NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR THE MOVIE INDUSTRY FOR 2021
Plenty of regular everyday people make New Year’s Resolutions, but I think bigger entities, namely movie makers and movie moguls, need to make them too. Annually, including this tenth edition, I have fun taking the movie industry to task for things they need to change, even if I got to do it every week in a different ranting way on my “What We Learned This Week” column contribution for the Feelin’ Film Podcast website. Loyal readers and followers of that podcast and column will get my cadence. I have no false internet courage to be a Twitter troll. As always, some resolutions come true while others get mentioned and reiterated every year. Boy, was this a turd of a year for the movies, eh? There’s so much to say about so little that transpired with a predominantly locked-down marketplace.
#1: TAKE THIS PAUSE TO REEVALUATE HOW YOU DO BUSINESS
Well, it looks like all of that “too big to fail” karma caught up to the movie industry this year in an extremely unexpected way. Not even the best financial planner’s prognostications could ever account for a global pandemic. The most wild of “what ifs” became true where an unforeseen calamity forced near-complete closure. Just look how it turned out.
Theater companies are bankrupt and closing. Billionaire studios feel double-digit percentage losses. Thousands of below-the-title workers are jobless. Every proverbial bath and haircut has been taken at every level, and the pandemic is still not over. What course correction has all this caused? Too little, if you ask me.
I see more studios holding pat with their excessive spending (Disney) and hubris (Tenet) than entities taking this huge sting and changing their levels of efficiency. We’re seeing some pivots to the streaming/digital platforms, but those measures are being taken as face-saving moves when they’re actually shrewder plays that should happen more often. It’s almost to a point where if a disastrous year like the last one isn’t enough to make them scale down, smarten up, and change then nothing ever will. Maybe it’ll take two years of closure because that’s not out of the realm of possibilities.
#2: REINVENT MOVIE THEATERS
Years of shrinking the theater-to-home window and receipt percentage battles with studios already forced movie theaters to jack up ticket and concession prices to remain profitable. It was reaching the point where a typical family would be better suited skipping an expensive theater trip and waiting the three short months (or less) to stream a movie at home on their big screen 4K TVs that look and sound good enough. And then the pandemic hit and zero revenue was coming to theaters, crippling them to the point of decimation.
Much like the reevaluation necessary from Resolution #1, change is needed with movie theaters amid the new norms for public health and belt-tightened economy. Theaters can’t pack people in like sardines anymore if there’s a virus in the air. Maybe the 30-screen multiplex of stadium seating needs to shrink to 15 comfy and socially distant screens with the pods and sofas. The studio’s math will say that kind of reduction of butts and seats reduces earning potential. Yes, it does, but it beats zero earnings. We’re at that point where change is needed and a government bailout isn’t coming to a non-essential economic driver. Movie theaters aren’t the auto industry.
What theaters have that nothing at home can match is the big screen experience. That’s still magical. That still matters, it just may not matter for every single movie. The other thing is who will be around to pay for this kind of change and survive being in business. It’s going to take new innovations or new investments in old ones like drive-in movie theaters, which I’m all for. Still, what could all that look like? I’ll borrow a prediction from my recent Feelin’ Film “What We Learned This Week” column.
Mark your calendars for August 2022. With the old Paramount Decrees rescinded as of August 2020, studios can open and run their own theaters after a two-year sunset period. The WBs and Disneys of the block can pivot to streaming, sit back, and watch the AMCs, Cinemarks, and Regals bleed to death. They can buy them at their lowest point and rebrand them as their own with no old rules. Imagine a “Disney Theater” with their old mall-closed Disney Store gift shop filling the lobby. They will look triumphant in 2022 when it’s the studios that “bring theaters back” with their own labels. Best of all for them, they buy out or shove away the middle-man profit sharing they’ve tried to squash for decades. Every dollar goes back to them. It’s ugly, but it’s survival and reinvention. Let’s see where we’re at this time next year.
#3: MAKE SMALLER MOVIES
Theaters are still the top marketplace for movies to earn the most dollars. That’s where the billions are made. Go back to that “too big to fail” karma. Budgets have grown north of $200 million (before marketing) for the top-level blockbusters for years, but they always had the big screen money primed for them. With theaters closed, the biggest revenue source went down the toilet. There was no chance for PVOD fees and streaming subscriptions to make back the Tenet-sized budgets of the big hitters out there, or even the high-end luxury vehicles like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and its $159 million budget. Full delays are in progress not because the studios don’t want these movies in front of eyes, but because there aren’t enough dollars to go with those eyes at home with no theaters.
Now, what the streaming and PVOD marketplaces can earn enough for are smaller movies. Look at Trolls World Tour and it’s success versus its budget. There’s a wide open market for that class of movie. I’ve preached this to anyone that will listen that it’s time for studios to go back to their 1990s business models of the mid-budget programmer. Have a single big star joined by steady character actors, more practical effects than costly CGI, a tighter scope, and price tag around or below $50 million.
You remember movies like The Fugitive and Forrest Gump. They cost $44 million and $55 million respectively and earned back more than ten times that. They were quality over quantity. The crazy thing is there’s enough money in the business to make a quantity of quality. Make five of those mid-budget programmers versus one big $200 million monster that, in this current situation, can’t make its money back. 2020 should have been a year where indies and mid-budget films take over the world as marketable and viable properties. It doesn’t have to be that tiny, but less would go a long way when done right. Quality rises and everyone wins.
#4: DON’T TURN INTO CABLE
Streaming services have been taking a big bite out of traditional cable services for years. With closed theaters, their convenience and quality movie options brought a huge spike of homebound consumers. Look at Netflix’s numbers, HBO Max’s, and those of Disney+. Folks are flocking there and the promises of new content grow by the day with the closed theaters.
The key to this sustaining is the bubble of price point. What has long made streaming services victorious are those sub-$15 monthly price points versus $100+ monthly cable bills. The problem is every large entity wants their own Netflix instead of paying Netflix to offer their stuff. AT&T-owned Warner Bros. has doubled down on HBO Max and ported over Turner Classic Movies from cable. Disney bought out full control of Hulu Plus from Comcast in addition to their expanding their own brand. There are still the smaller shingles like The Criterion Channel, premium YouTube, and the pop-up of new smaller spots like NBCUniversal’s new Peacock service which can grow in time.
Get some or all of those services and the stack of price tags are adding up. Throw in the monthly price of decent wifi (laugh away, Comcast and AT&T, at the double dip) to make it run smoothly and we’re likely back to the $100+-per-month cost of cable. If you’re OK with that because of the content quality and diversity versus cable’s volume, great, but, once again, we’re in a pandemic with thinner wallets and people making choices between wants and needs. Now isn’t the time to price gouge, even if it’s one or two more dollars like Netflix. Be savvy consumers and take advantage of bundle deals, physical media that last longer than digital stuff you don’t really own, libraries, and free services out there like Hoopla and Kanopy.
#5: DON’T STOP SUPPORTING MINORITY VOICES
This is a repeat from a resolution for 2020 and a worthy one. 2019 was a banner year for minority and women film directors. Even though the overall output for 2020 was smaller, new voices kept coming and accounting themselves with stellar work. Take a look at this list from The Film Stage of the best directorial debuts of this past year. Hollywood (and not just Disney buying up auteurs like Chloe Zhao and Barry Jenkins), take that list of people and keep them working. Open your checkbooks to Emerald Fennell, Regina King, Roseanne Liang, Shannon Murphy, Remi Weeks, Channing Godfrey Peoples, Lee Isaac Chung, and more.
#6: CORRECT THIS ASTERISK OF AN AWARDS SEASON
There is no good reason why the Oscars needed to be delayed until the end of April 2021. They say they still want an in-person awards show with red carpet glamour. Read the room for goodness sake. This pandemic isn’t going away fast enough and it’s killing people. There is no need to put good people in harm’s way for aloof people to congratulate themselves with pretty things for an asterisk of a year at an awards show that has had dwindling TV ratings for the better part of two decades.
If you ask the general public, we’re going to want to be done talking about 2020 at 12:01am in our given time zone on January 1, 2021. This is a year where there isn’t a juggernaut contender of crossover appeal for solid “come back to love the movies” ratings anyway, unless voters are giving everything to Disney/Pixar’s Soul, and even that is a stretch.
Not enough people are going to care about any 2020 titles four months into a new year. Even sillier, by delaying from the usual qualification deadline, which would be today December 31st in fact, you’re going to end up ballooning one year (longer) and shrinking another one (2021), both in unfair fashions, if you snap the calendar back to normal in 2022. Do what the rest of us are doing. Leave 2020 to 2020. Move on and make a new year. Don’t drag this out longer.