It feels like a lifetime ago since we were able to sit in a cinema and watch the latest blockbuster. Not only has the pandemic shuttered cinemas the world over, but its impact is having an unprecedented and lasting effect on the entire film industry.
As well as shifting how we watch new films in the last year, the spread of coronavirus has led to countless movie sets being shut down, putting many projects on ice and costing the jobs of industry workers, both in front of the camera and behind.
And it’s not just the pandemic that is cause for concern: the continued success of streaming and a significant increase in piracy in the last 12 months are challenging the traditional film industry business model.
But with hopes of life returning to some kind of new normal in 2021 thanks to the vaccine roll out, cinema owners will be hoping to welcome us back through their doors and film studios can restart their filming schedules.
However, things are unlikely to be the same again.
The pandemic has changed everything, and that will be reflected on screen
Writers, directors and producers have been inspired by the pandemic - but that doesn’t mean stories will necessarily be about the pandemic, more about the way it has changed us, says Anna Berthold, an agent at United Talent Agency.
“Everything we once assumed was certain, from how we work to where we can spend our time, has been flipped on its side,” Anna says.
“This has created new perceptions of what is possible and what is valuable, and we will see that shift reflected in the stories that are told on screen.”
Filmmakers will be more experimental too.
“Premises that may once have been deemed unrealistic and characters who make bold decisions about their lives will now be showcased and celebrated,” Anna predicts.
There will be less choice
Don’t expect the pandemic to end and cinemas to burst open with a huge list of new releases, warns Anna. “Studios may limit both the number of films they produce and the budgets of those features until we have more clarity about what the future holds,” she says.
Anna also predicts that we’ll be seeing more uplifting films suitable for the whole family.
“People will have an increased desire for programming that will make them laugh and help escape from the difficult reality that our world is facing,” Anna says.
A huge increase in online piracy is putting the film industry under even more pressure
The Motion Pictures Association has warned that artists are likely to be even more compromised by the potential for piracy under the pandemic.
“The industry is able to succeed and thrive when the legal creation and distribution of content is respected and protected,” a spokesperson said. “Large-scale, for-profit online piracy has been the greatest existential threat to that success.”
They add that the pandemic has led to more content moving online, saying: “Artists and creators are even more compromised by the unauthorised and unlicensed use of their work, putting their livelihoods at stake.
“Supporting the entire creative industry by working to reduce the large-scale theft of content by pirate operations is mission critical in this new era and requires not only a coordinated, global approach, but consistent enforcement actions against pirate site operators,” explains the spokesperson.
The future for big budget blockbusters remains uncertain
The Batman and the seventh Mission Impossible movie have managed to resume filming with strict social distancing measures in place, although their original release dates will have shifted as a result.
And we’re still waiting for the new Bond movie, No Time To Die, a year after its original release date.
Daniel Craig’s final outing as Bond was originally pushed back to April 2020, then November 2020, then April 2021 and now it’s scheduled for 8 October.
“Bond is really a case of major producers and distributors like MGM Universal wanting to maintain the traditional movie release pattern that has served them so well for the last 50 years and more,” says Professor Peter Miskell, a specialist in the business of film at the Henley Business School.
So why didn’t the film go straight to streaming?
“While firms are more relaxed about allowing mid-budget productions to be released straight to streaming services, the cinema release remains a critical part of the release strategy for the highest profile films,” Peter explains.
Streaming services are thriving, giving them more power
“Streaming services make money not by maximising the audience for any individual film or show, but by maximising their number of subscribers,” Peter explains. “This means that while they need to have some big blockbuster type content that will pull in a mainstream audience, they don’t want all of their content to be targeted at the same type of audience.
“They need to provide content that will convince as many people as possible to take out a subscription, and this means catering to multiple audiences,” he says.
The traditional ‘cinema first’ business model is under threat
Historically, cinemas and film studios have relied on one another to make money and put movies in front of audiences. It’s a relationship Peter refers to as “almost symbiotic.”
“Cinemas rely on the Hollywood studios for content; the studios benefit from the marketing publicity associated with a cinema release,” says Peter. “This has worked well for decades.”
But he warns that the rise and rise of streaming giants means that the distribution strategies of traditional Hollywood firms are being seriously challenged for the first time.
“The cinema release is simply not a necessary part of the business model for streaming services, and if streaming becomes the dominant mode of film distribution, then the future for cinema looks quite bleak,” Peter says.
In April 2020, ODEON owner Adam Aron banned all Universal films from his cinemas after the distributor claimed it would release their films to cinema and streaming on the same day in future, eradicating the unique window of exclusivity for cinemas.
“Universal is breaking the business model and dealings between our two companies,” Adam said at the time.
Universal’s decision followed the successful release of the Trolls film straight to streaming at the start of the pandemic when cinemas first closed their doors. The release generated sales of nearly $100m despite only being released to streaming services.
Since then the boss of the boutique Curzon cinema chain has called for cinema groups to embrace streaming.
Curzon’s chief executive Philip Knatchbull said the pandemic had “released an enormous pent-up demand for change that had been held up by outdated business models,” adding that some cinemas have been “relying on trying to control the theatrical window” instead of considering the needs of the consumer.
Disney might just pave the way. “If this company sees its Disney+ service as its primary mode of distribution, then the tide will have turned,” Peter says.
Job security for those working in the film industry will continue to be an issue
The Motion Pictures Association estimates that around 400,000 industry jobs directly associated with film and TV have been put at risk as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
“Before the pandemic, the industry was directly responsible for about 892,000 jobs in the US,” an MPA spokesperson states. “Prior to the pandemic, the industry supported 2.5 million jobs in the US alone, including writers, costume designers, composers, animators, hair stylists, makeup artists, set builders, lighting technicians, cinema ticket takers and concession workers, caterers, to name a few.”
Awards season will continue to be in a “state of flux”
The pandemic has thrown the release schedules of films into chaos. This has had a knock-on effect with every single annual awards show, all of which Anna describes as being “in a state of flux” as major distributors work out when to release new films, which can be considered for the likes of the Oscars, Baftas and Golden Globes.
“Awards shows are going to be in a state of flux until the major distributors start to nail down a concrete release strategy for 2021 and 2022,” Anna Berthold says.
That said, all of the major awards shows are still going ahead this year, albeit in very different guises and at different times of the year than usual. This year’s Oscars will take place on 25 April instead of February, and the Golden Globes have been rescheduled from early January to 28 February.