Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Op-Ed: The Ouroboros of Modern Film Distribution

When the trailer for Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire came across my path, I had no idea what it was or where it came from. I watched the trailer and was awestruck by the visuals. The film has some incredible CGI, it looked so immersive and beautifully realistic. At the end of the trailer, though, I sighed with disappointment. I saw the Netflix logo appear with a date for when it will be on the site. I did a little research afterwards and saw that there wouldn’t even be an attempt by Netflix to release it in theaters. It’s a shame Netflix didn’t, because while my television, and likely yours, is high definition, this film deserved to be on a big enough screen that the sound and the impact of each scene could blow you back in your seat.

There could have been a number of factors as to why Netflix kept this one just for themselves. It saw the other original sci-fi film of the Fall, The Creator, not quite bomb, but not quite live up to domestic box office hopes. It didn’t want to try and compete with the IP crowded theaters grasping for the eyes of winter break viewers. They might have just realized that a film with three credited writers couldn’t make a story that didn’t play exactly like space opera Mad Libs, that’s a flimsy rip off of Seven Samurai

Yet, in Fall of 2023, Apple TV+ did what Netflix couldn’t or wouldn’t attempt and broke through with two films that couldn’t have been less geared toward the current state of the movie theater audience. Both Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, like Rebel Moon, boasted hefty runtimes, hefty budgets, and megawatt directors. The difference is Apple TV+ sought a partnership between the new and the old. Killers of the Flower Moon was produced with the help of Paramount and Napoleon with the help of Columbia/Sony. 

These partnerships made these films more than just a streamer breaking from format, it guaranteed a theatrical run that wasn’t mired in the idea that people could just wait a week for the film to drop onto the streamer. Not only that, but the films as co-productions could take advantage of the VOD rental and purchase market, opening up a deeper revenue stream before they found their forever home. Even with modest domestic success, their added international grosses boosted them much closer to recouping their cost. Napoleon, according to BoxOfficeMojo, more than doubled its domestic box office in the international markets.

Amazon Prime, too, found a bit more success, or at least word of mouth to drive people to their streamers after a theatrical run. When the tech giant bought MGM, one of the oldest movie studios around, it looked like it was just buying a library. It also felt like Amazon Prime was really just buying the James Bond franchise, much like when Disney bought LucasFilm so it could produce a galaxy of far, far too many Star Wars properties. But it was doing something much more stealthy. Amazon Prime was buying a brand they could use to generate content for their streaming service, and subsequently an unnecessary additional streaming service, MGM+, in order to release things theatrically, then pluck them for the streamer when the time was right. Also, like Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, under the MGM and associated smaller studio labels, added several of these types of films to VOD platforms for additional revenue.

Disney,on the other hand, has been straddling multiple strategies to try and boost its lagging properties. Its streaming platforms, Disney+ and Hulu, have exclusives, shows and movies that one cannot find anywhere else. Its studios, Walt Disney Pictures and 20th Century Studios, are able to put tickets in hands and butts in seats at least two weekends of every month. Yet, it’s finding neither one to be enough as the quality or enthusiasm for the studio’s output has waned. 

Marvel Studios, a Disney property, isn’t  bombing spectacularly, but the studio is finding that the once golden goose of a formula is laying some eggs, which means a scaled back 2024. There is only one Marvel property scheduled for theatrical release this year, Deadpool 3, and it’s a legacy property of which they had no hand in the prior successes of. 

Disney’s emotion churning, family friendly, animated film juggernaut Pixar has also had a few less than stellar moments lately. In an attempt to try and bring back some of the money it’s lost on the Disney+ venture, Disney has a plan to release those Pixar films stymied by the pandemic, which premiered on Disney+, into theaters the first three months of this year. 

The studio also pivoted on their streaming exclusivity by going to their old standby of home physical media. Several Disney+ shows are releasing as collector’s editions on blu-ray. It’s a gambit that may pay off for them, but it’s also a clear sign that the streaming revolution may never be total.

So, why are streamers flailing and studios failing? These entertainment juggernauts don’t realize that by creating so many options, building so many platforms, and releasing so much content, they’re creating a paradox. The paradox being that they need to create content to keep viewers, but the more content they create without waiting for the first batch to recoup their cost means they spend far more than they could ever make and in making more, more, more, they create the burden of choice on their viewers.

These companies have no real way out of this mess. The only way they can try is an almost tried and true method of failure, attempting to repeat something spontaneously and genuinely successful that happened not because of their influence. Yeah, I’m referring to Barbenheimer.

There is no way anyone at any studio could have predicted that the counter programming pairing of a film based on a toy line with a storyline that includes existential dread and a dense, lengthy film about a divisive scientist, also filled with existential dread, could have been as lucrative as it has. Barbie and Oppenheimer became the number 1 and number 5 highest grossing films of 2023. They toppled records and brought people into the theater the way only a Marvel or other IP behemoth could have. What’s more, these films stayed in theaters. According to data on BoxOfficeMojo, Barbie played on over 1,000 screens across the US for 77 straight days. On the 78th day it dropped to a “mere” 808 screens. The last data point for Barbie on BoxOfficeMojo has it that it was playing in some theater, somewhere in the U.S. for 185 consecutive days. The site hasn’t updated with information on Barbie’s rerelease after its eight Oscar nominations.Oppenheimer during that same period lasted 70 days at over 1,000 screens and has had a bump back to 254 screens in its 185th day, with several hundred more added in the wake of thirteen Oscar nominations. It still gains theatrical momentum as it mows through the competition at awards shows like a…. well… like a very well made film should.

Unfortunately for us, the studios are going to try and recreate this. They will force something into being without letting it take the natural course. They will probably pay influencers far too much money to gain word of mouth. They will parse through dozens of reviews to find one critic who types the phrase “one half of this year’s Barbenheimer” to paste the phrase on all their posters regardless of the context in which the critic uses the phrase in their review. They’re going to try because they can’t imagine the simple truth that they’ve stretched themselves too thin.

In the beginning of the studio system, studios found a niche. There would be the occasional foray against type, Warner Brothers would eschew a gangster picture for a drama, Universal would try out a comedy rather than another creature feature, but they knew what they were known for and generally tried to stick with it. This system eventually broke down, much as sound replaced silent, color replaced black and white, and digital replaced film. It seemed for a while there like the next big shift was that movie theaters would be replaced by home streaming. Yet, even after a global pandemic that nearly destroyed movie theaters as an industry, there seem to be hints that the projection booths have a little more life in them yet.

The studios seem to have found a way to strike a bit of balance between their streaming ambitions and the movie theater ecosystem. The Super Mario Bros. Movie lasted several months in theaters and Universal, the studio that released it, waited until there were only a few showings a week and the money was trickling in slower to announce the film’s premiere on Peacock, the studio’s streamer. Alternatively, Amazon Prime, guiding MGM, did a slow release of Saltburn into U.S. theaters and as the anticipatory indie crowds began to fade during the deluge of prestige at the beginning of December, the streamer quietly placed it among the offerings for members a few weeks after its theatrical run began.

It’s always a risk trying to build an audience for original films. It’s even more of a risk to stay in a niche. Just ask beloved indie studio/cult A24 as they attempt a pivot toward IP, action, and profitability. But with a built-in buffer in place of both the booming VOD market and streamers that belong to the studios themselves as well as Netflix purchasing the rights to back catalogs and Sony releases, the film ecosystem could actually begin to evolve into a model that benefits a diverse array of offerings at movie theaters and a more egalitarian distribution model. They just have to take several steps back, stop stampeding toward something that’s the same as everything else, and create quality not quantity.

History shows that movie studios will find a way to survive and evolve. Typically by piggybacking off of one of the other’s better ideas to diminishing returns. Their greed for influence, market share, and being first knows no bounds. We can only hope that they understand the power of the movie theater, that exclusivity is only as good as the overcrowded platform that claims it, and that while we hungered for nostalgia for a time, we leave our houses more and our navel gazing has turned to wanderlust, a searching for the unknown and radical.

Before I got around to actually watching Rebel Moon: Part One – A Child of Fire, I stumbled on the trailer for Rebel Moon: Part Two – The Scargiver. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was seeing some plot threads I was not supposed to know going into the first film. It didn’t really matter as I predicted each and every major plot point from, about, the opening narration and developed a theory for the finale that I’m pretty confident I’m right about. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to be in a dark room with surround sound and a screen that takes over my entire vision while watching it. It made me want to have seen and to have experienced They Cloned Tyrone, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, and Nimona with an audience. 

Films are better with other people, not just your friends, roommates, or immediate family who walk by the TV and loudly interrupt with questions about the plot or what’s for dinner, but other people you can’t predict, strangers who might also have tears in their eyes, or laugh at what you laugh at. Maybe one day Netflix will find that they don’t hate making money in addition to their subscriber base. Maybe the next Knives Out will get an actual theatrical run because a five day theatrical run is ludicrous and completely, embarrassingly incomprehensible when the original film grossed over $150 million dollars domestically. 

The theatrical experience has changed, but it can always swing back to bring audiences to something unique again. All it took was a woman trying to find herself and a scientist succeeding at turning theory to fact and immediately regretting it to get people to wonder if there is a world out there beyond shared universes, reboots, requels, sequels, and legacyquels. We learned in 2023 what we’ve known since grade school, homework sucks. Here’s hoping the studios and streamers take the lessons of the past year to heart and let us have class outside the box more often.

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