07/07/2020 07:00 BST | Updated 07/07/2020 07:00 BST

The Big Picture: Can Cinemas Survive Coronavirus In An On-Demand World?

Cinemas are reopening across Britain, but has lockdown caused irreparable damage to an industry already threatened by the rise of streaming platforms?

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The future of cinemas hangs in the balance as the virus has sped up experimentation with release forms

They were once the only way to watch new releases, but cinemas have had their dominance questioned over the past few decades, partly due to the rise of home entertainment systems and streaming platforms.

Although cinema-going attendance has roughly plateaued for adults, with a 0.6% decline between 2011 and 2017, it is younger audiences that present the biggest threat to the survival of cinemas: attendance for 15 to 24-year-olds fell by 20.6% in the same period, according to research by Film Monitor and the BFI.

Arguably, the coronavirus couldn’t have been worse news: the virus has intensified the challenges faced by movie theatres and highlighted other options for movie fans. 

In the depths of the lockdown, streaming, most obviously, temporarily replaced the cinema-going experience as movie theatres nationwide, and across the world, have shuttered.

All while cinemas have haemorrhaged money under lockdown, the UK government had been heavily criticised for initially not helping the arts when other industries, such as sports, had received big government payouts.

It took until July for Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to unveil plans to prop the arts industry up with a £1.57 billion support package, which will in part go to sustaining independent cinemas, as they plan to survive on reduced audiences when they open doors towards the end of this month.

Capitalising on the climate of the lockdown, streaming services have relished the opportunity to experiment by entering into new relationships with film studios, drawing out roadmaps for how streaming platforms can work with film creators, potentially cutting out the need for the cinema ‘middle man’.

Trolls World Tour, the Universal release, skipped its theatrical release and opted for a digital video-on-demand release, an unprecedented move which threw into question the classic cinematic release model, which sees films released exclusively at cinemas for a designated time.

The release prompted the company behind Odeon cinemas to condemn Universal, citing a breach of trust between movie theatres and film studios. 

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Justin Timberlake and singer Mark Foster are both stars of Trolls World Tour, which went straight to streaming platforms on video on demand 

“AMC believes that with this proposed action to go to the home and theatres simultaneously, Universal is breaking the business model and dealings between our two companies,” read the statement by AMC boss Adam Aron.

“It assumes that we will meekly accept a reshaped view of how studios and exhibitors should interact, with zero concern on Universal’s part as to how its actions affect us.”

Universal is breaking the business modelAMC boss Adam Aron, behind the Odeon cinema group

Trolls World Tour has been joined by a not insignificant range of movies previously pegged for theatrical release that have gone straight to streaming services, including Tom Hanks’ latest release Greyhound, as well as The King Of Staten Island and Artemis Foul.

Takings from the Trolls release suggest cutting out cinemas could work financially: the movie took $100 million (£80 million) via its pay-to-view streaming release, meaning individual viewers paid to watch the film on streaming platforms from their homes. 

But what does this realisation mean for the future of cinemas, as cinema companies in the UK prepare new social distancing measures ahead of planned re-openings from July

There are more efficient ways of getting film content in front of consumers without expecting them to drive to an edge-of-town retail parkProfessor Miskell, Henley Business School

“There are much more efficient ways of getting film content in front of consumers without expecting them to drive to an edge-of-town retail park and wait patiently until the allotted time when their entertainment is ready to begin,” surmises Professor Peter Miskell, a specialist in the business of films at the Henley Business School. 

Despite modern means of discovering film such as Netflix, Miskell believes our emotional and fundamental attachment to cinema is here to stay.

Our desire for the cinematic experience goes deeper than statistics around declining cinema attendance might suggest, even if a shift of power further into the hands of the streaming platforms seems inevitable.

Omar Osman via Getty Images
Cinemas have closed since the virus, but what does the future look like for an industry already facing steep challenges from digital rivals?

“Cinemas provide a distinct form of consumer experience that cannot easily be replicated at home,” he says. “Part of this is the big screen and surround sound that offers a more immersive experience (though to some extent this can be replicated with ‘home cinema’ technologies).

“There’s also the social aspect, however. The sense of being part of an audience rather than a lone viewer.”

 I miss the sense of enclosed spectacle – of the world outside stopping while I watch a film,”  adds David Jenkins, Editor at independent film magazine Little White Lies.

“I can enjoy films viewed at home on my television, and I can see their critical merit, but being at the cinema and seeing them that way still feels wholly superior to me.

Experts acknowledge that initial predictions made decades ago about the demise of cinemas fell short, and as demand for luxury cinema experiences rises, the future of cinema may be that physical cinemas take many different guises. Some will offer budget experiences with others offering premium seating and food and drink options, for instance, to appeal to different audiences with different amounts to spend.

With cinemas operating at 50% capacity when they reopen as latest predictions suggest, finances are an obvious challenge. 

“If you make it all about price and convenience, well, price and convenience will win out,” says Patrick Corcoran, Vice President & Chief Communications Officer, National Association of Theatre Owners.

“But that’s not the only value in movie theatres, and the theatrical window [the period of time where a film is shown exclusively in cinemas and movie theatres, typically 90 days] protects that value. Protects the opportunity for movies to reach audiences in what we think is the best way to see them: with other people, at scale, with the latest in audio visual technology.”

All the while, streaming platforms such as Netflix are increasing the production of their own content, throwing into question the prized and supposedly unique relationship cinemas say they have with film studios.  

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Netflix and similar streaming platforms have morphed their businesses to become content producers, throwing into question the traditional relationship between studios and cinemas 

However, no major blockbuster has yet risked skipping the theatrical release window to go straight to streaming platform, either as viewable for free to subscribers or under video-on-demand. This is significant, urges Professor Miskell. 

These films are not the major blockbusters that studios would have been banking on to generate the lion’s share of their revenues,” he confirms. “These are more like mid-budget Hollywood pictures for which a cinema release might generate some helpful publicity, but they wouldn’t be expected to generate huge box-office receipts.

I think it’s telling that the vast majority of theatrical releases have been postponed rather than being sent directly to the homePatrick Corcoran, Cinema Association

“I think it’s telling that the vast majority of theatrical releases have been postponed rather than being sent directly to the home,” adds Patrick from the Association. “There’s only been three or four that have done that and the vast majority of them are scheduled for later in the year or next year because they need theatres to make money on those titles.”

Patrick asserts that “studios do need to make money too,” and given the perilous position for everyone in the industry under the virus, in some instances, it isn’t possible to delay a release until cinemas open.

Films going straight to streaming isn’t necessarily creative thinking by executives intending on breaking down the relationship between cinemas and film studios - that may be a misconception and sometimes, films just need to get released, he explains.

Good examples are family films, such as Trolls and the new Scooby Doo feature, Scoob. Not only because they provide inspiration for parents trying to quell boredom in their quarantined children, but for financial reasons too.

“When you have kids movies like that there’s a lot of merchandise they’ve contracted with retailers for and they’re stocking their shelves with it, and the movie needed to come out then, it’s a simple thing,” reflects Patrick. 

“They don’t want all those Scooby Doo stuffed toys on the doorstep of the loading dock of the movie studio, they want those in the stores - so they needed to go forward.”

But more than just financial, the demise of the traditional studio-cinema relationship has wider repercussions for cinema.

For instance, Patrick cites these “mid-range comedies and dramas and star driven things” as the first to fall by the wayside if the trend for straight to streaming elevates.

Part of the benefit of the traditional theatrical release window is that films have two options to make money: at the cinema, and through merchandise, such as with Trolls. But if films aren’t released at the cinema, there’s less of a desire for merchandise, and DVD sales have obviously dropped dramatically due to streaming, so studios are increasingly making less films reliant on the duality of this commercial setup. 

“Now all that money has to essentially be made in theatrical so it becomes harder for them to justify [making the film at all],” he says.

Studios really should be closely aligned with the major cinema chainsProfessor Maskell, Henley Business School

Is there any way to turn this tide? “The interests of studios like Universal (or Warners, Sony, Columbia etc) really should be closely aligned with the major cinema chains,” asserts Professor Miskell. “Both are at risk if streaming becomes the standard mode of film distribution. Both have a strong interest in maintaining the cinema release model, and therefore cinema audiences and cinema chains.” 

As the “mid-range” of Hollywood’s output gradually gets eroded, a factor contributing to the sustainability of cinemas is the fandoms around comic series, action films and niche cult films, all of which have dedicated audiences that will travel to cinemas and pay premium prices for the big screen experience - and that doesn’t look set to change.

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Hollywood's traditional film studio-cinema relationship is under strain due to the virus

Personally, I think most filmmakers worth their salt make movies to be seen in cinemas,” reckons David from Little White Lies. “I can enjoy films viewed at home on my television, and I can see their critical merit, but being at the cinema and seeing them that way still feels wholly superior to me.

“I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict the demise of cinema entertainment just yet. The death of cinema has been predicted before, and audiences have proved surprisingly resilient,” reflects Peter.   

In the end it'll all come down to economicsDavid, editor, Little White Lies

“In the end it’ll all come down to economics,” reasons David. 

A big Blockbuster built for cinema exhibition will premiere on VOD [video-on-demand] and, if it works and brings in similar dividends to traditional box office projections, then, alas, it seems as if it would be game over for commercial cinemas.” 

But what would a world without commercial cinemas even look like?

Most obviously, Hollywood would be an unrecognisable place if there was to be no more movie premieres at cinemas, and no more stars on red carpets, both of which are obvious losses if cinemas are to go extinct. 

There isn’t really an equivalent of the red carpet premiere for a straight-to-streaming release,” reflects Peter.These events capture the attention of journalists, encourage reviews, comment and many other column inches of ‘earned media’ attention.”

In a post-Covid-19 landscape of eerily half-filled cinemas operating with half-full levels of atmosphere, and anxiety levels over social distancing continuing alongside the virus perhaps until the close of 2021, there’s a long road of negotiations ahead as the Hollywood power magnets muscle for space.