Let’s take a look at the new stupid!
Warner Bros. announced a few days ago that their entire 2021 catalog will be streamed at the same time they do theatrical releases, which is an eyebrow raising proposition for anyone who pays attention to film. Christopher Nolan has spoken against the maneuver and how filmmakers and stars weren’t consulted. I imagine he will be the first of many.
Disclosure: I have poked fun at Nolan’s eccentricities in his films (particularly sound) and he and I do not always agree on narrative structure. However, he spoke well here and is quite right that this is going to have a monstrous rippling effect that we probably can’t fully see at this point. While I am not a huge Nolan fan, I will always say that he is a viewer-focused director, and his championing the ultimate experience is admirable, even if I don’t always get his style.
This announcement was dropped and met with a universal “huh?” it seems. It is one thing to make this is a surprise announcement for a Christmas rush with Wonder Woman 84 coming out on Christmas day, but to not consult the filmmakers involved is simply ridiculous. Let’s not miss this important aspect of the discussion: this is a unilateral decision that will have serious consequences on the movie industry.
I imagine there is a bit of conflict with this story. An opportunity to crap on theaters is something a lot of people enjoy, and let’s be honest, this is going to feel cathartic for people who have had bad times at the theater. Nothing ruins a film more than idiots talking through it and this seems to be a universal problem. The old claim of just watching it at home has its merits. However, we have a choice to do that as consumers. Here, we actually have choice taken away from us.
You might think I am incorrect here as you’ll have the option to watch at home or in theater. There are a few problems with this thinking, and I can promise these problems are something the studios hope we ignore. First, another streaming subscription will be needed. We’re at the point to where streaming bills are probably getting worse than cable, which is ironic given that streaming’s existence was meant to make things more affordable…
In my opinion, any time a major corporation or corporations declare they are doing things in favor of “customer choice” they are in fact doing the exact opposite. We’re no longer going to have the movie-going experience. The vast majority of folks will probably prefer to watch the film at home, which will further stretch theaters, which will then make the experience worse.
Don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen. When a new theater hits a city, they are well staffed, and the experience is great. Wait about a year and we have a skeleton crew, no managers present, and the employees become intimidated of the customers. We had to leave a film because of rowdy drunks, and I didn’t want to ask the sole teenager working that night to have to confront them. Why were they so short staffed? The theater was hurting.
A similar thing happened to arcades. Granted, they have made a sort-of comeback with retro bars and dining, but the old days of arcade games are long gone. It is all in our home now. Likewise, how many theaters will be able to stay solvent if even 50% of the audience chooses to stay home?
We have a complicated issue here as theaters have done a lot wrong in the last twenty years. Overpriced concessions and a lack of audience control are probably the largest two factors that have led to a lack of goodwill from the public. So, yes, the theaters are somewhat culpable in their own downfall, but this decision rips the carpet out from under them.
What my major concern is how are they going to continue to make their money? Not the theaters, but rather the studios. As we see with videogames, some success isn’t enough, and with multiple movies hitting the golden billion-dollar sales number, they’re going to want more. How did game companies do it? Microtransactions and post-purchase fees.
We already see this sort of crap happening with home viewing. Streaming services are just that—services, not products, we no longer own our media, but rather pay for access. An access fee can be elevated or reduced at a whim, and we should be worried about this. Narratives are important to people, and while some cities may be able to maintain an actual theater presence, many won’t, which will lock viewers into a cycle of purchasing access.
Mulan tried for a $30 rental, which is more than anyone should pay to own a movie, let alone rent it. While it seems like that experiment didn’t fully work, the $20 rental now seems reasonable by comparison. Likewise, a $15 streaming service doesn’t sound bad on its own. How long until they either up the price or a new competitor arrives? If someone has Netflix, Prime, Disney+, and HBO Max they could be looking at over $60 a month, which is comparable to some cable packages. Once alternative options are dead, why not raise the price?
I might sound alarmist here and I mean to be. Anyone who doubts me should look at other media (i.e., videogames) to see how quickly we become numb to paying more for less. We’ll likely see a return of director’s cuts and other crap to try to force a second viewing. I also imagine there will be tiered access levels coming soon.
The funny part about all of this is that if I am entirely honest, I prefer to watch movies at home. At home, I have my dogs and can make my own popcorn. Yet, there is something special about the theater. Further, we have the choice of what to attend. If more major studios follow Warner Bros. lead, I imagine we will not have as many options in the near future.
While this will ultimately be examined through the lens of the blockbuster, smaller studios are going to get destroyed by this move. In the end, I don’t see there being a long-term benefit to this move for viewers (or even folks working in the industry). Short term, sure, it might be nice, but where is this going to be in 2025?
I don’t think we as consumers can do much to change this course. It would take people uniformly rejecting HBO Max to make a point, which just isn’t going to happen. Right now, I don’t have a membership to them but that could easily change as I feel like more and more content is being increasingly stream-gated.
I’m just ecstatic that I have the option to spend more money for less. I can’t wait for a reformed cable option to come out as a new way for people to save money and have options so we can start this whole stupid cycle over again.