As for filmmakers, they seem to be making the pivot to the new platforms with relative ease. Netflix boasted new movies from the likes of David Fincher (“Mank”), Spike Lee (“Da Five Bloods”), George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”), and Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) in 2020 and has a good chance of converting at least one of these splashy projects into an Oscar winner. And Apple, Amazon, and Hulu countered with new films from auteurs and A-listers such as Sofia Coppola (“On the Rocks”), Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), and Lee Daniels (the upcoming “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”). Some of these films were initially set up at traditional studios before the pandemic upended plans for a theatrical release and resulted in a great selloff.
“They have a checkbook and they have an aesthetic,” Fincher said of Netflix during an interview this fall. “They’re working with the people they want to work with. I respect that.”
Yet even as Fincher looked ahead to the emergence of a different kind of studio system, one built around streamers, he warned of the dangers of a new status quo. “I hope it doesn’t feel clubby,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t feel like there’s an Amazon-type filmmaker and a Netflix-type filmmaker and an Apple-type filmmaker. That feels like subdividing in a twee way.”
Despite the convenience and comfort of at-home viewing, Hollywood studios aren’t resigned to the collapse of the theatrical business. Talk to any film executive, and they will ensure you that people are more than eager to resume normal life.
“We’ve all heard the analogy that the roaring twenties followed [the 1918] pandemic,” says Tom Rothman, the chairman of Sony Pictures. “That feels instinctively correct. There’s a tremendous pent up desire to get out of the house and away from our screens and experience life with other people.”
Of course, a return to any kind of normalcy — and with it, regular moviegoing — is dependent on a widely distributed COVID-19 vaccine. Most public health experts believe that milestone won’t be reached until late spring or early summer.
Harman Moseley, the owner of St. Louis Cinemas, a small chain in the Midwest, has already been burned by turning his marquee lights back on before the pandemic had lifted.
“I’m not going to reopen until I’m confident we can attract crowds that will offer us the possibility of economic viability,” Moseley says. “I was open for two months [in the summer]. My payroll was more than my gross. If my rent were due, I would already be bankrupt.”
It’s also undeniable that theaters will need to evolve and recalibrate to get people back in their auditoriums. Audiences have spent the past year watching films from their sofa for the same price as a single movie stub. An HBO Max subscription costs $15 per month. Movie tickets in New York City and Los Angeles sell for $20 a pop.
“I live in fear of exhibition chomping at the bit to get back to the status quo,” says Chris Aronson, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution. “I do believe people will want to get out of their homes and resume a normal lifestyle, but it’s very shortsighted to think that’s all that needs to be done. Theater owners need to look at every facet of their business, like we’re looking at every facet of ours.”
Ted Rogers, the film programmer at Ragtag Cinema, a non-profit independent movie theater in Columbia, Missouri, agrees with Aronson. He understands that showing the next “Jurassic World” sequel won’t be enough to keep the cash registers ringing. He’ll have to also find ways to strengthen the bond between his customers and the cinema he operates.
“I think it’s about leaning on what arthouses have been doing this whole time: speaking directly to the audience, not programming to the lowest common denominator,” Rogers says. “That’s what’s going to wow audiences. Not just being a work-a-day exhibitor, but creating a community space.”
Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.
This article is written by Rebecca Rubin from Variety and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].