This piece first appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #6 – available in print here

 

Eight years ago, a black-and-white horror movie set in the English Civil War gave the world a glimpse of cinema’s future. The film was Ben Wheatley’s hallucinogenic nightmare A Field in England and, aside from being brilliant, it also debuted a unique and unusual release strategy. On the 5th July 2013, the movie was unveiled in British cinemas. It was also made available on DVD, Blu-ray, video-on-demand and on free-to-air TV courtesy of Film4. Anyone who wanted to see the movie on opening day could do so, without the need to travel to one of the few independent cinemas willing to show such a strange, defiantly non-mainstream piece of work. Wheatley himself described the film to Little White Lies as “the kind of thing you’d discover on late-night Channel 4 and go: ‘fuck, I can’t believe this has been made’.”

As an 18-year-old film fan seeking out progressively weirder cinema, the ability to watch the movie without splashing out on a train fare and a pricey arthouse cinema ticket was a godsend. While I would’ve loved to see Reece Shearsmith walk out of a tent wearing a horrifying grimace on the big screen, it remained eerily unsettling on a TV in my mother’s living room.

By most measures, the strategy was a success. Executive producer Anna Higgs told the Kermode Uncut video blog that the release plan was “a bold experiment based on a really really bold film”. She said the innovative strategy and the buzz surrounding it encouraged an expansion in cinema screens after that opening weekend, up from the 17 sites at which it opened. Higgs said the number of eyeballs that saw the movie across all formats would roughly translate to a £4m opening at the box office if they’d all bought a cinema ticket – around the same haul animated behemoth Despicable Me 2 managed that weekend in its second week of release.

At the time, this was an exciting story for those in the movie industry. Particularly in the world of independent film, this presented a potentially compelling way to increase the scope and awareness of movies without the marketing budget of a studio blockbuster. Few, however, genuinely thought that this would spill over into the money-spinning world of Hollywood’s A-list projects. And if it did, nobody thought it would work.

 

Trolling the Studios

That, of course, was before COVID-19. Suddenly, everyone was confined to their homes and watching movies on the small screen. Initially, Hollywood’s reaction was to secure the vaults, delaying all of its major releases and hoping to ride out the pandemic. Soon, though, it became clear that the world was in it for the long haul and that it would be quite some time before hundreds of people could gather in a cinema to watch Captain America wield Mjölnir or something similar.

Once the timetable became clear, the game changed. Indefinite delays were simply not an option for many projects, with studios dealing with a mounting pile of major releases gathering dust on their shelves. Future release dates were booked in and subsequently shunted, with many of the biggest blockbusters engaging in a multi-billion-dollar game of tentpole musical chairs. James Bond epic No Time to Die was perhaps the most high-profile example, having already been delayed due to directorial changes and a bumpy production before the pandemic hit. Its April 2020 release date then became November, followed by a further shift to June 2021 and now a hopefully final postponement until September 2021.

Something had to give in terms of major movies being released. Studios such as Paramount and Sony began to forge deals with streaming companies to ensure that films like Coming 2 America and, more recently, The Mitchells vs. The Machines would see the light of day. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Sky Cinema in the UK have been huge beneficiaries of the Stay At Home orders in this country, with Disney launching its Disney+ streaming platform here just a couple of weeks into the first 2020 lockdown. Notably, this year’s winner of the Oscar for Best Picture – Nomadland – debuted on these shores via the adult-themed Star section of Disney+.

Cinemas in England will have reopened by the time you’re reading this article, and many of the movies released digitally over the course of recent months – particularly the Oscar success stories – will eventually get their time on the big screen. However, the landscape of film releasing is considerably different to where it was 12 months ago when cinemas first shut their doors.

Although it seems like years ago now, it was only in April 2020 that Universal found itself at an impasse with several major cinema chains due to its decision to release animated musical Trolls World Tour on premium video-on-demand, rather than delay it until multiplexes could return. Initially, the likes of Odeon/AMC and Cineworld/Regal came out punching and declared they would not show films by Universal if they continued to carve a path into distributing its biggest films digitally.

It was Universal which ultimately came out with the best of the deal, though, having secured an historic change to the idea of the theatrical window. The window has been treasured by cinema chains for decades, given its rules securing the multiplex as the exclusive home of a movie for around three months after its initial release date. Under the new “dynamic windowing” arrangement between the studio and several cinema companies – with others expected to fall in line – the exclusivity period between cinema and PVOD will be either 17 days for smaller releases or 31 days for those that debut to more than $50m at the global box office. But that’s not the only thing that has changed.

 

Streaming to the MAX

At the tail end of last year, Warner Bros made an announcement with the potential to really change cinema for decades to come. The studio has decided to make all of its 2021 releases available on their first day via the HBO MAX streaming platform in the USA, existing simultaneously in cinemas for the first 30 days after their premiere. Movies such as Oscar winner Judas and the Black Messiah, slapstick adventure Tom & Jerry: The Movie and video game adaptation Mortal Kombat were released via the service, as well as in cinemas where available depending on coronavirus restrictions.

This, obviously, presented problems in other parts of the world. In the UK, for example, HBO MAX is not available and the Warner Bros release schedule has been chaotic as a result. Movies like the aforementioned Judas and the Black Messiah and the Doug Liman pandemic heist tale Locked Down took months to arrive and were then shuffled on to PVOD platforms without much in the way of publicity, meaning audiences missing out on potential gems. Bizarrely, Mortal Kombat hit online services in the UK just a week or two after the USA, but the studio opted not to reveal that plan until just a few days before the British release – no doubt driving many fans eager to see the film into the arms of piracy.

There’s no doubt that Warner Bros has taken a punt with this strategy, risking the ire of cinema chains in order to goose subscribers for its streaming service. Thus far, they’re sticking to the story that this is a strategy for this year alone – a unique consequence of the pandemic – but simultaneous releasing feels like it might last a lot longer than that. This was something that was on the way anyway. It just took a global health crisis to speed up the process.

And there are clear signs that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for cinemas and for the industry as a whole. In fact, as Mark Twain might’ve said if he had a column in Variety, rumours of the big screen’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The clear case study here is Adam Wingard’s kaiju smash-em-up Godzilla vs. Kong, which was released simultaneously in cinemas and via HBO MAX on 31st March. In the UK, it arrived on PVOD platforms from 1st April. Despite being available on streaming services in tandem with its multiplex release, the movie has earned more than $400m at the global box office, including almost $100m in the USA. That makes it by far the most successful Hollywood release since the pandemic hit, outstripping the grosses of movies like Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984. All of this happened even though most of those people could’ve watched it from the comfort of their own homes, on a subscription service many of them almost certainly already pay for.

 

Crossing the Streams

It has long been my belief – and certainly since the success of A Field in England – that simultaneous release is the future of movie distribution. I adore the cinema experience and, given the choice, I’ll always opt to see a film on the biggest screen possible. It’s vitally important to me that we are able to find a model which allows the multiplex to have a long and prosperous future. Movies are made to be watched with proper projection, proper sound and in gargantuan scale and, even allowing for some of the brilliant home cinema setups you can buy these days, there’s no substitute for that moment when the lights go down and the silver screen works its magic.

The key factor is choice. Some people are as evangelical about the joy of cinema as I am, whereas others deem it too expensive and too easily disrupted by the behaviour of others. We’ve all had a multiplex experience or two scuppered by glowing mobile phone screens and unruly folk throwing popcorn around. Given the aforementioned advances in home cinema technology and the increasing prominence of streaming platforms, there are more avenues for customer choice than ever before. It would be silly for distributors not to understand that the traditional theatrical window is an anachronism against that landscape.

At the lower budget level, this stuff is already fairly widespread. The likes of Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player are already providing dozens of brand new movies to audiences, and have been for years, but many of those films still do great business at arthouse cinemas. Streaming and cinemas need not be mutually exclusive. This can be seen too in the enthusiasm for big screen releases of Netflix productions. Almost every film fan already pays for Netflix, but that didn’t stop them wanting to see Roma or The Irishman in the way the filmmakers intended.

The difference now is that the big guns of Hollywood tradition are entering the arena. Warner Bros is trying it this year, and will continue to do so with upcoming blockbusters including Dune, The Suicide Squad and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. Disney is also giving simultaneous releasing a go, with the Emma Stone-led Cruella and the long-awaited Marvel adventure Black Widow both debuting in cinemas at the same time as they are made available via Disney+ – with additional fees via the platform’s “Premier Access” feature. Given the relative youth of these studio-owned streaming platforms, it will be interesting to see how these experiments work out and whether they have a severe impact on box office.

In many cases, the pandemic has presented studios with opportunities to experiment when it comes to release strategies. Trolls World Tour was a roll of the dice. Disney’s decision to release Pixar animation Soul to streaming on Christmas Day was an experiment. Warner Bros’ 2021 strategy is certainly a test – a canary in the coal mine to see how best to skin the distribution cat. Nobody expects movies released this summer to fly high at the box office and secure billion-dollar hauls, so why not give simultaneous releasing a go? Why not try to secure changes to the archaic ideas around windowing?

There’s no denying that the movie industry is in a precarious place in the wake of the pandemic and, certainly, some technological changes have been accelerated by the events of the last year. But it’s incumbent upon Hollywood – at the production and distribution levels – to find a way forward that, above all else, allows more movie fans to enjoy the movies they’ve made. For many, that means the big screen but, for others, there are plenty of different ways to watch A-list stars run, jump, cry and shoot their way into our hearts. And it all started with Reece Shearsmith emerging from a tent.

Tom Beasley

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