The Wrath of COVID: Movie Edition

By Emma Aranda (’24)

Before the pandemic even started, movie theatres were struggling to compete with Streaming Video-On-Demand (SVOD). With the rise of SVOD, studios gave theatres a smaller “theatrical window” (the amount of time a theatre can play a movie before it gets sent to a streaming service), leading to the reduction of the number of films being played in theatres. Naturally, this caused theatres to raise ticket prices, as they had to make the same amount of money as before. Higher prices and a smaller theatrical window added to the ongoing rapid decline of attendance in theatres: in India alone there has been a 32% fall in attendance from 2009-2018, and while North America has not been hit as strongly, the number of tickets sold annually has barely changed since 1995.. 

Not only do movie theatres have less time to show their films, but fewer movies are being made overall. 15 years ago, the “Big 6” studios—Warner Bros, Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Sony, and Universal—released about 20-25 major films annually, but by 2019 were releasing as few as 9. Aside from less movie production, diversity in content has been reduced as well; since Disney bought Marvel in 2009, there has been a rapid rise in superhero films and movies based on comic books, while less original screenplays have been produced. 

All these factors made it difficult for theatres to survive before the pandemic, but the business has been completely debilitated by the virus. To reduce the spread of the virus, theatres closed, which gave SVOD the upper hand when it came to film distribution. For the first time ever, movies were available on streaming services at the same time as they were being released in theatres, which could be “game-changing,” according to CNBC. An early example is the film “Onward,” which came out in theatres in March, then was available on Disney+ for $19.99 just 2 weeks after its theatre debut, and for free 2 months later. Under regular circumstances, it would take 2-3 months after the film’s theatrical release before it would be available on a streaming service at all. The conditions of the pandemic could permanently change studio negotiations with theatres and alter consumer behaviour, all adding to the inevitable closing of movie theatres. 

Despite being quarantined for a few months, the film industry as a whole is adapting as COVID “[accelerates] the transformation of movie production, distribution, and consumption.” (World Economic Forum) New rules and regulations are being put in place, as the over $100 billion industry prepares to get back into business. This includes regularly testing the cast and crew, limiting the number of people on set at all times, as well as creating “pods” (much like the school’s cohorts) where smaller groups of people work together, making it easier to contain outbreaks and maintain a “constant negative status.” (Shawn Williamson, in an interview with CBC) While some take the pandemic in stride, using it for material, such as “Songbird,” which is set 2 years in the future with the pandemic still affecting daily life, most studios seem to be suffering financially. 

Many studios are spending their budget on new safety measures as shooting begins, with new sets being built to include “flying” walls to help the crew maintain their distance, as well as cranes for the camera operators. These measures could prove difficult for independent studios to implement. Not only are independent projects funded significantly less, but the studios now have to worry about insurance in case crew or cast members become ill. Projects that did not have insurance prior to the pandemic cannot get any now, as insurance companies have stopped offering their services due to COVID-caused stoppages. Additionally, independent movies mainly profited from film festivals, as finding theatres was never easy, but now both sources of income have been shut down due to pandemic regulations.

It is easy to predict that this year, the movie industry might have its least successful year in a long time. Aside from the extra money being spent to ensure the safety of everyone working on set, most films that were due to come out this year have delayed their release. “No Time To Die” will come out in 2021, a whole year later than anticipated, and movies in franchises like “Black Widow” have caused all of the following movies to be delayed as well, so as to not disrupt the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, thus postponing the release of “Captain Marvel,” “Thor,” “Black Panther,” and “Doctor Strange” sequels.

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