With multiplexes shutting and film releases shunted forward, how do those in the business see the future?
Welcome to the future … a closed Cineworld. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
‘The room was already on fire; Covid just poured lighter fluid around the house’
Steven Gaydos, executive VP of content, Variety
We’re at a tipping point. The pandemic has simply accelerated systemic issues in the cinema exhibition business. The room was already on fire; Covid just poured lighter fluid around the house.
Pre-coronavirus, the sector was squeezed by streaming, by tech and cultural change and by changing demographic tastes. Mid-range films and dramas have been reduced to a small fraction of a studio’s annual income. It’s all about Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, fantasy films and family animation. So the cinema exhibition business is really the blockbuster business.
Do you need the same number of cinemas if they’re only showing blockbusters? For some time, many of them have been artificially sustained anyway, the real estate empty for much of the day. There’s also the problem that this is a sector that’s historically been very conservative and reluctant to innovate. I remember when there was a great controversy about the introduction of cup-holders.
Tenet and Bond are just the messengers being shot. I’ve seen every Bond movie at the cinema, but I’m not going to risk my life to see any film. It’s not the studios’ fault they don’t want to release a movie when 80% of their audience won’t leave the house.
October is turning out to be very different from July. In the summer we thought it might be turning a corner, but now things are racing out of control. So the future of the movie business is really the future of science. Whatever anyone misses about cinema or hopes for its future is irrelevant. Covid has a plan of its own.
‘The future is right in front of us’
Kate Muir, critic and co-leader (with Akua Gyamfi) of the Critics Mentorship Programme at the London film festival
Covid has just kicked the streaming thing into the future. It was already going that way, this was the conversation we were having, and simultaneous digital and cinema release is what’s going to happen from now on.
Young people are in some strange way quite hopeful – they come from a different visual world, I think, where it doesn’t matter so much exactly where or how you see something. There’s a hope that cinemas will continue to exist, but I just meet people all the time who are buying home projectors. The book-club-style communal screening has taken off, where lots of people sit at home and watch a film together, and tweet and talk to each other on Instagram afterwards.
I think people are now very flexible – but they want the social event, too. We absolutely still all do want to be together in a dark space, I don’t think that has changed at all. But God knows what’s going to happen to smaller cinemas. One thing I do know, because I work with Birds Eye View, is that the conversation around a film packs cinemas. If you do a Q&A, if you bring in experts in the field of the film, not just film critics, people really want that communal experience of debate and conversation in a public space. We’ll have to do a lot more of those kind of live events. It’s another thing that will make a difference – if there are places left to do it.
I’ve just seen Steve McQueen’s new film, Mangrove. It’s on the BBC as a five-part series, it’s on Amazon, and it’s also in the film festival. That’s what things should be. That is exactly the future right in front of us.
‘If No Time to Die moves again we really are into armageddon’
Charles McDonald, publicist
Emotionally I think cinemas can survive, but economically it’s going to be very, very tight. The truth is that the public did not return to cinemas over the summer in the numbers hoped for. Some felt it was unsafe, but there was also not a wealth of product and UK audiences simply aren’t used to going to see indies in any great numbers.
To blame Tenet is ludicrous. Warner Bros did such a remarkable thing in bringing it out even though they knew they weren’t going to make a lot of money. That decision was made with a romance that Universal evidently couldn’t afford with Bond.
What’s galling is that before Covid, the UK box office was relatively healthy. Lots of the dangers that had been felt to be deadly – TV, video games – had been fought off. Many cinemas had recently been refurbished. But that cost a lot of money, and many were still paying off that debt.
If No Time to Die moves again we really are into armageddon and everything will need a total rethink.
‘The industry can evolve from this’
Delphine Lievens, senior box office analyst at Gower Street Analytics
In the immediate sense it is quite concerning – the rest of this year is looking quite bleak in terms of product coming to cinemas. But it’s worth looking at how cinemas have been coping so far as well. Because we’ve had Tenet, cinemas have stayed open since then, that’s over a month now. And there are other films that have had moderate success, such as After We Collided, and Unhinged which is nearly at £2m. Audiences have been receptive to non-studio films, and a lot of cinemas have been doing repertory programming where audiences are more open to that sort of thing: independents, the Curzon Everyman chains etc. There’s also a clear gap in the market for family product, too. Non-studio animations like the Australian indie 100% Wolf (£1.4m at the box office to date) are performing far above expectations when usually they struggle to compete with the likes of Disney/Pixar, Illumination etc. So there are still glimmers of hope, and there are still lots of independent films to come this year.
One of the big issues in the UK is that we don’t have a great depth of local content. A lot of the territories where they are not struggling quite so much at the box office – Germany, Spain, Australia – they have productions that are taking up the space that would have been filled with Hollywood content. Those markets are in no way fully recovered, but they are at a steady enough level to keep going for the rest of the year.
The Cineworld move is a shame. Between that and the Bond it rocks people’s confidence, and now it’s difficult to imagine any studios releasing blockbuster content this year; it’s like dominoes. It’s a Hollywood issue, really: far fewer cinemas have reopened in the US and Hollywood is struggling to see the merits of releasing films just internationally.
In terms of next year, the industry is acting as if coronavirus is not going to be playing a role then, but the reality is that there are now too many films for 2021. The studios have been trying to avoid losses by not releasing this year, but they could be just as likely to face losses next year because the calendar will be very busy – the likelihood being, if you release a blockbuster it will only have a week before the next one comes along. You’d think that as Tenet did OK outside the US it would give them confidence, but in this country all the Hollywood output is controlled from the US, and I don’t think they have a handle on how things are going internationally.
There’s been a lack of nuance to Cineworld’s approach, and that includes Picturehouses, which have not shown stuff they could have. It’s the chains willing to be a bit more flexible that are doing all right at the moment.
I am cautiously optimistic that the industry can evolve from this. We can see that we need to be making more British films, for example; we can see that people will watch non-studio content if it’s given strong enough marketing and attention. There are lessons to be learned from this, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I have been tracking a steady recovery for some time, though of course losing Bond is a big blow and it looks like the box office will dip in November. But I don’t think we’re quite at the end of cinema as we know it – for now.
‘If releases stop, the whole ecosystem cinema relies on will erode’
Jake Garriock, head of distribution strategy, Curzon
For us, not that much has changed. We’ve always had to find space around the big releases and to take opportunities where we can. To call it fortunate would be to overegg it, but having both a chain of venues and an already established day-and-date streaming platform has felt helpful.
We reopened our venues fairly early and still feel confident about them. Trade has been a bit slow, but when there are films people want to see – Tenet, Rocks, On the Rocks – they come. And because there’s more wriggle room in the schedule, films can play for longer, which means that even with reduced capacity people still get a decent return on their investment.
For the most part, once people come back, they seem comfortable and happy in the cinema. It’s easy to social distance, to move people through the building, and people aren’t too bothered about having to wear a mask. But you have to get them through the doors in the first place – and people now don’t, say, go and see a film after work. You’ve got to give them a good reason to take their pyjamas off.
It’s disappointing there’s no Bond. If people don’t release stuff, it will erode the whole ecosystem cinema relies on. Studios and distributors still want predictability about release campaigns, but we’re unlikely to have that for some time, given the timescale of a potential vaccine and then the backlog of releases.
Blockbusters aren’t as key to us as they are to many others, but I can’t them disappearing. The spectacle is what people love. And if there’s a passion for it, there’s a market for it.
‘Multiplexes need to urgently reassess their business model and embrace flexibility’
Eve Gabereau, CEO of Modern Films
The Bond decision sent a shockwave through the industry. It seems to have been taken from more of a US perspective, which is a shame because I think cinemas elsewhere round the world were ready. Tenet did well, especially considering the circumstances, and if any film was going to make it, it was Bond. Plus, Universal had already successfully experimented with breaking the theatrical window much earlier in lockdown, when they put Trolls: World Tour straight to streaming at a premium price level.
At the time, the exhibition sector reacted angrily, so this decision might be in part a continuation of that, but it was also clearly part of a much deeper commercial issue and one of precedence. Cinemas need to urgently reassess their business model and embrace flexibility if they are to survive without being propped up by tentpole movies.
While cinemas reopened in the summer, many independent films did well and found audiences on the big screen. We worked on the release of a number of films through a hybrid model of physical and virtual screenings and accompanying online events that managed to make an impact, including Italian mafia story The Traitor, Sundance grand jury prize winner Clemency and Rock Against Racism documentary White Riot. As a company, we are working on developing this model into an industry standard that allows for different availability times and viewer experiences, while still opening a film with a viable box office structure, even if it crosses time and space differently.
We are trying to find innovative ways to connect with audiences through new avenues and partner with arts organisations, brands, venues and agencies that we might not have been able to do before. It’s all about putting the content in front of engaged groups of people and then enabling them to feel comfortable clicking a link that isn’t Netflix. As great as Netflix and other leading streamers are, there can be other roads to watching content, especially film.
‘It’s time to innovate, to reinvent the film landscape’
Mia Bays, director-at-large, Birds’ Eye View Film
The wipeout of tentpole film releases shows that the big guns centre their profits over the survival of everyone in the film value chain. The studios are being shortsighted; shooting themselves in the foot if they lose the scale they need for releases to work in six months’ time.
It’s time to innovate, to reinvent what the film landscape looks like – we can keep kicking the doors open and breaking the windows for indie films with their more diverse voices and stories, work to bring bigger audiences to them now there’s more space (films like Nomadland, Rocks, Shirley). Our mission encourages audiences to be mindful of what they are seeing and we see lots more opportunities around that – the localism that the pandemic has nurtured, the community support, the need for connection.
Lockdown brought about critical thought and different “smaller” films were being championed by the press rather than the usual 20 reviews about one film. In more real terms the failure of a clear response to the pandemic has to be discussed. Cinemas have modified their operating models and buildings, but if the rate jumps and you’re instructed to stay home then cinemas can’t campaign against that. It causes more carnage.
New models like virtual theatrical and profit sharing in PVoD is the future. (Modern Films and others like Bohemia on Clemency shared 50% of VoD with cinemas and key organisations.) Cinemas can use VoD to hold over films for audiences that they can’t on the big screen, and earn in other ways while supporting the more niche titles for longer.
The tyranny of a “profit”-centred approach is clear – we need to centre people and each other to ride this storm further.