Reel Streaming: Are You Dreaming of Streaming…or Theaters?
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 35
By Laurence Lerman
As Americans take their first tentative steps towards indoor dining and shopping and such, now is a good time to recall just how complicated and risky things were only one year ago this week in regard to going to the movies.
On March 18, 2020, the nation’s largest movie exhibitors—AMC, Cinemark and Regal—shut down the majority of the U.S.’s nearly 5,900 movie theaters and 40,000-plus screens due to Covid-19. And alongside those theater chains, the big movie studios cancelled nearly all the scheduled theatrical engagements of their films. According to the movie industry database The Numbers (www.thenumbers.com), there were some two dozen films slated to open theatrically—regionally and nationally—during the second and third weeks of May, 2020. With the theaters on hiatus, distributors large and small were forced to seek an alternate route for their films to find an audience.
Many people probably remember the delay of such prominent, slated-for-theater titles as Universal’s animated Trolls World Tour, Focus Features’ The High Note and Fox Searchlight/Disney’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, all of which were eventually parceled out to the major on-demand outlets and streaming services. There were even a few symbolic theatrical engagements thrown in, if possible. Another dozen or so smaller films were also kicked over to streaming services or other internet distributors. Without the benefit of even the smallest amount of press—there was precious little of it for more modest productions last spring—they found their final resting place as one of hundreds of films on a streaming menu scroll. Such was the case with Lionsgate’s Intrigo: Dear Agnes, OTL Releasing’s Run Sweetheart Run, Saban Films’ The Legion and Quiver’s Walk Away Joe. Haven’t heard of them? Neither have I.
Then there’s the case of United Artists Releasing’s Valley Girl, Neon’s Spaceship Earth and IFC’s How To Build a Girl, a trio of midsized independent features whose distributors refused to let their films endure a streaming-only suicide. To that end, all were cleverly rolled out to select drive-in theaters across the country, in addition to the usual on-demand hubs. Determined not to give up entirely on the big-screen experience, distributor Neon even created a bunch of pop-up cityscape projections for their documentary Spaceship Earth. In these cases, the films were shown on large, outdoor buildings or makeshift screens—fun! —with audiences adhering to quarantine and social-distance guidelines as they congregated for a night at the movies.
Finally, there were a couple of really big ones slated for May, 2020 release that still haven’t flickered before an audience’s eyes but are finally set to be released in theaters over the next couple of months. More on that later.
Fast forward to May, 2021. This past week has seen the limited theatrical release of at least two dozen specialty and foreign titles from a host of respected independent studios, including Silo (Oscilloscope Pictures), Undergods (Gravitas Ventures), The Perfect Candidate (Music Box Films), Riders of Justice (Magnolia Pictures), Mainstream (IFC Films) and There Is No Evil (Kino Lorber). The majority of them are also receiving day-and-date digital and streaming releases, so audiences can make the choice of either watching them at home or on the big screen. That so many entries will find their biggest audiences at home while also enjoying a limited big screen rollout–with their names illuminated on a movie theater marquee–is nice to see.
Of course, it’s the big studios that are now coming out swinging this week. They are releasing a half-dozen major films in the widest distribution pattern the theatrical market has seen since Warner jammed Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated, effects-filled Tenet into hundreds of U.S. theaters last Labor Day weekend.
You may recall that Tenet’s box office results were considered to be lackluster, which wasn’t really a surprise considering that only about 70 percent of the market was open at that time (New York and California were not among them). That all theaters had audience restrictions ranging from 25 percent to 60 percent was another factor that audiences didn’t find appealing. Tenet’s shaky theatrical release and box office returns were the barometer for Warner’s decision to premiere Wonder Woman 1984 both in theaters and on the company’s subscription-based streaming platform HBO Max several months later.
But eight months have passed since Tenet and the studios are now enthusiastically rolling out their mid-budgeted genre entries in a warm-up of sorts before they let loose their big guns this summer.
The studio films seeing wide theatrical release this past week were Wrath of Man (United Artists), Here Today (Sony), Spiral (Lionsgate) and Those Who Wish Me Dead (Warner), all of which feature relatively big stars, digestibly high-concept storylines and, hopefully, the appeal to lure audiences back to the theater. With the exception of Warner’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, which will also play on HBO Max, all of the films premiered solely in theaters, baiting movie lovers who have enjoyed both sides of the streaming/theatrical divide, with the prospect that they now must go to the theater if they want to see the newest “big” film in a timely fashion.
Leading the way for the summer blockbuster season are the aforementioned pair of probable smashes that were initially supposed to hit the theaters back in May, 2020: Disney/Marvel’s Black Widow is now is slated for wide release in July, and Universal’s F9, the latest entry in the studio’s Fast & Furious franchise, is due in June. It is worth noting, though, that Black Widow will simultaneously be premiering on the Disney Plus streaming platform for $30 as part of the studio’s “Premiere Access” program, much like Raya and The Last Dragon and Mulan did in previous months.
Like the theaters that try offer a mix of films to service their diverse clientele, Hollywood studios are varying their methods of distribution as they keep their eyes focused on their own bottom lines.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.