This past Monday was a momentous occasion, happy Spider-Monday to all those that celebrate. One of the most highly anticipated films since Covid arrived and shut down all social interaction, Spider-Man: No Way Home began selling pre-order tickets this week. The response was fervent. Would be cinema goers waited in hour long virtual queues to secure the right to purchase a seat, opportunistic scalpers listed their tickets online for astronomical prices, American audiences were clamoring for a big communal experience.
While we are still a month away from seeing three generations of Spider-Men (allegedly) suit up and the new Omicron Variant could upend a rebounding box office, one thing is very clear: people are willing to venture out for the right films. Big Marvel movies are raking in hundreds of millions, indie releases from the Andersons — Wes and Paul Thomas — approached pre-pandemic per screen averages. For the biggest blockbusters and the niche independent films things are looking more normal.
In between and below the surface the box office numbers have been pretty middling. HBO Max releasing Warner movies day and date has meant underwhelming returns on In the Heights, The Suicide Squad and, to an extent, Dune. But, people still saw those movies. HBO wont tell us exactly how many, but having access at home opened up some of the year’s biggest movies to folks who may otherwise have had a hard time getting to the theaters or a limited desire to.
What this means for theaters is a long simmering debate, one that dates back to the earliest days of home video and has only accelerated in the streaming era. It’s a worthy conversation, especially for those of us invested in cinema on the big screen, but one I will save for another day. We know by now what will be lost if theaters are allowed to die, but what is often overlooked by us crusaders of the cineplex is what gets lost by withholding films from home audiences.
Casablanca is one of my all time favorite films. When Rick’s band starts playing Les Marseilles to drown out the drunken Nazis I get chills on every viewing. Of course, Casablanca came out in 1942, more than half a century before I was born. I’ve never seen it on the big screen. And even though I’d like to, everything that makes it one of the all time great films, from the biting dialogue to the dynamic cinematography, comes through wonderfully on my TV as well. This timeless tale of love and sacrifice has surely found many times more admirers on home video than in its theatrical run or subsequent re-releases.
La La Land I first watched at home. Inside Llewyn Davis, The Princess Bride and Citizen Kane too. My first viewing of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl came on an airplane! My favorite movies have never been dictated by the way I saw them. Even Lady Bird, my all time favorite film, I saw in theaters once before falling in love with it over dozens of subsequent home viewings. What makes films great is their heart and craft, not the screen they’re displayed on.
I love movie theaters more than just about anyone, even in a year with limited theatrical releases I’ve seen over 50 films on the big screen. Truly, that experience is unrivaled, but we have to acknowledge that the point of art is to be seen and experienced by as many people as possible. If the two post-pandemic options are films getting buried in theaters behind Spider-Man 37 or getting buried by the Netflix algorithm, we need to start exploring new options.
Denis Villeneuve was understandably upset that Dune was not given the big exclusive theatrical release he had envisioned for it. Instead, like every other Warner release of 2021, the space epic was simultaneously released in theaters and on HBO Max. HBO estimates that nearly 2 million people saw Dune on their platform opening weekend while the film concurrently raked in over $40 million at the box office. People who wanted to see the Villeneuve’s latest in theaters did so and many others — who may have skipped it entirely otherwise — opted to watch at home.
Warner seems to have found at least the foundation of a solution to the tug of war between theaters and streaming. Giving people access to cultural touchstones is a good thing and will only make movies more relevant and popular. It just has to be done properly.
Studios — especially streamers — need to do a better job of making their films feel important. Dune did well at the multiplex because Warner made a big deal of advertising and promoting it. Let people know that your film is built for the big screen but that streaming is still there for folks who cant make it out to the theater. Respect the theatrical experience while getting films to as many people as possible. Combine strong marketing with short exclusive theatrical windows and a small upcharge for home viewing and you’ve got the outline of a structure that respects theaters, gets more people engaged and is sustainable for all parties.
What is not sustainable is the way things are going now. This war between theater exclusivity and streaming only is entirely shutting people out of good movies. Independent films and mid budget movies are getting crowded out of theaters playing the newest Marvel movie every 15 minutes. Smaller Oscar hopefuls like Mike Mills’ C’mon, C’mon get limited releases that expand slowly before the films disappear from any viewing avenue within just a few weeks.
On the other side is our new global tastemaker: Netflix. Dozens of very good movies have dropped on the platform in recent years only to find themselves lost in a sea of thousands of other titles promoted seemingly at random on the streamer’s home page. If you need an idea of how bleak things are for Rebecca Hall’s Passing or Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, just look at Netflix’s own list detailing top 10 most viewed (in hours watched for some reason) opening weekends.
If you do prefer the theaters to see a Netflix release, good luck. Most of their films get no theatrical run at all and those that do get the bare minimum LA and New York launches that will qualify for Oscar contention. People who would pay to see Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog — something I actually did! — must go out of their way to find a theater playing it, if there is one at all. Home viewers who might be interested in the biting western may similarly struggle find it underneath endless algorithmic promotion of Red Notice or Army of Thieves. Everybody loses.
All of this to say that nobody seems to have the right answer as of now. Theaters have to be protected, this much is unquestioned, but right now long exclusive windows deprive potential audiences who may otherwise want to see some of the best films. Cinephiles in rural areas that don’t get smaller releases, folks who can’t get to a theater due to disability or lack of transportation, anyone justifiably still worried about the deadliest pandemic in a century and, quite frankly, people who just don’t feel like going out should all have ways to see these movies if they want.
Streamers need to do better too. As much as great cinema endures beyond the silver screen, people bond with something differently when they see it on a screen 60 feet wide. Not only does it make sense for Netflix or Warner to double dip on the box office and home subscription, it does right by the teams of people who built their films to be seen by people together on the big screen.
Here’s the part where I admit that I don’t have the answer either. I appreciated the ability to see the Warner films of 2021 at home even though I opted to see most of them in theaters. even so, I don’t think that theirs is the best solution long term either. Some theater exclusivity is vital, but 45 or 90 days locks out a lot of people from accessing titles. Could a 30 day exclusive window and more films filtering through be enough to keep theaters busy? Im not sure, but I do hope that a silver lining of the pandemic is the realization that people have an appetite for film and should be met where they are.
It’s impossible to say for certain what the world of film will look like once we finally emerge from this pandemic and return to something closer resembling normal. One thing we do know is that great films will continue to be made, just as they always are, and people should have every opportunity to discover them. One thing Covid has proven in this industry is that a little creativity opens up the world of cinema in a way it never has been before. It would be a shame for that to go away.