Movies & TV

Movies Are Not Dead: How Disruption Can Lead to Fertile Creativity 

New creative voices, smaller films, and a strong desire to tell stories are keeping movie-making alive.  
ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo
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Here is part two of our deep dive into the state of your favorite pastime, movies. In this installment, we discuss how studios and theaters can exist alongside streamers and what you can expect from movies in the pandemic reality. What are you watching over the weekend? Let us know.  

As COVID-19 circles the globe, major film studios continue to scramble. Though people are more than eager to gorge themselves on TV and movies, it will be unprofitable for these studios until theaters return. Enter, the streamers. Not quite a start-up, not quite a studio, but a hydra-like beast from which content springs at the neck. 

Studios and theaters can co-exist with streamers.

While streamers do indeed pose a threat to film studios and theaters, there is a strong distinction between threatening and competing. Historically, theaters have been grouped into the leisure section and are, in fact, in closer competition with bars and restaurants, amusement parks, and live sports and music. The act of watching a film at home alone is radically different than watching it in theaters with strangers. 

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In an open statement, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), makes bold claims about the future of theater-going: “No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return. The social nature of human beings—the thing that exposes us to contagion, and that makes it so difficult to change behavior in response to pandemic threats—is also the thing that gives us confidence in the future. People will return to movie theaters because that is who people are.” 

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Smaller theaters and independent movies are performing better.  

While the big theaters are safe, there is also the concern that smaller theaters may not have the resources to weather the storm, leaving only avenues for blockbuster films and none for smaller operations that perhaps offer more eclectic offerings. However, this view may be unfounded as the theatrical release has led to an opening in the market that smaller theaters are prime to take advantage of. According to a report by The Guardian, arthouse and independent cinemas in the United Kingdom, where some cinemas had been previously open with limited capacity, have reported solid numbers. 

While there is certainly a lack of blockbuster content, there is (and always has been) an excess number of arthouse films that can be shown in smaller theaters without the need to make an immediate smashing profit for studios.

The Assistant

In addition to newer films like The Assistant, which was streamed over quarantine but had positive word of mouth buzz, older films like Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder have been catching on as well. According to Jason Wood of HOME Manchester, a center for film, art, and theater, “…the really big success is the BFI restoration of La Haine. We’ve played it now for four weeks and it’s sold out every single performance.” 

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Creatives are adjusting to the pandemic reality.

That leads us to the final stakeholder in all this: the consumers themselves. What kinds of films can we look forward to in a post-pandemic world? 

In addition to studios being unwilling to take the risk of putting out a blockbuster film in these conditions, the risk and expense of shooting a blockbuster film are too complex to handle at the moment. Production on smaller films, however, can still be accomplished. The HBO show Euphoria was set to begin shooting last March until lockdown forced them to cancel it indefinitely. It was then reported that Euphoria lead Zendaya asked show creator Sam Levinson if they could just shoot a film during the quarantine. 

Malcolm & Marie

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Within days of the story, Malcolm & Marie went into pre-production, casting John David Washington opposite. The movie was shot over the summer in a bubble-type work environment in a single location called Caterpillar House. Malcolm & Marie was sold for $30 million to Netflix, which beat out a number of other bidders in what can be assumed was a serious overpay.  

Disruption in the film industry leads to fertile creativity.

Historically, changes in the film industry have led to times of fertile creativity. WWII led to CasablancaThe Maltese Falcon, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the ’40s, while the collapse of the studio system at the end of the ’50s led to the New Hollywood of the ’70s, which produced The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Dog Day Afternoon.

Before the pandemic, the box-office climate had caused a polarity in films, so that only extremely profitable movies could be made. Films should either be made for under $10 million to make $100 million or cost $100 million to make $1 billion. This, in effect, the studios to put most of their eggs into a handful of baskets. With those $100-million baskets now floundering without release dates (Warner Bros. is thinking of changing Wonder Woman: 1984's release date again), it would be within the studios’ best interest to split that into five $20-million baskets, which can recoup their budgets via a number of different avenues, whether it be through theatrical or VOD release or even just selling it off to a streamer. 

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Just as the studios turned over the reins to 'film school brats' such as Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas, a new creative class is on the brink of emerging.  

This influx of mid-level films would level the playing field and add new creative voices to the field. Just as the studios turned over the reins to the newest generation of then just emerging “film school brats” (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, George Lucas), a new creative class is on the brink of emerging.  

The death of cinema has been heralded since the beginning of sound films. Whether the art itself is in danger is subjective, as all art is. But for cinema as a business, coronavirus is merely but a storm to be weathered. As an art, cinema is unique and beautiful, but as a product, cinema is also good money. As industries adapt, so will film.

From my perspective, most of these loud statements are simple drama that comes with the film industry. As long as there are stories to be told, cinema will exist, and as long as people like to be told stories, there will be money.

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