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Friday, April 16, 2021

Can reopening theaters give the film industry a fresh start?

The pandemic sheds a new light on the movie theater monopoly crisis

Gainesville's Regal movie theaters are set to reopen in April and May. [photo by Brenna Sheets]
Gainesville's Regal movie theaters are set to reopen in April and May. [photo by Brenna Sheets]

The sequel to the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 may be right around the corner. 

As Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox turned the “Big Six'' motion picture conglomerates into the “Big Five,” the film industry is facing its second monopoly crisis over 70 years later. 

With theatrical releases put on hold and streaming services on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the prioritization of economic gain over artistic value has become more evident than ever.

Streaming services have redefined how movies are viewed and experienced by the public. During lockdown, subscription entertainment platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max have provided film buffs with what seems like an endless array of at-home movie accessibility.

However, several directors and film companies have hesitated to jump on the streaming and video on demand (VOD) bandwagon fully, especially when it comes to their more anticipated and profitable films.

Walt Disney Studios and its subsidiaries have taken a pick-and-choose approach. Animations such as Pixar’s “Soul have been released for at-home watch on Disney+, for example, but more awaited films, such as Marvel’s “Black Widow,” have been held from release until cinemas reopen.

Universal Pictures followed suit, releasing its cofinancing company Perfect World Pictures’ “The King of Staten Island” on several VOD distribution sites in June 2020, but “Fast & Furious 9” still pending for theatrical release. 

“There is a lot of talk lately that, with the pandemic, the process of transitioning to a mainly streaming-platform release will be accelerated, and that the decline of theatrical release will become inevitable,” said film critic and UF professor Pietro Bianchi. 

The discrepancy between preserving some films for theatrical release and allowing others to have at-home release has eased streaming and VOD film releases into the norm. At the same time, the holdout for only critically acclaimed films until theaters can reopen serves as a reminder that, while theatrical releases aren’t disappearing entirely, the film industry may be losing sight of what truly matters, again.

At the end of 2020, a report by the media and tech research firm Omdia revealed that the film industry was expected to lose $32 billion due to the effects of COVID-19, with premium VOD only supplementing $630 million in studio revenues. Not only is the entire film industry suffering financially, but those who are receiving what little relief is available are mainly the most powerful, monopolizing companies.

Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox leaves the single company controlling over 40% of all theatrical box office releases. As the U.S continues to face an economic concentration crisis, the effects extend far beyond who gets the most bang for their buck. While streaming services and theaters will most likely prove to coexist in the future, the more worrisome problem is the fact that profitable blockbusters are the driving factor for theatrical releases as opposed to variety and diversification.

On Oct. 9, Regal Cinemas closed all of its more than 500 theaters across the country indefinitely. Three of these locations are in Gainesville, which make up three out of five total movie theaters in Alachua County. In January, Regal made a Twitter announcement hinting that theaters would reopen by spring. 

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On March 23rd, Regal’s parent company Cineworld announced that Regal Cinemas will reopen its U.S. theaters in April with a couple of big-ticket movie openings: “Godzilla vs. Kong” April 2 and “Mortal Kombat” April 16.

What does it mean that primarily critically acclaimed, highly anticipated and highly profitable films are holding theaters afloat? Perhaps the modern-day auteur Wes Anderson and his upcoming film, “The French Dispatch,” serve as a perfect introduction to the incredible complexity of this cinematic dilemma.

Not only have Anderson’s past films racked up 7 nominations at the Academy Awards throughout his career, but three of them appeared in BBC's 2016 poll of the greatest films since 2000. Anderson’s films are admired by even the pickiest of reviewers and fans, and to say he has something of a cult-following amongst the indie film scene is an understatement.

“The French Dispatch” was set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2020 and get a wide release July 24, but the festival was canceled and the film was pulled from the schedule in April 2020 because of the pandemic. Since then, the film’s release date has been rescheduled several times, cutting it out of the race for the 2021 Academy Awards but   leaving many to speculate that it will premiere at the 2021 Cannes Festival in July.

“I’ve been really looking forward to ‘The French Dispatch,’” said 19-year old UF creative writing and film production sophomore Madison Miguelez. “Being in this pandemic over a year now, I feel like a lot of people look to film as a sort of escape, so I feel a bit cheated as the release has continuously been pushed back.”

The growing anticipation for “The French Dispatch” quickly shifted into suspicion when Searchlight Pictures recently publicized their expected 2021 theatrical releases, with “The French Dispatch” nowhere on the list. While fans around the world yearn for the at-home release of their favorite films during the hardest of times, the film industry can’t help but deny audience needs due to economic prospects.

“There is definitely a lot of hype around ‘The French Dispatch,’ as it is always the case with Wes Anderson films,” said professor Bianchi. “Unfortunately, there is nothing that can compare to what a movie grosses when it has a wide theatrical release in thousands of cinemas all across America and around the world. These are very much economic calculations that are not primarily concerned with artistic reasons or with what people would want/need in the time of pandemic.”

As profitable films await theatrical releases while smaller films move straight to VOD, conversations within the film community continue to arise about how the industry will approach reopening and whether or not it will utilize the reopening of theaters to open more doors for independent films.  

“Going to a movie theater to watch something that is not the last Marvel film or a Star Wars franchise is increasingly more difficult, and it will become even more so after the end of the pandemic,” Bianchi said. “To change that, we would need much more diversity in the theatrical movie business, but we would also need cultural institutions that distribute films that are not only motivated by financial motives, such as cinematheques, film archives and cultural centers.”

In terms of just how the film industry could begin shifting away from financial motives and instead toward a more inclusive, artistic field, the first push may lie in the hands of famed individuals inside the business.

“From directors to producers, writers and especially actors, big names hold a lot of weight and influence in the industry,” Miguelez said. “If they use that power to stay true to the art of film and invest in independent films, perhaps smaller names would have a better chance at getting their foot in the door.”

Small movies deserve the big screen, too. The pandemic has demonstrated that the film industry is falling back into its historical cycle, but maybe this insight can spark a change. If there is to only be big theater chains moving forward, there will only be big movie franchises and big movie-star names on screens rather than independent films with greater variety and diversification. 

If cinephiles, critics and audiences want to truly keep the theaters alive, it is not a matter of when theaters will begin release when the pandemic is over, but rather what they’ll release and who “they” will actually be.

Contact Brenna Sheets at avenue@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @BrennaMarieShe1.

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