With No Time To Die pushed back to 2021 and Cineworld teetering, Backstage looks at the long-term implications for the industry.
It’s been a weekend of grim headlines for the film industry.
First came news that the release of the new James Bond film has been further delayed, until 2 April 2021.
The postponement of No Time to Die came after both two major autumn releases, Wonder Woman: 1984 and Marvel Studios’ Black Widow were both pushed back.
With Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Kenneth Branagh’s Death of the Nile remake also delayed, the news spelt disaster for many struggling cinema chains, which rely on big-budget releases for much of their income.
Sure enough, the bombshell Bond news prompted Cineworld – the world’s second-biggest cinema operator – to announce on Sunday that it is considering the “temporary closure” of its theatres in the UK and the US.
Cineworld – a British company – runs 543 Regal Cinema venues in the US, where it is the second-largest chain. Cineworld is the UK’s biggest operator with 128 cinemas.
With surging cases of coronavirus in many countries threatening cinema-going, there are now questions about whether some major films will simply go straight to streaming.
Audiences, it seems, are staying away from cinemas – despite over 77% of screens being open globally. Christopher Nolan’s big-budget Tenet was meant to the movie that lured film fans back to cinemas – but overall it has been judged a commercial failure with a $307 million worldwide box office after more than a month of release.
Total global box office for 2020 currently stands at over $7.9 billion, but that is still a whopping 73% behind an average of the last three years, according to industry analysts Gower Street.
Some studios could choose to forgo a theatrical release altogether. Disney did just this for its big-budget action epic Mulan, launching instead on Disney+ last month for a premium rental price.
Disney’s Mulan move came just days after cinema operator AMC Theatres and movie studio Universal stunned the industry by announcing an agreement that will see some Universal movies debut on home entertainment platforms within 17 days of their theatrical debut, rather than the usual 90 days.
The deal stood out as only a year ago AMC refused to show Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in its cinemas because Netflix wouldn’t play the movie exclusively in theatres for more than 30 days.
Indeed, A-list filmmakers including Noland, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese warned in an open letter last week that cinemas “may not survive the impact of the pandemic.” At the very least, Covid-19 lockdowns look to be hastening the collapse of the 90-day window between theatrical release and on-demand availability.
What is ‘windowing’ and why does it matter?
For over 70 years, “windowing” has underpinned the way that producers and studios look to profit from their productions, helping create a “long tail” of revenue across cinemas, on-demand, pay-TV and then free-to-air TV.
The rise of streamers in the past decade has called this strategy into question, with Netflix in particular funding big-name directors such as Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron to make films for its platform.
So, what does all this mean for talent working in front of and behind the camera?
If cinemas are forced to close permanently as a result of the pandemic, it means more films like The Irishman and Roma will be made with streaming platforms in mind, rather than the big screen.
If arthouse chains go under, producing independent film will become even tougher than it is now – making producers and actors even more reliant on deals with streaming platforms, and potentially offering fewer routes into the industry. It could also accelerate still further the rise of drama series at the expense of film.
This shift could have big implications for remuneration for actors and producers. Speaking off-record, a major screen producer tells Backstage that a straight-to-streamer model would have a major impact on contracts, given that platforms such as Netflix pay a premium to acquire all rights up-front. “There is very unlikely to be any back-end or net position if a platform is taking global rights – it’s all up-front.”
In other words, the long tail that screen projects currently enjoy – and which can lead to ongoing payments for actors and production companies as content works through various forms of media – would be replaced by a one-off buyout deal from a single streamer, who would then retain all rights in perpetuity.
In the UK, actor deals with Netflix, for example, would be subject to the agreement that union Equity negotiated with the streamer last year. This is a three-year agreement with a minimum weekly fee of £715, which allows for three months use on the platform and then there are additional percentages to cover either a period of 10 years or 15 years of availability on Netflix. This could be generous for some actors; less so for others, but in the main, not as generous as might have expected from traditional film companies, distributors, and broadcasters.
And for producers, this relationship with a single streamer that buys all rights puts them more into the position of a hired producer rather than businesses which own long-term film and television assets.
Less tangibly, we may be living through the “golden age of television,” but without the event-creation that cinema excels at, would all screen entertainment be diminished?
In a week when the BFI London Film Festival is demonstrating great adaptability at showcasing the vibrancy of the art form, that is still – thankfully – debatable.
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