Dreaming of Streaming (and Theaters, Too)
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The headline says it all.
Prior to Covid-19, in my capacity as an entertainment journalist and film critic, I was good for somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 film screenings a year in theaters and screening rooms around the city. Recent years have found studios big and small more often sending pre-release streaming links to journalists (a number of screening rooms have closed over the past five years, victims of both streaming technology and the skyrocketing NYC realty market), but theatrical screenings remain part of the experience and one of the nicer aspects of my profession.
Of course, I also went to movies for the pure pleasure of it at least as often. I wasn’t able to catch a press screening for Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but I wasn’t about to let it slip by when it was in theaters. There’s so much pleasure to be derived from a widescreen epic shot in 35mm when it’s projected on the silver screen.
So when Covid hit in late February, 2020, and I was given the opportunity to write about all things cinematic for the newly formed online weekly The Insider, I quickly decided that the streaming experience would be the focus of my column. It wasn’t a time for theaters and what was new, but rather adventures in digital streaming and the wide, wide variety of choices it affords.
During those first critical months, watching the newest or buzziest feature-length films wasn’t very appealing for me. It was all about the news, news, news in our household—mostly from CNN, with occasional color commentary by the good people at MSNBC. Supplementing the news and updates and public health directives were the regularly broadcast bellicose blatherings of our former president—an angry, uncaring and hollow soul whose rantings were generally trashier, dumber and less coherent than any kind of fiction that even the most bottom-feeding creator in Hollywood could possibly craft.
By late March theaters were closing en masse. There were a swath of movie lovers horrified at the immediate prospect of a drought of first-run Hollywood pictures and the movie theaters they could be seen in. But I myself immediately anticipated a season of endless streaming possibilities at my fingertips, with my eyes focused on a trove of films produced over the past century, many made in the U.S. and even more from around the world.
Going back to my very first “Reel Streaming” column for The Insider in April, 2020, right out of the gate I set out for the far reaches of the seemingly infinite streaming universe. I covered a 1978 Suzanne Somers TV movie, two Bergman films, a Bob Hope movie from the Forties, a couple of bad Chevy Chase vehicles (one, 1981’s Under the Rainbow, that featured over 100 midget performers) and John Boorman’s 1968 World War II adventure Hell in the Pacific starring the mighty duo of Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. All in a weekend.
I continued surveying the celluloid of days gone by as one weekly Insider column became a month of them, then a season, until finally I had contributed some two dozen of them. This, just as the year came to an end and a violent assault on the nation’s capital unbeknownst to us loomed a week into 2022.
Looking back over those first two dozen columns, I can clearly see how my initial focus on older films set the tone for the rest of the year. During those days of growing public crisis, political unrest and the horrible statistical reality of Covid-19, the present had become an unhappy blur that demanded succor from the past. Ditto for newer films that the studios began to cautiously roll out for premieres on streaming outlets. But older films, now that was a different story. And a more comforting one.
So, through December, I found myself taking a few steps backward and filling in some glaring blank spots on my cinephile resumé, checking off a number of works by the lions of the international cinema that had made it past me over the years. Ingmar Bergman and his formidable catalog, for example. Sure, sure, I was covered in terms of Bergman’s biggies, but I hadn’t taken nearly a big enough bite out of the other ones in his oeuvre. So, for every Fanny and Alexander (1982), Cries and Whispers (1972) and Persona (1966), there were such less-heralded entries as the drama-romance Port of Call (1948) the experimental psychological drama The Rite (1969) and The Devil’s Eye (1960), one of Bergman’s few comedies (and not a very funny one). No, I hadn’t seen them either, until this year.
I followed the call of minor films from major filmmakers into autumn, which included detours into the world of lesser Fellini (1955’s The Swindle, 1976's Fellini's Casanova, 1987’s Intervista), peripheral Fassbinder (1971’s Beware of a Holy Whore, 1979’s Despair) and second tier Antonioni (1980’s The Mystery of Oberwald, 1953’s I Vinti).
I wish I could say I did the same with the major Hollywood filmmakers of yesteryear—there’s plenty of Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and John Ford that I haven’t seen—but the American cinema of the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomer eras weren’t appealing to me as the world continued to hold its collective breath. As for homegrown legends of the Seventies and beyond, I was pretty up to date with them as those were the filmmakers I grew up with. My biggest get in this category was probably Spielberg’s 1985 The Color Purple, which I watched for the very first time after my wife and I screened Jonathan Demme’s 1998 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For the record, I enjoyed Demme's effort for more than Spielberg’s candy-colored take on Alice Walker’s novel.
I managed to do a healthy number of write-ups on more recent American fare, Woody Allen’s latest, 2020’s A Rainy Day in New York being one, and the previous year’s zombie action-comedy sequel Zombieland: Double Tap being another (mostly because I’m crazy about Zoe Deutch). But by and large, I steered clear of most recent Hollywood commodities.
By the end of the 2020, most of the studios had come up with a viable day-and-date plan for their big guns. That included Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984, which arrived both in theaters and on home screens (via Warner-owned streamer HBO Max) on the same day in December. That was also the month I inked my first column solely dedicated to new films that were released in 2020. As we crept through the winter of 2021 and into the spring, and the state of all things began slowly to look up with the plan of wide theatrical openings in the upcoming summer, the films of the day took on a more prominent role in “Reel Streaming.”
The ensuing six months of vaccinations, falling Covid numbers and, yes, theater reopenings, inspired Americans to look to the immediate future with optimism and excitement. It was time to write about all the big movies that were slated to open theatrically in the upcoming summer and fall. Hollywood deserved it! I inked a quartet of “Coming Soon” articles for The Insider in March and May, along with accompanying write-ups of current films, both domestic and imported. Oh, I continued to traverse the streaming currents with coverage on everything from vintage Esther Williams pictures to the original Planet of the Apes cycle to the continuing physical appeal of DVD and Blu-ray discs. But at that point, I would have to have been one helluva negative columnist to not keep an eye on the hopeful reemergence of what was new, fresh and exciting.
Then began the rise of the Covid Delta variant, which was first detected in India back in March and began rearing its ugly head in the States in early June. And so, like a game of Monopoly (which I always eschewed while growing up in favor of a good movie), it feels like we’re all going back to the start.
So, what are we looking at now? While this year’s domestic theatrical box office is certainly coming in stronger than it did in 2020, it can’t be considered any kind of triumph. U.S ticket sales for the year are down 74% from 2019’s pre-Covid receipts, which came in at $11.3 billion. (For context, the domestic box office rang up a disastrous $2.9 billion in 2020.)
And just as a number of big movies are coming this fall, there are also a handful that are once again being delayed, led by Paramount and Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, which is moving from this November to May, 2022, and Mission: Impossible 7, which is being pushed from May to September, 2022.
Meanwhile, the studios are continuing to experiment with hybrid day-and-date theatrical/streaming release patterns, the options for which include streaming new films for free, offering them for a “premiere access” fee (which experts and studios agree cannibalizes potential theatrical dollars) or simply making them available on streaming platforms and cable networks after a significantly shortened theatrical window.
The future of the theatrical experience still all comes down to the audience, to the people who watch movies, and when they’ll feel comfortable enough to go to movie theater with any kind of regularity. As if Covid-19 factors regularity into its mutation patterns.
There are some hopeful signs. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest Marvel Comics superhero extravaganza, broke a slew of box office records in the two weeks since its opening in early September. (It will begin streaming on Disney+ following an abbreviated 45-day exclusive run in theaters.) A few other recent theatrical releases—the horror film Candy Man and the visual effects-driven Free Guy—have proven to be modest box office hits. And the upcoming Halloween Kills, the latest installment in the 43-year-old slasher franchise (and still starring original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis), which is already getting some seriously good buzz.
Then there’s the case of Bond, James Bond. The final chapter in Daniel Craig’s five-year, 15-year portrayal of Her Majesty’s favorite secret agent, No Time to Die, is already a landmark as it is the first Hollywood blockbuster to be yanked in response to the pandemic. It was originally scheduled for release in April, 2020, and is finally scheduled to open wide on October 8. It remains for me the only film that could stir me off my couch and into the theaters, as Bond films have been a consistently thrilling theatrical experience since the day my father took me to see a revival (remember those?) of Dr. No and Goldfinger in the early 1970s.
The upcoming release proposes a slew of possibilities: Will such a wildly popular international property coax even more people back to theater? Might the Delta variant wreak even more havoc over the coming weeks and curtail those on the fence? Could there be another last-minute alteration to the release schedule?
And will I finally take the movie house plunge and pen my first Insider review for a film that I’ve seen in a theater?
I can promise you that whether it’s on the big screen or in my home, I’ll have something to say about it in The Insider. And with it, a cross-section of related write-ups of film from years past—undoubtedly a number of foreign ones—that I’ve streamed in my living room in recent months. The new films are here and they’re not going anywhere, but the older, equally accessible ones will continue to lure me and hopefully Insider readers, too.