Is Cinema A Dying Art, Or Are Filmmakers Over Reacting?

Streaming Services Vs. Movie Theaters. Streaming services are dominating the entertainment industry, but will they destroy cinemas, or can the two platforms co-exist.
Nathan DeFiesta, Hollywood Sign, Cinema, Streaming
image source: Unsplash and Nathan DeFiesta

Throughout 2020, and now 2021, Covid-19 has managed to reach every corner of the globe, and affect nearly all aspects of everyday life. Chaos has ensued with social distancing, shortages of toilet paper and disinfecting wipes, and a two-week stay-at-home lockdown that’s lasted over a year.

Due to the pandemic, remote working, or the “work from home” phenomenon, has become an integral part of our global dealings, affecting countless industries, and altering their futures in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Cinema is one such industry and might be one of the most altered professions of the past year and a half.

With the rise in power of streaming services and the closures of movie theaters, is cinema truly dead after the pandemic, or are filmmakers jumping the gun?

The Decline of Movie Theater Popularity:

If you’re among cinephiles and binge-watchers then you’re aware of the slow death of movie theaters.

movie theater, unsplash, jake hills
image source: Unsplash and Jake Hills

Since movie theaters require large audiences to sit in a crowded room together, nationwide shutdowns were practically a death sentence for local and chain-owned theaters (most notably AMC). With no alternatives to making money, cinemas were forced to sell popcorn and pre-paid ticket vouchers.

Unfortunately, such efforts were fruitless for many. Consumers didn’t want to buy ticket vouchers for a movie theater they weren’t sure would still be open at the end of the year. I mean, who wants to drop $100 on tickets that may not keep their value?

Plus, countless people across the world were losing their jobs, forced into an indefinite hiatus, or went bankrupt. Few people had the money to pay for movie tickets, and even fewer wanted to risk their health to sit in a theater at the peak of a pandemic.

So, what are we to turn to? Streaming.

The Rise of Streaming: A Life-Line or a Death Sentence for Cinema?

Seeing a movie in theaters is the pinnacle of the cinematic experience, but it was no longer an option as long as Covid-19 had free reign.

Streaming service logos, Polygon
image source: Polygon

Luckily, streaming services had begun sprouting like weeds leading into the Covid era. Not only did we have Netflix and Hulu, but we got the premiere of Apple TV+, Disney+, NBC’s Peacock, and HBOMax. Movie consumption was at an all-time high, it was just at home instead of at AMC.

Before Covid-19 ever existed, many members of Hollywood royalty began making the switch from the red carpet to the red “N” (Netflix). Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach had premiered The Irishman and Marriage Story on Netflix in November and December of 2019 respectively, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards that year.

Earlier than that, Ben Affleck starred in Triple Frontier which premiered in March of 2019, and Will Smith had starred in Bright which preceded them all by premiering in 2017.

Cinema was beginning to shift onto streaming services long before Covid-19 hit, but the pandemic certainly hastened our exit from movie theaters.

Mulan Premiere's on Disney+

With theater closures and production losses, Disney made the leap to premiere Mulan on Disney+.

Mulan 2020, Disney+, Disney, CG Magazine
Yifei Liu as Mulan in Disney's Mulan (2020) - source: Disney and CGMagazine

Films continued to premiere on Netflix and Hulu throughout 2020, including David Fincher’s Mank, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs, all three of which received critical acclaim and kept audiences on their toes during the lockdown.

This “new normal” found status quo for a while, but Disney shook it all up by premiering what would’ve been the theatrical release of Mulan on Disney+.

So, not only have big-budget Hollywood films been specifically premiering on online platforms for years, but films planned for theatrical releases are now being transferred over to streaming services.

Okay, so a movie every now and then moving from theaters to streaming isn’t so bad, right? Then WarnerMedia dropped a bomb.

Warner Bros. Premieres Entire 2021 Movie Lineup on HBOmax

HBOmax doubles down on streaming premieres, releasing their biggest films online instead of in theaters.

Screenrant, HBOmax, WarnerMedia
image source: WarnerMedia and Screenrant

HBOMax, and effectively HBO in its entirety, is part of the WarnerMedia umbrella which includes Warner Bros. studios, Turner Classic Movies, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Studio Ghibli, and Cartoon Network, just to name a few.

As such, many theatrically released films each year come out of WarnerMedia. You may recall Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix as some of their more impressive portfolio pieces. But what does this have to do with streaming?

In late 2020, WarnerMedia announced that their entire slate of 2021 theatrical releases would also premiere on HBOMax for their respective theatrical run periods. That means that when the fourth installment of The Matrix franchise hits theaters in December, you can also watch it on HBOMax.

The same goes for Dune, The Suicide Squad, and Mortal Kombat. Even the long-awaited Zack Snyder’s Justice League premiered on HBOmax. Holy. Crap. All that sounds pretty awesome if I do say so myself.

Yes, new movies have been premiering on streaming services since 2015, but it’s the first time in history that such huge blockbusters will be available to watch at home, and for cheaper prices; two things audiences desperately need right now.

However, WarnerMedia has been under much scrutiny for this decision, and not everyone is willing to set the cinema experience aside.

Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese Are Against At-Home Premieres

Not everyone shares in Warner Bros.’s delight in premiering their movies on HBOmax, and some of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers are fighting back.

christopher nolan, reuters
Christopher Nolan attends a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah in California - source: Reuters

Despite the persistence of the covid-19 pandemic, director Christopher Nolan has been a vocal advocate for the movie-going experience and even went as far as to delay his latest film Tenet three times in an effort to get audiences out of their homes and into the theater.

He has been a longtime partner with WarnerMedia, directing Inception, The Dark Knight, and now Tenet alongside the production company, and, needless to say, he was upset by their decision to premiere films on HBOmax.

Nolan called HBOmax the “worst streaming service” and claimed WarnerMedia was contributing to the death of cinema. Yeesh.

When WarnerMedia announced their HBOmax plans they stated it “was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” and I can’t say I blame them.

Warnermedia made a judgment call. Should they release films in theaters and risk not having people show up, or take a loss by premiering these films on HBOMax where people are more likely to watch them?

Staying home is still a necessity for most, and being able to show your films safely to audiences at home is better than risking people's health, and possibly their lives, just to show your movie in a theater.

Interestingly enough, director Martin Scorsese, now a notable contributor to Netflix’s portfolio with The Irishman, also shares Nolans’ concerns over the future of the cinema experience.

Scorsese stated: "the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, 'content.'" He disapproves of algorithm-based viewing suggestions, claiming it can’t recommend movies based on emotion like a friend can, which is the purpose of art: sharing emotion.

However, this perspective might show that Scorsese is out of touch with the modern-day because friends recommend streaming movies to each other all the time. Ever heard of Netflix Party? Conversations surrounding film and TV have never been higher due to lockdown.

His opinions are of particular fascination, though, since he’s actively collaborated with Netflix to produce The Irishman, and has therefore contributed to the supposed “death of cinema” he feels so inclined to criticize.

So, Which is Winning? Cinema or Streaming?

Streaming service subscriptions continue to grow as theater closures reach an all-time high, but does that mean streaming has officially won the entertainment war?

ohio state university, news, watching tv
image source: Ohio State University

HBOMax subscriptions jumped to 37.7 million when Wonder Woman 1984 was announced to premiere on the platform, so profits from the service are very high. Since then, viewership of their 2021 slate for Judas and the Black Messiah, The Little Things, and Godzilla vs. Kong have also been high.

Disney has seen success as well, continuing to premiere theatrical films on Disney+ since Mulan’s release in September. The service most recently released Raya and the Last Dragon and plans to release Cruella and Marvel’s Black Widow on May 28 and July 9 respectively. All of which were originally planned for theatrical releases.

All of this, in addition to Netflix’s rise in Oscar-winning productions, proves that films don’t need a theatrical release to provide an excellent movie-watching experience.

But does that mean streaming is winning? They won this year, but what about the future?

HBOmax Looks to the Future, and So Do We

Studios have been struggling to get audiences into theaters for years, and a large reason for this is the existence of streaming services, but there's hope.

indieiwre, movie theaters, covid-19
image source: IndieWire

With hundreds, even thousands, of movies and television shows available at home for affordable prices, who wouldn’t want a piece of that? It’s cheaper than cable and cheaper than going to the movies. But that doesn’t mean people are done with movie theaters.

To be frank, to those who say nobody wants to go to the movies anymore, I think you’re dead wrong.

People have been devastated by the fall of chains like AMC and the closure of local theaters. I know many people like myself are itching to go back to theaters the moment it’s safe to do so, and we’re not the only ones.

HBOMax has recently announced that they will not be continuing their 2021 online release plan going into 2022, meaning you’ll have to leave your house to see those juicy new premieres.

Does this mean Disney will do the same? We’ll have to wait and see, but the news bodes well for us cinema lovers and folks like Christopher Nolan! Yay!

We all love streaming services, but after nearly a year and a half of being stuck inside, I’d bet anything that we’ll see a wave of movie-goers buying tickets once the majority of the public is safe and vaccinated.

Besides, no matter how comfy your couch is, nothing beats going to a movie with your friends, eating popcorn, and cheering with a crowd.

Chris is a recent Brooklyn College grad who's eager to share his thoughts on entertainment, lifestyle routines, and the state of the world.

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