably Christopher Nolan, were raging against Warner Bros.’s decision to release its 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters, Soderbergh was more sanguine, seeing a short-term economic fix rather than a tectonic shift in the business. “The theatrical business is not going away,” he told The Daily Beast. “There are too many companies that have invested too much money in the prospect of putting out a movie that blows up in theaters — there’s nothing like it.”
True enough. There is no better way to make a billion dollars — or to earn back an investment of several hundred million — than to release a global blockbuster in theaters. And Disney and Warners are likely to continue in that business, along with whatever other legacy studios are still around when the cinemas fill up again.
But what about the small and midsize movies that depend on the theatrical system to find their audiences? They follow a path that starts at festivals like Sundance, Cannes and Toronto, where critical enthusiasm can spark early interest. Then they open in a few cities, building word of mouth through reviews and media coverage and eventually — if everything breaks just right — reaching a wider public and maybe winning some awards. “Parasite” followed that pattern, as did “Moonlight,” and I don’t know if those films would have had the same impact or success if they had depended on a digital release.
DARGIS Neither would have had the same impact if they’d bypassed theaters. In the States, their theatrical distributors teased them beautifully: “Moonlight” opened in four theaters and “Parasite” in three, which created frenzy among certain filmgoers and allowed the movies to drip, drip, drip into the cultural consciousness all the way to Oscar night. This slow rollout is completely antithetical to the binge-it-now ecosystem of, say, Netflix, which, before you’re done with one of its offerings, is algorithmically directing you to the next thing to watch.
The life cycle of a movie on streaming is different from that of a show like “The Crown.” When a new season hits, the P.R. machine starts all over again. It’s as if the show had been reborn. There’s a new round of media attention, more reviews and features. Nonfranchise movies fade faster and, at best, can look forward to being listed in a streaming guide with 49 other titles. The ecosystem for independent film has always been incredibly fragile; it’s hard to make them and to release them in a Disney-dominated world. Independent movies need to be coaxed into our collective mind. On Netflix, they just become another platform loss leader alongside David Fincher.
SCOTT It can seem churlish to complain about Netflix — and maybe hypocritical, given how much solace and diversion it has supplied during this anxious, homebound year. The company has acquired and produced an impressive variety of films, including some that might never have gotten a studio greenlight. Even with Fincher’s clout and reputation, “Mank” would have been a tough pitch — a story about a writer who drinks a lot and makes his deadline, and in black and white no less. But it found a home, alongside “Cuties,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Hillbilly Elegy” and 800 indistinguishable Christmas “originals.” Let the algorithm sort them out!
Netflix is selling subscriptions, not tickets. The goal is to make a wide variety of stuff available that will entice as many people as possible to pay a monthly fee for access to all of it. HBO Max and Disney+ are competing on that terrain, but single movies playing in theaters — or, for that matter, on video-on-demand platforms — are at a severe disadvantage. An individual ticket costs about the same as a month of streaming, and that’s before popcorn or parking.
If theaters are going to survive, moviegoing has to be something more than off-site Netflix, which is to say that the aesthetic and cultural differences between movies and television may need to be articulated anew. Going to the movies can’t only be a negative decision, a choice not to stay home and stream.
DARGIS But what does having a “home” on Netflix mean? It’s like saying a movie found a home in a humongous video-rental store, with comedy in this section, action here and porn behind the curtain — but now with algorithms. As critics, we tend to focus on the movie as an object that’s somehow untethered from viewing conditions. In the Before Times, we saw new movies in multiplexes with crowds and in smaller screening rooms with colleagues. We watched with defined start and finish times, we shushed talkers and we didn’t hit pause.
The pandemic has reinforced that watching anything at home changes your relationship to the object. I guess that’s why I’m not really interested in the differences between film and television. There’s a lot of bad TV and a lot of bad movies that look like bad TV. They’re yak fests with big heads and emotions, predictable story arcs and no edges, and their future is safe, as are blockbusters. What’s concerning are movies that can’t be looked at while we check our texts: avant-garde cinema, tough and long documentaries, serious dramas, foreign-language films, anything that requires attention, patience, time. I’m worried about what isn’t easy-watching.
SCOTT Like you, I’m less worried about the fate of blockbusters — the big money always finds a way — than about films that may be too quiet, too slow, too disturbing or too strange for home viewing. Including some of our 2020 favorites, like “City Hall,” “Beanpole,” “Collective” and “First Cow.” Going to a theater can mean stepping outside your comfort zone, pushing against the boundaries of your own taste. Your television exists safely within those boundaries, and in the literal comfort zone of your living room. Challenging movies can slide too easily to the bottom of the queue, neglected like unread books on the night stand or jars of exotic mustard at the back of the fridge.
DARGIS I mean, yes, blockbusters are important because they’re critical to the remaining big studios. Some of my concern about the studios is nostalgia for the good (if bad) old days, but I also keep hoping that they’ll abandon their current business model (ha!), which focuses on the same big blowouts rather than on product differentiation. It wasn’t long ago that some of them were in the business of producing and distributing smaller movies, the kind that now head straight to HBO Max (and hello again, Mr. Soderbergh). But, yes, I imagine “Wonder Woman” will survive this year.
But what of movies like Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow”? It opened in four theaters on March 6 to excellent reviews, just weeks before New York and Los Angeles shut down. It landed on VOD in July, earlier than it would have in pre-pandemic times. This was welcome news for those already inclined to watch a contemplative movie about two men and a cow in the 1820s, in which one of the most dramatic scenes involves stealing milk. But for a movie like this to reach non-cinephiles, it needs time to reach minds that are already distracted, virus or no.
The virtual cinema model that emerged during the pandemic was a great idea, but it’s not always intuitive to use and sure not as simple as clicking on an app. What’s needed is a one-stop virtual indie megaplex, something like the independent film version of bookshop.org, an e-commerce website that’s easy to use and helps small companies. The pandemic isn’t over, and we still have a whole lot of viewing hours at home before we can run out to the movies again.