The COVID-19 outbreak has caused huge disruption to all industries, but some have been hit harder than others. The travel industry has suffered the worst decline, but the film industry may be a close second.
The pandemic has been a double blow for the film industry. Lockdowns have forced cinemas to close for much of the year and, even when they’ve been allowed to open, safety concerns have made people reluctant to visit. This year’s UK cinema admissions are set to be the lowest on record, falling 75% since 2019 and representing $1 billion in lost box office sales. Outside of the UK, the picture is similar. Worldwide cinema attendance is expected to drop by 66% in 2020.
This has had a serious impact on UK cinemas. Odeon recently announced that it was on the brink of running out of money after a 92% drop in attendance. Meanwhile Cineworld, the country’s largest cinema chain, may have to cut as many as 5,500 jobs in order to cover its costs.
A Year Without Blockbusters
Even when cinemas have been able to open, there have been fewer films for them to show. Many productions have been delayed indefinitely or shut down altogether. Many UK cinemas were relying on No Time To Die, the latest film in the James Bond franchise, to give them a much-needed boost at the end of 2020. The film’s release date had already been moved from April to November in order to avoid the first lockdown. In October, it was pushed back again to April 2021.
With several other major releases including Wonder Woman 1984, Death on the Nile and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story all postponed, cinemas were left with no blockbusters to draw the crowds. It is understandable that studios want to delay big releases until they can be sure of an audience, but it also makes it harder for the industry to recover. John Fithian, the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, is sceptical about this approach.
“This idea of waiting out the pandemic to make your movies more profitable doesn’t make sense to me. There won’t be as much of an industry left to play your movies in if you do that.”
The only big release that made it to cinemas at the height of the pandemic was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It performed well given the circumstances, making just over $360 million at the box office. However, considering that the film cost $200 million to make, this can hardly be called a huge success for the director. When Wonder Woman 1984 was eventually released last week, the results were similarly disappointing, with an opening weekend box office of just $38.5 million.
Is Streaming The Answer?
Cinemas have a challenging year ahead, but home streaming is going from strength to strength. With cinemas struggling to sell tickets, many studios opted to release new films directly to streaming platforms. In August 2020 Disney made the controversial decision to premier Mulan exclusively on Disney Plus after its cinema release was postponed.
The strategy seems to have paid off, with the film making over $35 million in its opening weekend. This would be a low figure at the box office but, with no fees to be paid to cinemas, this represents pure profit for Disney. Disney Plus subscriptions also increased by 68% in anticipation of Mulan’s release, meaning that it will continue to make the company money over the coming months.
This model could be the key to saving the film industry. The lower overheads involved in a streaming release could help studios to recover from the losses of 2020 while continuing to give the public access to the latest films.
Of course, this is bad news for the cinema industry, not to mention the people who value the experience of seeing a film on the big screen. The answer could be to adopt a mixed strategy, releasing films simultaneously in cinemas and on streaming platforms. This is the approach that Warner Brothers have taken. The studio recently announced that it would be releasing all of its 2021 films in cinemas and on HBO Max on the same day.
The future of the film industry remains uncertain, but there is no reason to despair. The popularity of streaming services during the pandemic shows that the public’s appetite for new films remains as healthy as ever. The industry will have to adapt, but it will take more than a global pandemic to kill it.
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