Film: Damaging Delays and Video On Demand – The Uncertain Landscape of Cinema After COVID-19

Film Editor Elliott Jones explores some of the ramifications the global Coronavirus pandemic is having for the year’s cinema release slate

No Time to Die, Fast and Furious 9, Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984. These films are a select few that have suffered lengthy delays at the hand of COVID-19. However, whilst these films are box-office juggernauts that will still easily gross hundreds of millions, what’s ultimately concerning is how their delays may potentially harm releases of lower-budget films and overshadow the upcoming awards season. 

Equally, the increase in video on demand (VOD) releases of films currently in the midst of their theatrical runs could be more harmful to cinema-going as a whole. The omnipresent industrial anxiety surrounding streaming services replacing the cinematic experience has only been compounded by offering audiences the consumption of brand new releases from the comfort of their homes. It is definitely an uncertain time for cinema as it is for everyone, so it seems right to attempt to make sense of how it might look as we attempt to regain normality.

On the subject of delays, one of the prevalent questions is: isn’t it good that all these blockbuster films will be coming out later in the year? Surely there’s more choice? In short, no. From when awards season ends in February through to early September, the majority of the year’s biggest money-spinners are released. As studios and distributors wait until later in the year to release the lower-budget/profit awards contenders to maximise their chances of winning Oscars, this is worrying as many of the year’s potentially biggest films have been pushed back to the midst of the 2020/21 awards season. This could then set a precedent for complete domination of the market, leaving no room for the little guys. That’s not to say that this isn’t the case anyway, as most blockbusters get anywhere between seven and fifteen screenings per day compared to a measly one or two for a lower-budget film. However, saturating the market with more blockbusters than usual during the awards season months could prove damaging to smaller cinemas, distributors and studios that simply can’t get a look in against the might of Disney, Paramount, Universal and co.

As of right now, the only major blockbuster scheduled for release this summer is Christopher Nolan’s hotly-anticipated Tenet, which if released will undoubtedly dominate the box-office. However, given that it’s a Nolan film, it’s highly likely to compete in the awards season anyway, so a delay may not be the worst thing for it, even though excited fans (myself included) will certainly be disappointed. 

One blockbuster release already scheduled for later in the year is Denis Villeneuve’s much-hyped Dune reboot, which — though would probably have been a high-budget film with a limited box-office, much like Blade Runner: 2049 — will certainly suffer from being stacked up against the likes of Black Widow and No Time to Die in November. Again, this is a film likely to compete in the awards season, so all is not lost, though Warner Bros. will be wary of any further damage to its already uncertain box-office potential. For films like No Time to Die or Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, delayed to October, this postponement may prove beneficial in the sense that it enters them right into the midst of awards season and fresh in the mind of the voters. Therefore, they could see their chances of Oscar success hugely increased. 

Generally speaking, whilst these delays may offer more chances to go to cinemas once they reopen and could boost certain films’ awards chances, they have the potential to be catastrophically damaging to the already saturated market. Packing a multitude of blockbusters into a time when normally one or two are released is going to put a severe strain on smaller releases and cinemas that simply cannot keep up with the money-dominated market anyway, let alone when five to ten big releases are all happening at once. As much as fans may be disappointed, a more long-winded delay, such as Fast and Furious 9’s, may well have been the best way forward.

There’s no denying that the response to making films in the midst of their theatrical run, like Birds of Prey or The Invisible Man, available to watch on-demand, was pretty mixed. Some Twitter users were overjoyed that they could watch the latest releases at home, with TrailerTrack creator Anton Volkov tweeting messages of praise towards Disney and Universals’ decisions to release respective hits like Onward and The Hunt. Of course, there is always the counter-argument that it is just another step towards streaming services taking over. 

Whilst this has been an ongoing industrial debate for years and people have been rightfully anxious about losing the cinematic experience, what this ordeal has actually demonstrated is that cinema has never been more important. It only takes one look on Twitter, where directors like Edgar Wright and Sean Baker are declaring how much they miss the moviegoing experience under the trending thread “I Miss Movie Theaters” alongside a large number of regular cinemagoers. Equally, there was a wonderful article published in Variety by Owen Gleiberman entitled “Why I Miss Movie Theaters, and Why Nothing Can Replace Them” which has since gone viral and been shared by the likes of Wright and Baker. Certainly then, it is reassuring to see people using their social media platforms clamouring for the return of the communal experience of watching a new film on the big screen.

Of course, it is a major step for studios and distributors to offer films to audiences in their own homes, and is not to be taken lightly, but this is where delayed films provide unexpected positivity. The box-office behemoths are wholly created to be watched in cinemas, not on your TV screens, so for the biggest studios like Disney or Warner Bros. to reiterate this point and ensure their films are watched the right way is a step in the right direction. Streaming services are great and are to be commended for their original and diverse content, but nothing beats going to the cinema as Gleiberman so beautifully addresses. At this uneasy time when cinema-going has been taken away from us, it’s uplifting to see a wide range of people being vocal about their desire for cinema to return, from big-name directors to even my own grandparents, whose afternoons in retirement being spent in the cinema is certainly being missed.

It’s not been an easy ride for anyone and certainly not for cinema. Many things remain uncertain and there are no doubts that a blockbuster-dominated awards season release schedule isn’t going to be ultimately damaging, yet there remains a glimmer of hope. The return of cinema will be most welcome and met with potentially bigger audiences than normal, given the outpouring of affection since its departure. Perhaps its future isn’t as uncertain as it first may seem.

Words by Elliott Jones

This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which is still on sale and is raising money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.

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