On Demand v Cinema: Why there's no victory for either side if they continue to refuse to work to

For a while now there has been an argument raging between two sides. The argument revolves around streaming, and specifically the concept of video on demand as a release strategy for movies. There are those who argue that the cinema experience is the only true way to view a movie, and that anything released outside of that is simply not a “real film”, and there are those who argue that video on demand is a legitimate, viable strategy for movies that can help films reach a wider audience.

For years the general rule of thumb, when it comes to movie releases, has gone something like this; a theatrical release at the cinema, where the number of tickets sold are used as a gauge on how successful a film has been. After that there will be some sort of home release, likely a physical copy, but more recently through services like the Sky Store, or for rent or purchase via something like Amazon Prime, and then finally television.

More or less this strategy has worked, and no one has seen much of a problem with it. Some movies forgo a worldwide theatrical release opting for a more limited one, and others simply bypass the cinema altogether, but mostly, especially when it comes to mainstream releases, this has been the structure that is followed.

There are outliers; Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England famously released on every platform on the same day (limited theatrical run, physical media, on demand, and TV), and there are those film fans who have been pushing for a while now for this kind of thing to be applied to more movies, but in reality those voices have been few and far between and the more “traditional” system has been working so, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Those against video on demand as a wider release strategy tend to point to the likely decrease in sales (more than one person can watch a single purchase of a VoD film, so even if it cost the same as a single cinema ticket it’ll bring in less than it otherwise would), while those for it argue that the cheaper cost would, in fact, bring more people in, and that the ease of access would mean those who don’t normally attend the cinema would also be able to check it out.

There are reasonable points on both sides of the argument, and the solution is somewhat muddied, but by and large everything was working fine as is. Until Coronavirus that is.

See, Coronavirus has shone a light on a problem bubbling within the film industry, and while it has amplified its existence, it didn’t create it. For a long, long while people have been decrying Video on Demand as the “death” of cinema, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

While there’s no doubt that the shift to easier, cheaper, and more accessible viewing has meant that many people have turned away from the cinema in favor of waiting the extra few months to view a film from the comfort of their own home, I think the real issues stems from the movies themselves. Or, perhaps more specifically, from their budgets.

Studios are always going to be profit-led. It is show business after all. But when your movie needs to make a $billion at the box office in order break even… that’s nor sustainable. The problem with the current release strategy isn’t that it’s broken, it’s that studios aren’t ensuring they’ve got enough room to make any real money from the projects. When Solo, a Star Wars film that raked in $393.2 million in ticket sales, is considered a failure… well… that ain’t right.

And when Coronavirus hit, and audiences could no longer flock to the theatres, this flaw was exposed. Video on Demand is a realistic option for major studios because they simply can’t afford to release via that platform. This is why Disney are now charging $30 on top of a Disney+ subscription for their upcoming summer blockbuster Mulan, which… look, I know about the work that goes into making movies, and I know how much it costs, I’ve done it myself (albeit nowhere near the scale of a studio like Disney), but $30 for a movie you’ve never seen, don’t know if you’re going to like, that you’re watching on your own TV – not a massive screen – just isn’t that great a deal. It’s not. And you can argue with me about it as much as you want, but you’re not going to change my mind.

There are those that like to point to the fact that the cost of Mulan is less than many would pay to go to the cinema anyway. Yes, that’s true, but it’s still more than most people are willing to pay to sit on their arse at home. And for those of you who like to point out that it’s something for the kids to do, I’d like to point out that getting my kids to watch a movie in our living room is a drastically different experience than a day-trip to the cinema.

In fact, it’s a struggle, and I’m not prepared to spend $30 on a struggle.

I’m not arguing that every movie should be low-budget, of course I’m not. I’m just arguing that not every movie should be a mega-blockbuster, costing millions, released as if it’s a super tent-pole extravaganza. Like, this is crazy, and quite clearly not sustainable in today’s current landscape.

Video on Demand isn’t killing the industry, it’s the industry’s refusal to adopt it that’s doing that. A shift away from the idea of smaller and mid-range movies that could realistically have made a profit with online releases has meant that studios are now funneling ridiculous amounts of money into every single project in the hopes of buying audiences into the cinema under the guise of it being an “event”. Of course, when every movie is an “event” … well, none of them are.

No doubt this all slightly simplistic, and I appreciate that there are plenty of other factors at play here too, but quite clearly there’s an issue that needs addressing. Whether we like it or not, technology has changed the way we view movies, and it has altered what a movie even is. There’s simply not really such a thing as straight to TV anymore, and the line between on-demand and cinema releases is continuously blurring.

If we want cinemas to survive, and studios want themselves to survive, then we need to start changing the approach to these things. There is room for all of it to exist and to offer their own benefits, but to achieve that, all these things need to be taken into account, and they all need to work together. Otherwise it just isn’t going to end well for anyone.

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© Alex Secker 2018