There you go, I have a rough week at work and am unable to do any posting here and suddenly all hell breaks lose. In honour of grand Hollywood tradition, let it not be said that I’m loathe to ignore opportunity for a sequel, so after Octobers post about cinema woes, here comes a totally superfluous post. Bear with me though, I’ve just done a twelve-hour stint at my work laptop so my eyes are blurry and my head fuzzier than normal. Yeah, doesn’t bode well, does it, but the same is true of movie sequels isn’t it? I guess that’s my way of suggesting its not wise to expect this post to be The Empire Strikes Back or Godfather Pt.2 of blog follow-ups.
So what’s been happening? Well news broke late last night that Warner Bros has announced that its entire slate of films for 2021 are now going to debut on streaming channel HBO Max on the same day as each films theatrical release. This includes films such as Mortal Kombat (hey a reboot I was blissfully unaware of till now), Godzilla v Kong, Matrix 4 (I thought this had been pushed back to 2022, maybe I was wrong) and of course Villeneuve’s much-anticipated (by me, anyway) Dune; the list totals 21 films in all.
I honestly thought it was internet hyperbole but I woke up this morning to find it confirmed on the BBC. Fairly ugly news for movie lovers really, on the face of it, but rather than The End Of Blockbusters As We Know It (which it still may be) I have to wonder if this is more a Studio move to dismantle the current distribution network (in the States, at least) by destroying the current cinema chains in order to just move in and replace them in a year or two. I believe that, in the old Hollywood glory days, studios had their hands in the theatrical pie but were litigated out of it, therefore having to share cinema takings and profits with the vendors/cinema chains like AMC etc. I suppose that’d be a bit like Netflix having to share its subscriber money with the Internet Service Providers that carries its content into peoples homes.
Part of the reason why Disney has its Disney+ is so that eventually there will be a Brave New World in which the only way to watch a Star Wars, Disney, Pixar or Marvel movie will be to pay up monthly for its streaming channel. In such a world without physical discs on shelves, it’d just be digital streaming (not even digital downloads) as the only way of watching its content, and ultimately only through its channel, if subscriptions are successful enough that it no longer needed traditional partners like the TV networks, satellite and cable TV providers etc. that it currently sells its content to. If Disney could also own its own cinema chains to monopolise that part of things too, all the better. Clearly the intention is not to share any of the revenue with anybody. And hey, without any competition, and with a captive audience having no alternative, Disney could go all Star Wars Evil Empire and raise its prices to, well, whatever it wanted. Add premium charges for new content, restrict ‘star’ movies to PPV only, downgrade the low entry-price subscription tier to films/content six months old. Hey, if I can think up things like that after a twelve-hour shift, you can be sure the execs at Disney can.
The reason why Warners seem to have jumped into this fray are the woes being suffered by HBO Max, a streaming network in the States owned by Warners’ parent company AT&T which is currently languishing as an also-ran in the the streaming wars currently led by Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. They seem to think having a big Hollywood movie hitting HBO Max will get subscriber numbers soaring, but I do wonder if its a dangerous gamble, certainly for Warners. How in the world they think they can get enough money that way to pay for the huge budgets of some of those movies is beyond me, really. HBO Max may suddenly get a bigger share of the streaming audience and more numbers in, but surely that’s never going to be anything like the $1 billion numbers of the big blockbusters from old-fashioned cinema takings. Unless I’m under-estimating what the revenue streams of business like Netflix are (which is possibly what Disney and the other studios are looking at).
I suppose playing the long game, the studios may intend to pick up all those empty bankrupted cinemas and return to the old distribution model (but owning all the distribution, theatrical as well as streaming), but once punters get used to films being beamed day one into their homes for a monthly fee (that remember is supposed to pay for all of a months content, other movies, doc and tv series, not just Warners’ latest movie), is there a risk it will diminish the public’s sense of worth of said blockbusters? Goodness knows many people astonish me enough by still buying/watching DVDs, so the idea they will go out and pay more for a cinematic experience may not be as reasonable as the studio execs think once they get used to Wonder Woman 84, The Matrix 4 and Dune beamed to their screens on Day One. Disney+ will surely be following its own similar move with Mulan with some of its other films still waiting in the wings (Black Widow seems to be the next likely suspect), all further dismantling the perception of newly-launched films being worth premium ticket prices in cinema multiplexes.
I wonder what James Cameron thinks of all this, with four Avatar films on the go. Its like his franchise just hit a proverbial iceberg (oh the irony).
From my own perspective, my immediate concern is the fate of all these movies from this year and next, the James Bonds etc, and where all this will leave them- particularly Dune, whose performance predicates us ever getting the sequel that completes its story. It could be a magnificent adult space opera, Star Wars for adults, as Villeneuve himself has hinted, which gets decimated by this Bonfire of the Cinemas and the streaming wars. Its already been pushed back a year, which means any Part Two is at least, what, four years away now? How can its performance be properly judged in this crazy Covid world, never mind what any post-Covid world might look like? The film cost $200 million to make… how does it ever get the financial remuneration to ensure execs think its worth another $200 million punt? Will such $200 million ‘punts’ even exist in this future world- returning to my earlier note, might this indeed actually signal The End Of Blockbusters As We Know It? Would that necessarily be a bad thing? Is the era of huge paychecks for directors and actors over?
And if I had shares in Cineworld, would I possibly get any sleep tonight?