Scheduling Conflicts: How the Coronavirus crisis might shape the future of cinema for the better.

With the news this week that Disney are pulling Black Widow from its already delayed release date for one in 2021 I’ve been wondering about the shape of the modern film landscape in the post-coronavirus age. The world is forever changed as a result of this pandemic, and forever more things will be different. But what of the medium of film?

It’s true to say that film was already changing before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. The advent of online streaming saw a shift in the kinds of films produced. It’s easier now to access your favorite films, so going to the cinema must become an event. The studios desperately scrambling to woo people into the theatres with their gigantic, CG-laden franchises.

Gone now are the days of mid-budget studio pictures, replaced with massive tentpole blockbusters designed to break the box office. The online nature of film discussion has led to the expansion of continuity, with the cinematic universe a corporate strategy of creative proportions existing with the sole purpose of selling you the next outing. You dare not miss the latest installment of the MCU for fear of losing some integral plot point for some later installment.

Meanwhile VOD and the likes of Netflix have transformed smaller budgeted movies too. No longer are the straight-to-video markets the sole home of low-budget B-movie genre flicks. Instead the options are endless, from dramatic indies to gross out horrors and everything in between. There is no film that doesn’t have its audience, and nowhere it can’t be accessed.

But what of Coronavirus? What impact has this world-altering moment in time had on film?

The closing of cinemas and the increase in social distancing has meant that studios are no longer able to release their big-budget blockbusters in the theatres. The audience numbers simply aren’t there, and this is why we’ve seen so many delays and reschedules. The films are so big, and so expensive, of course, that do move to an online release strategy would likely see a drop in sales so dramatic that it could potentially sink the company. And that’s before we eve get to the agreements and contracts about release strategies.

The struggle with how to deal with the problem has played out publicly. The online release of Trolls 2 saw a decent run, but hardly anything like a cinema release. Blumhouse attempted to cash-in with their films The Invisible Man and The Hunt, although neither of those made much money either. Disney, meanwhile, have released their live-action remake of the classic cartoon Mulan via their own streaming platform, along with the hefty price tag of £30.00!

But none of these things have really worked. The studios are in trouble, with a backlog of movies unable to earn profit and yet more in the pipeline, the money simply isn’t coming in.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The streaming service Shudder have had a surprise hit with their Zoom based horror from director Rob Savage, HOST. Now, while there is no doubt that part of HOST’s success comes from its tapping into the strange and unusual circumstances we all find ourselves in, but it is also true that the drive to find new content by audiences, fueled in part from the lack of cinema offerings as stated above, played a big part. And HOST is good, of course.

Shudder’s success saw their subscribers increase to over a million and is raking in a lot, no doubt, as a result. Netflix subscriptions have also skyrocketed, and Amazon have reported an increase too. In fact, according to Second Measure, streaming service sales are up a whopping 50%! Meanwhile, I’ve discovered they do movies of BBC iPlayer, so they’re one up there, and small-scale movies like Unhinged have seen theatrical releases that netted them a pretty good return, even if it wasn’t jaw-dropping.

So, I guess my question becomes, could the current situation actually see us witness a move away from the big-budget franchise pictures we’ve grown so accustomed to (and, at least in my case, woefully tired of) in favor of smaller budget outings?

It would certainly make sense, right? At least from a business standpoint. After all, the less money you put in, the less you need to make back, and with cinema audience figures forcibly so low, and VOD fast becoming the more popular (and more sensible, at least at the moment) way to watch films, those mid-range movies that seemed to have disappeared almost entirely from sight a few years ago are now looking like a pretty good option.

Could it be, then, that Coronavirus we lead to a focus on these smaller budgeted films, and, possibly, a focus on more creative ventures? As has always been the case with the big budget blockbusters studios have been churning out recently, the massive amounts of money funneled into them also means they tend to be far more focused on hitting that broadest, biggest target audience. As a result, they can be pretty bland. Less need for such a major return may mean less restriction. Is it possible that we’ll see a return to the 70s and 80s format of creative led studio projects? Of course, I’m not suggesting they’d have the money of those ventures, but with studio backing and the power of marketing and pull that comes with that, we could see some rather interesting results.

Who knows? But at this point the future looks pretty intriguing, to say the least. I for one am pretty excited about it. The idea of more original films is one that I’ve always been fully behind, and while I don’t expect nor would I want the big budget franchises to go away, in the new world of pos-COVID-19, surely the Hollywood bigwigs must be considering something like this as a way to maintain a secure income in case anything like this should befall us again?

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© Alex Secker 2018